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Northeast African Studies 7.3 (2000) 85-118

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The Genius Loci of Hamar

Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany


A Phenomenology of the Genius Loci

This paper is inspired by the work of Christian Norberg-Schulz who has brought back the ancient notion of the genius loci or "spirit of place" into architecture. In his earlier works Intentions in Architecture (1963) and Existence, Space, and Architecture (1971), Norberg-Schulz had already thought and written about experiential and psychic notions such as "existential foothold" and "existential space," but it was not until 1979 that he began to make use of the notion genius loci. As I will try to show below, this concept is not only relevant for architecture but for ethnography and anthropological theory as well. But first let me recapitulate the ideas outlined in Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture (Norberg-Schulz 1980).

People strive to create meaningful existential spaces where they can get a foothold, where they can dwell. Norberg-Schulz has taken the concept of "dwelling" from Heidegger's essay "Building Dwelling Thinking" (1971) and has related it to the concept of genius loci as follows: "Man dwells when he can orientate himself within and identify himself with an environment, or, in short, when he experiences the environment as meaningful. Dwelling therefore implies something more than 'shelter.' It implies that the spaces where life occurs are 'places,' in the true sense of the word. A place is a space which has character. Since ancient times the genius loci, or 'spirit of place' has been recognized as the concrete reality man has to face and come to terms with in his daily life" (Norberg-Schulz 1980, 5). [End Page 85]

Places are qualitative totalities where events "take place," where the different components relate to each other in a meaningful Gestalt, and where the whole is experienced as more than its constituent parts: "A place is therefore a qualitative, 'total' phenomenon, which we cannot reduce to any of its properties, such as spatial relationships, without losing its concrete nature out of sight" (1980, 8).

From here follows an interesting turn towards anthropology and a break with functionalism and international style in architecture: "'Taking place' is usually understood in a quantitative, 'functional' sense, with implications such as spatial distribution and dimensioning. But are not 'functions' inter-human and similar everywhere? Evidently not. 'Similar' functions, even the most basic ones such as sleeping and eating, take place in very different ways, and demand places with different properties, in accordance with different cultural traditions and different environmental conditions. The functional approach therefore left out the place as a concrete 'here' having its particular identity" (1980, 8).

The "here" where people "dwell" goes beyond the house, and comprises the whole world they inhabit. Again Norberg-Schulz turns to Heidegger who has defined "dwelling" as: "The way in which you are and I am, the way in which we humans 'are' on earth, is dwelling . . . the world is the house where the mortals dwell" (Norberg-Schulz 1980, 10). To this he adds: "In other words, when man is capable of dwelling the world becomes an 'inside.' In general, nature forms an extended comprehensive totality, a 'place' that according to local circumstances has a particular identity" (1980, 10).

This identity is meant by the genius loci or, less evocative, by the notion of "character." All places have character, that is, distinctive features, for example, "festive," "solemn," or "protective" for buildings, or "barren," "fertile," "threatening," etc., for landscapes. Character also emerges from modes of construction or, as anthropologists would say, from modes of production and consumption, which in turn may change in time (1980, 14–15).

People perceive the characteristics of their environment as a kind of "environmental image" that provides them with an orientation and a sense of security. Following Lynch (1960), Norberg-Schulz therefore [End Page 86] argues that "all cultures have developed systems of orientation, . . . spatial structures which facilitate the development of a good environmental image" (1980, 19). To a large extent orientation is based on or derived from given natural features, and...


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