What is Genius Loci? Why You Should Care about the spirit of place

November 3, 2017

Have you heard the term Genius Loci?  If you aren’t a landscape design professional, I’d guess the answer is most certainly no.  But even if you are a landscape designer, it still seems very possible that the term genus loci might still not be familiar.  But why do I think you should care – no matter who you are?

In classical Roman religion, a genius loci was the protective spirit of a place. It was literally a spirit that was thought to inhabit an area to protect it. It was often depicted in religious iconography as a figure holding attributes such as a cornucopia, patera (libation bowl), or snake.  I was in Rome last summer and noticed the snake motif often.  There were Genus loci (spirits) to protect homes, streets, cities, temples, and even the entire Roman empire. Once you start looking – you will see them everywhere.

If you are traveling in Asia, you might also notice the idea of genus loci in the numerous shrines of various cultures that are dedicated to spirits that inhabit the location. The idea of a spirit of place is one that has

In storytelling (particularly sci-fi and fantasy), there is a common trope of the genius loci – where some people are places.  In this case, a Genius Loci is a place or a location – but with a mind.  They are sentient planets or landscapes – like Pandora in the movie Avatar.  Or they can be more localized in a region or even just a city or a street.

What is genius loci?

In landscape design usage, genius loci usually refer to a location’s distinctive atmosphere, or we often like to say ‘the spirit of the place.’  Most designers use this as high-minded design speak and aren’t saying that spirits live in a place. But they are referring to the details and context of the place. The history, the native nature, and all the things that make up what a particular piece of land has been and is now.

What is Genus Loci and Why Should You Care?
Genus loci in Valtellina Valley, Italy, Summer 2017 by Rochelle Greayer.

Alexander Pope, a British poet and the translator of the Illiad and the Odyssey, wrote this:

Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.

From Epistle IV, to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington. 

This verse is the foundation of the most widely agreed principles of landscape design. Design for the landscape should always be adapted to the context where it is located. Similarly, architects talk about place-making, which is in the same genre.

But here is where it gets really interesting. Over at the blog Placeness, I came across a reference to a book called Spirit of Place: Letters and Essays on Travel by famed travel writer Lawrence Durrell.  Here is the excerpt :

“as long as people keep getting born Greek or Italian or French their culture productions will bear the unmistakable signature of the place.” He suggests that if you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the country with Tartars, within two generations the national characteristics would be back – including restless metaphysical curiosity, tenderness for good living. “This is the invisible constant in a place with which an ordinary tourist can get in touch just by sitting with a glass of wine in a Paris bistrot.”

Does our land and the characteristics of the piece of earth where we reside hold that much sway over who we are culturally?  I think yes, but then no. I’d love to ruminate over this with a thoughtful group of people in a cozy pub somewhere — but in the absence of that, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this… 

And if it is true… what do we make of the world that we are constantly making? Our cities, our buildings, our gardens?  Or what will they make of us?

More genus loci posts and other things you might find interesting:

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  1. Debi says:

    I had not given much thought to genius loci until recently when a garden design friend advised me to sit with my space and “read” it. Still trying to read the nuances. But that aside I can see how an environment can cause or force changes. Nature is stronger than human. And to quote a bumper sticker I saw. “Nature bats last. “

  2. David Henrys says:

    The effect of “place” on human wellness has been an interest of mine for several years. My work as chaplain to abuse traumatized children on a 270 acre treatment farm led me to consider how this place can contribute to healing. I would welcome discussion with anyone who has a similar interest in the spiritual and healing effects of place .

    • David – thanks for commenting – I am similarly interested in this – I have been researching (though have not yet had the time to fully consume) lots of books and readings on the topic. Maybe I’ll gather those into a future post and share a reading list.

  3. Gwen says:

    Are genius loci and genus loci one and the same?

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