The issue of Genius Loci was a problem dear to Christian Norberg Schulz, and the term has become central to the theory and practice of architecture and planning in Norway. In this article, professor Alberto Pérez-Gómez engages phenomenology and the use of language as a means to further the conversation on this important topic.

A central question for an ethical contemporary architecture is how architecture and urban form may acknowledge the specific cultural particularities that we associate with the identity of a place. This question, however, is very difficult to unpack – in my view, it is inherently ambiguous. Contrary to what many architects and critical theorists may think, contextualism is not an obvious operation, particularly when what is at stake is a poetic practice.

Oaxaca, Mexico. Church of Santo Domingo. Photo: Bob Krist/Corbis.

Artistic products from the most diverse cultures touch us by virtue of their paradoxical universality; they both belong to a time and place and transcend it, contributing to our self-understanding regardless of our own particular culture. The difficulties surrounding this question are a direct result of a typically modern cultural dilemma, namely the challenge of imagining and building a meaningful human order in a world that almost regardless of geographical location remains in the grip of Cartesian dualism. This is the world that made the global village possible, in which concepts of reality and delusions of progress are fuelled by the apparent successes of technology in controlling and dominating the environment. In this predominantly scientistic world, the great majority of building reflects little else but the enshrined, supposedly objective and hedonistic values of economy and efficiency, or instantiate like signposts monetary and political power.

"Language, contrary to what architects generally believe, is crucial for a poetic and ethical practice."

An environment is not an image

In order to design and build a poetic world, one that may enable humans to participate in a sense of meaning without reducing buildings to literal signs, both grounded in a culture and also transcending it, we must question certain deep-rooted assumptions. First of all, architecture is not the mere manipulation of form or space, it is neither an art nor a science in a reduced sense of those terms. Understanding our profession this way we will never grasp what belongs on a site, or what is appropriate as a programmatic vision. The ultimate relativity of value is insurmountable if architecture is reduced to a question of aesthetics (in the eighteenth-century sense), or “ornament” (in the nineteenth-century sense). Positions for and against the importance and precedence of a given cultural milieu are equally fallacious if one understands such a milieu as a picture, or as a materialistic, dead, and objectified collection of physical features or buildings. Such a “context” can never be the origin for the generation of meaningful architectural ideas and built work.

The desire to relate recent urban architecture either to landscape, to one specific historical tradition, or both, as a reaction to the banality of technological modernism, is a noble objective. Context as an objectified, picture-like lifeless form in the sense sketched above, however, is far from being a synonym of either nature or cultural heritage and cannot be a point of departure to ensure a more rooted architecture.

The significance of narrative

To grasp the significance of both our given natural world and our histories as the ground for a distinct architecture, we must understand these phenomena as interwoven, only graspable through narratives leading to our self-understanding as modern architects. This is indeed the only sure foundation that may allow the architect to articulate a project as political position, following an understanding of what may be appropriate, here and now. The key to this problem is the issue of language. Language, contrary to what architects generally believe, is crucial for a poetic and ethical practice. Language is the substance of the imagination, and the crucial foundation for constructing the commonplace. Language is the basis of phronesis or prudence, the practical philosophy of Aristotle, the ground of culture that is also the ground of truly relevant human truths, including the good and the beautiful.

Modern architects have a tendency to bypass language, dreaming that the imagination, creation and the project can occupy some universal realm that allows for ubiquity. In this way, we may feel we are perfectly capable of being in New York and designing a school for Uganda, for seemingly all that matters is an international language of forms, made possible by universal technological means.

Stories, however, are crucial for an ethical praxis. History and “context” are never simply given like unchanging objects; we have to make them at every moment. We weave them in the present through our own desire, in an exchange with the culture in which we expect to build. Only when emerging from the deeply rooted language of a particular culture can an appropriate position be formulated, resulting in a program and eventually, an appropriate architectural project. Because history is authentic knowledge (and not scientistic pseudo-knowledge or information), it demands that we take a position.

"History and “context” are never simply given like unchanging objects; we have to make them at every moment."

History is our full inheritance, both the constitution of the mental framework that has its roots in the Western tradition (for the contemporary technological world is constituted out of that tradition), and the local architectural artifacts that are real cultural symbols because we have made them, and that can be gleaned as an order allowing for our present orientation. We should seek basic strategies for poetic inhabitation in the artifacts, history and fictions that constitute its background. This is of course far from being a call for a simple return to the vernacular.

The work never exists outside of its context

In order to underscore my point, let me tease out another related false assumption concerning context. Real common sense experience (as opposed to our omnipresent logical patterns of thought) shows that the perception of invariant colors or dimensions in the empirical world is bound to specific cultures through language. The Innuit in the polar desert perceive many colors where we see only white. Yet the perception of invariance, however it may occur, is a secondary phenomenon, while the flow of experience itself is primary. Pure red or pure white are never empirical facts in our perceptual experience, and a vertical dimension is always perceived as larger than the horizontal dimension of the same quantitative extension. We will invariably overestimate the horizontal distance a falling tower may reach, because vertical distance is, in the first instance, larger than horizontal distance. What we perceive as primary is always elastic time and distance, depending, for instance, on whether we go home from the office riding a bicycle or in a fast car, and depending on whether we are hungry or bored. The mileage reading in the car odometer is, in this sense, a secondary abstraction.

If we think of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, we may choose to objectify it as art historians often do, and state that its proportions are actually awkward and squat, except that Bernini’s square makes it look right. Such intellectualizing objectifications of architecture constitute a dangerous fallacy. Notice that the objectified, context-less building is taken as the real building, allowing the critic to utter such scathing judgment. St. Peter’s Basilica is what it is in its existing site. The work never exists outside or apart from its context, even though we may wish to consider it as an autonomous geometrical object in the Cartesian space of our mind.

Furthermore, the context that contributes so much to its identity is never purely the objectified site either. Thus we must conclude that context is, indeed, crucial for architectural meaning, yet must be understood in its more encompassing sense as situation or ground, or even as the “world of the work.” It also follows that the issue of the generation of appropriate architectural ideas in an urban site or region of the modern world is a complex problem that depends on the proper working of the imagination, reconciling what is given with what is possible, in order to open up the possibility of poetic dwelling. It is therefore a problem of metaphoricity, it necessitates rhetorical and political thinking and not instrumental or stylistic deduction. Only an architect with a broad cultural understanding and roots in the humanities is liable to succeed in this task. As we know well, these are conditions that unfortunately do not respond to the pedagogical priorities of contemporary architecture schools and professional corporations.

The world is an intentional phenomenon

The modern world has a specific reality that is not independent from our thoughts. The world itself is an intentional phenomenon, and our world demands that our actions not become curtailed by a reactionary enslavement within prevailing traditions when these become empty of content. Martin Heidegger – who helped establish the phenomenological awareness at the root of my previous remarks about the importance of the site as place – writes as well: “The flight into tradition, out of a combination of humility and prescription, can bring about nothing in itself other than self-deception and blindness in relation to the historical moment.”1 Architectural historians have contributed to a delusion when they falsely try to explain the development of architecture as progressive organic change. The great architecture that we now perceive as our tradition is in fact the work of enlightened individuals whose highly personal and imaginative syntheses were never “contextual” in the modern, narrow sense of the word. These works were at the leading edge of culture at the time they were created. They fit into the culture and the natural environment not because they were “underdesigned” or “formally coherent” but rather because their identity – that which they represented, and that allowed their builders and inhabitants a deep sense of recognition – was the result of the individual architect’s broad and deep cultural roots in his/her own space/time.

This is at the heart of architectural meaning: the participatory role of architecture which, in its manifold historical embodiments, has allowed the individual inhabitant at different times in history and in all cultures, to belong to an institutional totality and understand life as a coincidence of opposites, as a given sense (meaning) in the poetic incandescence that shows life (plurality) and death (unity) not as polar opposites (order and chaos) but as potentially one.

The recovery of place is a critical project

I have often written that our traditional sense of place or locus has been disrupted by our belief in technological, isotropic, geometric space as the real ambit of our worldly actions. Our age supports an almost blind faith in applied science, one that has become increasingly international and transcultural, fueled by ever more efficient systems of communication and information, blurring traditional boundaries and, with them, the qualities of specific places that may still be present in everyday modern life. This is a reality that must be acknowledged by architects and urban designers. The recovery of place is a critical project. It is not enough to look out at the world or region transformed into a picture, that beautiful sunset in the mountains of Oaxaca: cultural values and relations to place must be sought in architecture through a personal search, a work of the ethical imagination and not one of pastiche or statistics. To expect that one can isolate regional or cultural characteristics and reflect them in architecture though a conscious, externalized operation is naïve. Equally futile is the desire to recreate nostalgic urban public space: A parallelogram with four little trees does not make a plaza, and Postmodern simulations are not the modern equivalent of the locus where traditional architecture fulfilled its intersubjective, cultural promise to become a cosmic space, offering through experiential wonder a ground and orientation to our finite lives. This kind of contextualism, regionalism or even revivalism has clearly failed to produce truly meaningful architecture, even when it rivals the surrogate forms of cultural participation represented by the media, cyberspace or television.

"To expect that one can isolate regional or cultural characteristics and reflect them in architecture though a conscious, externalized operation is naïve."

What, then, are our alternatives? From the historical trajectory of modernity we have also inherited a very real capacity for reaction and personal reconciliation. The history of this alternative poetic epistemology started with the inception of the Romantic Movement and continued in the 20th century, mainly through surrealism and phenomenology. Making architecture with a desire to acknowledge local identity we must recognize the priority of embodiment and our connections to the natural world, and yet neither the world nor the body are simply given unmediated, as permanent and unchanging essence. Meditating upon an artificial lake created by planners in the middle of Dallas, Ivan Illich demonstrates how difficult it is for H2O, a modern fluid whose function since the late-eighteenth century has been to “circulate,” to appear as water under those conditions, as the mythical liquid that not only makes life possible, but allows for remembering and forgetting. In arid regions where water is scarce, for example, this observation is crucial. While it is crucial to conserve H2O and to procure the amounts needed for practical purposes, it is even more fundamental to remember that its symbolic value can only be recovered through imaginative work, displacement and metaphor. While waste must be avoided, the problem will not be solved by shutting down a few fountains, and life will be made worse if a potential for true poetry is eliminated.

The world and the body image finally ceased to be classical in the early nineteenth century. Thus an architecture of concrete, qualitative places is not resolved through a simple-minded extrapolation from historical or autochthonous, vernacular buildings. The theory of functionalism obviously failed, becoming prey to it own reductionist obsessions, and yet almost regardless of what architects themselves may have said or written about their work, true modern architecture has been produced and is not identical to technological building. Some modern architecture has immense symbolic power, and it is all diverse and heterogeneous, from Gaudì´s Casa Mila to Aalto´s Paimio Sanatorium or Villa Mairea, from Mies´s Barcelona Pavilion to Le Corbusier´s La Tourette or Ronchamp.

Casa Mila, Barcelona. Antoni Gaudí. Photo: Lehtikuva/Kimmo Taskinen/IMAPTuberculosis sanatorium, Paimio. Alvar Aalto. Photo: IHA

La Tourette, L‘Eveux-sur-L‘Arbresle. Le Corbusier. Photo: IHAThe Barcelona pavilion, 1929, with statue by Georg Kolbe. Reconstruction from 1986. Mies van der Rohe. From Solà-Morales, Cirici, Ramos: Mies van der Rohe-Barcelona Pavilion.

Regardless of its style, or of its more or less figural or abstract quality, such architecture allows for cultural recognition; it allows for our dreams, it represents our values in a mode ultimately irreducible to paraphrase. Contrary to common assumptions, this architecture is profoundly meaningful precisely because it does not have a meaning, like the logo of a company or a false idol, and rather opposes all strong dogmatic and ideological reductions. Perhaps we should emphasize this further: Luis Barragan’s architecture does not represent “Mexico” as a nation-state. The same could be said for Aaalto and Finland, or Le Corbusier and France. This coupling is one of the most problematic misunderstandings of regionalism.

Ultimately nation-states are modern fabrications, product of states of exception and police power. True architecture always overwhelms its simple function as a sign and plays with power, this is why it is crucial for humanity’s survival.

"Contrary to common assumptions, this architecture is profoundly meaningful precisely because it does not have a meaning."

Place cannot be disclosed, it has to be reinvented

We expect to be at home in our cities, to share a sense of existential, and not merely physical, security. Yet our collective home must accept a dimension of utopia, one that accompanies the true values of modernity: the possibility of real historical evolution and our self-assertion as individuals, leaving behind the repugnant prejudices of the past and transcending both totalitarianism and anarchy. We must therefore embrace the positive aspects of utopia, while remaining open to the gifts of our cultural region, particularly as made manifest in artifacts of many kinds, literary and artistic. It is my contention that within this tradition of poetic artifacts in different media we may find appropriate strategies, to be internalized and tested by the architect. Abstract architectural ideas evidently pose a danger of being easy to assimilate to the aims of technological domination. The power of the modern architect as a maker, however, should not be denied. The great works of modern architecture, even though they are in the world and belong to culture, like gestures or food, are comparatively free from the traditional limitations and associations of the specific site. This does not mean that these works simply ignore their place; on the contrary, when successful, architecture unveils the sense of place and returns it to us as that which has always been given, as the gift itself. Only by accepting that this is our reality and facing it straight on will we be able to transcend its dangers.

"For us moderns this reality is only apparent in the intentional realm: we make it."

Let me reiterate: there is obviously no creation ex nihilo. A phenomenological understanding of meaning shows clearly that the world precedes us. In this sense the artist reveals the unnameable through the poetic image, the invisible and concealed deep reality of our human world. But for us moderns this reality is only apparent in the intentional realm: we make it. The inveterate dualistic distinction between nature and culture is ambivalent. The structure of “ground, sky, and horizon” to which the poet and architect must allude is always present yet, in our modern world place can no longer by simply disclosed, it has to be reinvented. This operation is first gestural and linguistic, rather than simply a question of images.

Suggesting that we can recognize purely material qualities – typological, topological, or morphological – at each one of the different scales addressed by the planner or architect, in order to build a figural building or city, in a supposedly identifiable “place” with its particular genius loci, is a delusion. Dwelling in the early third millennium demands a reinvention of the ground of architecture by identifying first our renewed, non-Cartesian body image and its particular and necessarily fragmented recollection of Being. Through an introspective search, in the form of self-knowledge through making, the architect can then expect to generate an order appropriate to the task and site, without giving up the quest for figuration. The search is a personal one and, in this sense, is intimately related to the search of the painter, the writer, or the musician, one always oriented by a historical sense, by the identification of a founding tradition. As in Rothko’s dark canvases in Houston, the embodiment of the archetypal landscape is today perhaps closer to the universal than say in the works of an 18th century painter, yet remains uniquely concrete, immediately transformative, and equally impossible to paraphrase.

The Rothko chapel, Houston, Texas. Interior with paintings by Mark Rothko. Architects: Rothko collaborated with Philip Johnson on the plans. Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry completed the building in 1971. Photo: Hickey-Robertson. The Rothko Chapel, HoustonThe Rothko Chapel, exterior with Barnett Newman‘s sculpture "The Broken Obelisk". Photo: Hickey-Robertson. The Rothko Chapel, Houston

To conclude, let me return to the crucial role of language in all of this, the language of poetry, of course, as a language “against” the conventional connotative power of prose, capable of expressing for us the true essence of a place, a city or a region, but also the language of stories, capable of articulating ways of life, relationships, modes of engagement, and most importantly, ethical issues. These are the stories of the traditional dwellers, of the historical dwellers, and of the future dwellers, eventually taking the form of the programs that architects and urban designers put forward for new modes of collective participation in the city of the future. This latter use of language is part of the architectural and urban project, as important I would argue as the drawings that may give it form, one which has precedents in the early modern works of Ledoux and Lequeu.

The cooper‘s house, seen from the director‘s villa. La Saline Royale D‘Arc-et-Senans, 1774-1779. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, 1736-1806. From Michel Gallet: _Ledoux_, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt 1983.

This language is emphatically not algorithmic, it is not about functions but a vision of a poetic life, for an idealized client, one that is thus related to its context. It is the language of the humanities, and not one of hard science. It is deliberately a narrative language, keeping in mind Merleau-Ponty’s observation that our fixation with calculation and universal language is a sure way to kill true language and human expression. The program for the new city respectful of cultural identity is a promise, and must be one of beauty and justice, terms that as Elaine Scarry has shown, point to the same value rather than being antithetical; it is borne from the architect’s responsible, personal imagination, through compassion for the other, as a project for the common good.

  1. Martin Heidegger, "The Age of the World-Picture", The Question Concerning Technology (New York: Garland Publishing, 1977), 136. 


This lecture was delivered at the Sverre Fehn Symposium at Hamar in May, 2006.

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