Have you heard the term Genus Loci? If you aren’t a landscape design professional, I’d guess the answer is most certainly, no. But even if you are – it still seems very possible that this term might not be familiar. And 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 often depicted in religious iconography as a figure holding attributes such as a cornucopia, patera (libation bowl) or snake. I was in Rome this last summer and I noticed the snake motif often. There were Genus loci (spirits) to protect homes, streets, cities, temples, and even the entire Roman empire.
In storytelling (particularly sci-fi and fantasy) there is a common trope of the genius loci – where some people are places. 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 on even just a city or a street.
In landscape design usage, genius loci usually refers to a location’s distinctive atmosphere, or we often like to say ‘the spirit of the a place’. Most designers are using this as high-minded design speak and aren’t really 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.
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 for the context where it is located. Similarly, architects talk about place-making it 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?