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The Curious Case of Genius Loci: Phenomenology of Cities

Updated: Jan 24, 2021

Urbanist may be familiar with the term Genius Loci, the "Soul of the Place", a rather poetic term though the concept itself has been one of the most difficult conundrums faced by urban experts worldwide in determining its meaning and practicality. The term "Genius Loci" (plural genii locorum) originated in classical Roman religion, the term originally was used to represent a living deity associated with a certain place, mostly in natural settings. It was then used in the context of design by Alexander Pope in the "Epistle IV, to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington". Alexander Pope wrote a poem suggesting the designer (Richard Boyle) "to consult the genius loci of the place". This was later popularized by Norberg-Schulz in interpreting the spirit (or Soul) of the place in designing landscapes and cities. Since then, the concept was widely used in classes, papers and publications as a key component to describe cities and their identities. Though it is easy (?) to embed the concept genius loci to describe cities that hold sentimental values to the user personally. The questions faced by most urban theorists and practitioners: - theoretically, is if there is a spiritual element of a city, and how can it be manifested tangibly or even intangibly?

Urban phenomenologist heavyweights, Yi-Fu Tuan, Walter Benjamin and Norberg-Schulz are able to link the genius loci to the overall sensory connection between people and places from senses, memory, experiences and history. Synonym to the Sense of Place in which the ability of the place to engage cognitive psychological experience to the users.

However, from a psychological standpoint, to relate sensory connections with something as complex as a "Soul" or "Spirit" is oversimplifying things rather than thought through. The fact that sensory behaviour has more to do with the conscious human brain's reaction towards the sensory stimulus (sight, smell, memory, feel) rather than some subconscious manifestation such as a soul. Besides, the Sense of Place has always been known to have a different meaning to genius loci. For starters, sense of place can be manipulated through design and planning though we can't say the same towards the Genius Loci.

Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington's Chiswick House, 1729 & Votive inscription to Jupiter Optimus Maximus and the Genius loci by the Signifer of Legio XXX Ulpia Victrix (Source: Wikipedia)

Today, as Daniel A. Bell & Avner de-Shalit (2011) define Genius Loci in their book "The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age" as the spirit or ethos of the city with the city's unique social & political values that are acknowledged by the people living in the city. Far from Alexander Pope's original definition when he wrote: "to consult the genius loci of it all". The poem was only a letter of either a suggestion or feedback to the landscape and garden design since the poem was written in 1731 whereby the house finished in 1729. Ever since, architects (mostly) critiqued the idea of Genius loci to be a Munchausen's’ Syndrome for architects (Graham McKay, 2015). A similar branch of critiqued faced by Norberg-Schulz in his idea of the soul of the city. Experts claimed that Norberg-Schulz's definitions tend to sway towards his fanaticism towards traditional Pre-War British architecture. The charm of a hundred-year-old city can never be topped nor duplicated. And some are more spiritually attached to traditional village settings rather than grand buildings. So should we wait until the 7th generations of the citizen to be able to manifest a genius loci? Thus the debate went on.

Then again, the theory of a City possessing some quality of a soul is borderline falling into the realm of panpsychism. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that a place or in urban experts point of view, a city HAS a soul. Then it is also fair to assume that the psychoanalytical method of discovering the human psyche (soul) should be used to identify and analyze a city's Genius Loci if we want to truly understand the soul of a city.

Guess it's time to stop reading Norberg-Schulz's and start opening Sigmund Freud's and Carl Jung's.



Image by Nicole Geri

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