June 6, 2011

The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture & Landscaping

defines  genius loci in this way:

Latin term meaning ‘the genius of the place’, referring to the presiding deity or spirit. Every place has its own unique qualities, not only in terms of its physical makeup, but of how it is perceived, so it ought to be (but far too often is not) the responsibilities of the architect or landscape-designer to be sensitive to those unique qualities, to enhance them rather than to destroy them. Alexander Pope, in Epistle IV (1731) of his Moral Essays, addressed to Lord Burlington, states in his Argument that, ‘instanced in architecture and gardening,… all must be adapted to the genius of the place, and… beauties not forced into it, but resulting from it’.
Nowadays, when we in the landscape design business refer to “Genius Loci”, we are speaking of the spirit of the place, not necessarily an actual spirit or deity, but of having respect for the surrounding landscape and life of the place, and an understanding of it.  A good garden designer or Landscape Architect sees and understands the spirit of the place, and designs a garden or landscaped area to fit in with its surroundings, to harmonize, and thus respect the Genius Loci of the place. One of my favorite Frank Lloyd Wright quotes explains this idea very simply‘Each house is born like a living organism out of the contact between the genius loci and the needs of the inhabitants’.  Although he is speaking specifically about architecture and designing houses, the same principle applies to landscape design.  Substitute “Garden” for “House” in this quote – the concept works.


Think about how perfect those austere but gorgeous Arizona desert landscapes are: how the landscaped garden with its hardscaping, low walls made of local stone, and lovely structural desert plants seems to flow into the natural desert beyond.  How appealing and right it seems to see a winding dry stone wall weaving through the soft hills and trees of a New England field.  Or an English garden that gently frames a view of the rolling fields and farmlands beyond, not competing with that natural view, but rather setting it off, and making it a part of the garden itself. 

 You don’t have to look far afield to see and recognize the many dreadful violations of Genius Loci that are made today.  How many times have you driven through a boring and manicured subdivision and seen the artificial dry stream bed cutting across a lawn – oftentimes starting at the corner of the house and ending at the sidewalk.  And let’s not forget the fake stone “waterfalls” that seem to sprout out of nowhere and go nowhere in a back yard?  Even those large, expensive Italianate stone fountains that look stunning in a formal setting are too often dominating a small patch of lawn or tiny entry courtyard – totally out of proportion, ridiculously out of place.

 When I have a new garden design commission, the first thing I do is take a lot of photos of the site, the house, and the views from the property.  I spend some time getting a feel for the area, and the architecture of the home itself.  You must include the home as part of the Genius Loci; it is there, it is part of the landscape.  Then I come away and mull things over in my mind and sleep on it.  Gradually my ideas take shape and I can begin doing the rough sketches.  You can do this even if your commission is a small fenced in yard in a subdivision – just look at the surrounding area.  What kind of trees are there?  Is the natural landscape beyond the subdivision rolling hills, flat grassy expanses, or just more subdivisions?  Is there a view of a river, the ocean, or mountains in the distance?  Sometimes you just have to go on your instincts of what would fit there and what would be an abomination.  Over time, it will get easier to do this. 

To learn more about the concept of Genius Loci, check out the Internet – there are many references to it both in relation to architecture and landscape design.  And as always, look to the work of the great landscape designers for many sterling example. 

The Empire Mine State Park in Grass Valley, Calif. has a wonderful example of an Arts and Crafts style home.  The house was built using rock from the hard rock mine tunnels on site.  Consequently the stone, being native, blends beautifully with the terrain.  The brick was fired about 20 miles away and is a connecting thread throughout the property.  This park is well worth the visit.  Below is a photo of the cottage.

4 Responses to “THE SPIRIT OF THE PLACE”

  1. Ana Says:

    I’m having a very hard time to understand Genius Loci actually but I love your post. You said something that can gives me almost clear idea what Genius Loci is through the differences in design but how can a place have such poor genius loci? For example if I take Time Square in New York, does the place have Genius Loci? Or you have a better example for me to understand better?

    • csgd Says:

      Hello Ana,
      Genius Loci can be hard concept to grasp – especially in this day and age. When you consider that Greece is a country of mountains hills and islands standing out in clarity and form and that their buildings (we’re talking 5th century B.C. as that was the height of the Genius Loci concept) were built of the local stone and placed in such a way as to be in harmony with their surroundings. Intuitive Greek site-planning was that architecture was subsidiary and composed to the natural landscape. When I speak of genius loci in the garden it basically follows the same intuitive ideas. One wouldn’t place a tropical garden in, say a desert landscape in the southwestern united states. It would not blend with the natural surroundings. Bad genius loci – or none at all – exists when there is no harmony. I expect there are architects that would argue this, but if the garden and the architecture are to be in harmony with their surroundings then it follows there must be surroundings to harmonize with. When subdivisions and town planning becomes an intellectual pursuit, disregarding siting the home and garden within the landscape, then I think we lose the genius loci.

      Some of the grand estates of England created Genius Loci (Stourwood), so it can be done – but it takes work. Does this help at all? Thanks for your question

  2. Ana Says:

    Thanks for taking your time to reply my question. It’s impressive how the previous designer able to harmonize the elements with the surrounding but sometimes for some people it is hard to describe how those elements and idea of design harmonized within the landscape, even blend in nicely with the culture (especially student like me). But yes your explanation did help a lot. Thank you very much! All I need is to research further information and try to have better understanding on the concept. The further you explain the more questions I have in my mind, as that always happen, but I should keep it to myself and find the answers since I only have 3 days to master the concept of Genius Loci before the presentation. So, wish me luck. Thank you.

    Have a nice day.

  3. […] of the California School of Garden Design, writes about recognizing the spirit of a place as “having respect for the surrounding landscape and life of the place, and an understanding of it.” Part of this respect involves enhancing its unique physical characteristics and how […]

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