The concept of 'place' has become firmly established in the understanding of architecture within Norway, and even in the building legislation, within the past two or three decades. How do we build places that are not only good, but meaningful?

Ole Møystad has looked at how Christian Norberg-Schulz worked to define meaning in architecture, an effort that culminated in the concept of Place.

But there is a contradiction between the accepted definition of the homely and the demands of an increasingly mobile and multi-cultural society. Møystad points to significant uncomfortable knots in Norberg-Schulz's work, knots that remain crucial theoretical challenges for Norwegian architecture.

In 1993, the Norwegian Ministry of the Environment issued a guide to “Place Analysis”. The guide was supplemented by four booklets containing four sample analyses. The guide and the sample cases demonstrated a phenomenological approach, based on the ‘Concept of Place’ as formulated by Christian Norberg-Schulz and established by him as a foundational concept of architectural phenomenology. The guide recommends that all Norwegian towns and municipalities base their planning- and urban design processes on an initial Place Analysis; explicitly stating that “Political guidelines for later project assessment and development within the plan can be based on the Place Analysis.” In the following I will discuss why and how Norberg-Schulz developed his Concept of Place, and how it has been put to use.

Sandmoen asylum seekers' reception centre, Trondheim.

The Concept of Place was developed as an answer to the question of meaning: what is meaning, and how do we build meaningful environments? This is a semiotic question, a question of how something can stand for something else.1 How can a building be both a physical object and a cultural meaning at the same time, and what is the nature of the relationship between the object and its meaning, if such a relationship exists? Do architects control, or even influence, what cultural meanings they produce when they make buildings, cities and places?

In order to understand the background for the Concept of Place, we need to adopt a semiotic perspective. This will allow us to trace how Norberg-Schulz went about relating meaning to object. First he adopted the concept of ‘Intention’, then he introduced his own version of ‘the Archimedean Point’ before establishing ‘Place’ as the only source of architectural meaning – ‘the Spirit of Place’ or Genius Loci.2 Finally we will look into some of the implications of the adoption of Genius Loci as the foundation of meaning in Norwegian architectural politics.

Christian Norberg-Schulz on a field trip with students.

The Loss of Meaning

Throughout much of history, religion and politics have been the two sources of social meaning. As modern science developed, however, it challenged the ecclesiastical monopoly on truth and existential insight. When Galileo lifted his telescope towards the sky, he soon uncovered that the earth was neither flat nor the center of the universe, contrary to the claims of the church. Galileo’s discovery inevitably led to questions about how God could have created man in his image if he is merely an inhabitant of a speck of dust in an endless universe.

As time went by, modern science demonstrated its superiority over religion when it came to changing the world. It was science, not religion, that triggered the industrial revolution. And it was science, not religion, which was called upon to solve the problems created by the industrial revolution. As modernism eventually reached architecture, the discipline was no longer called upon to reflect divine – or royal – ideals, but rather modern, scientific truths.

Halfway through the twentieth century, after two world wars, Europe had lost much of its faith in the blessings of modern science. Architecture’s “scientific” contributions – ‘form follows function’ and ‘neue Sachlichkeit’ – offered little to the task of reconstructing a meaningful architecture for a post-war Europe. Modernism had reduced architecture to one of the industrial products of modern capitalism. What kind of a future could be built with an architecture that had no other meaning to convey than ‘this construction is made of concrete’, or ‘this is a housing area, and it is planned and built according to the most modern industrial methods’?

When Norberg-Schulz published his PhD thesis, Intentions in Architecture, in 1963, it seemed to address a desperate need for a renewed understanding of and reflection on architectural meaning.3


With his PhD thesis, Norberg-Schulz started a life-long struggle with the problem of meaning in architecture. The problem arises from the fact that something (architecture), besides ‘being something’ can also ‘mean something’ – to someone. The same piece of architecture can even mean something to someone – and something else to someone else. The problem is semiotic – not language semiotics (as in linguistics), but architectural semiotics.4

In simple terms one can say that the question of ‘how something can mean something’ is a semiotic problem, while ‘what something is’ is a phenomenological question. A semiotician will, however, claim that an answer to the phenomenological question can only be reached via the semiotic one. The semiotician will hence claim that when the phenomenologist asks what for instance a place is, he is not merely asking whether it is a dwelling, a village or an urban space. He will argue that the phenomenologist not only asks what a place is, but also what it means – what kind of meaning the dwelling, the village or the urban space conveys to its user or inhabitant. And this, the semiotician will insist, is precisely what architectural semiotics is about: the triangular relationship between a) meaning, b) the object (or place) which represents or carries the meaning and c) the subject (the user) who experiences a+b.5

The phenomenologist, on the other hand, will now accuse the semiotic analysis of standing in the way of the phenomenological experience. He will claim that the semiotician is depriving the subject (the user) of the pure and true experience by covering the phenomenon with a veil of scientific logic. By doing this, says the phenomenologist, the semiotician is shrouding the true nature of things.

During the work on his PhD, Norberg-Schulz reads the classics of architecture, but he also works his way through the new and promising scientific fields of his time: semiotics (C. Morris), perceptional psychology (Piaget, Brunswick), Gestalt Theory (Wertheimer, Bollnow) and sociology (Parsons), and he combines them with philosophy (Cassirer, Wittgenstein) and with art history (Panovsky, Gombrich, Sedlmayr).6

He searches for the structures and models that relay meanings, or significance, between us and our architectural environments. He is aware of semiotic studies of the ‘sign’, of language as carrier of meaning and of communication theory. He reads the semotic classic Charles Morris.7 The linguistic sign has an expression side, the signifier (the word), and a content side, the signified or the meaning to which the expression side refers. The weakness of this sign structure, however, is that it does not include a strong or a stable link between the sound ‘house’ and the concept of ‘house’ in the form of an inherent reference to the physical phenomenon ‘house’. But in Gestalt theory Norberg-Schulz finds the figure ‘house’, and in perceptional psychology he finds a relationship between the house and the perceiving subject.

An answer to the semiotic question, ‘how something can signify something’, however presupposes something that can mediate the meaning; a sign. In Brunswick Norberg-Schulz finds the concept ‘Zwischengegenstand’, or ‘Middle Object’. The ‘Middle Object’ is a term that signifies an object as it is perceived by a subject. It is in other words a real perception of a real object, without however, being that real object itself. Through an analysis of the middle object by means of perceptional psychology, and by aligning this analysis with the real object, one would – in theory – be able to approach the semiotic problem without getting lost in the infinity of possible interpretations of the linguistic sign. ‘Intention’ relates to the intended perception (Middle Object) of the real object.8

In his doctoral work, Norberg-Schulz came very close to the logical, stable and phenomenon based sign structure that Charles Sanders Peirce had developed half a century earlier, and which has later turned out to be a robust answer to the question of signification that Norberg-Schulz grappled with.9 Unfortunately Peirce’s Collected Papers I-VIII were not yet fully published, and their contents not generally known at the time when Norberg-Schulz wrote his Intentions.10 The bulk of the Collected Papers were published over the course of the 1950’s, but they only reached a widespread readership 20 years later. The historical irony of this is that Peirce’s Collected Works were all stored in the archives of Harvard University; where Norberg-Schulz was writing his PhD, and where Peirce’s apprentice, Charles Morris, was teaching in the 1950’s. How would Norberg-Schulz’ quest for a stable foundation for a theory of meaning in architecture have developed if he, while reading Morris’ Foundations of the Theory of Signs at Harvard, had gone down to the archives and checked the primary source in Peirce’s papers?11

But he didn’t, and his search for a stable foundation for meaning was exhausted in the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign structure. As is well known, a word can be used and misused to carry basically any meaning. Norberg-Schulz understood very early – compared to Charles Jencks and the others who joined the linguistic turn only around 1970 – that houses do not behave like words. Therefore he abandoned the entire problem of representation. He may have reasoned something like this: houses do not re-present themselves, they present themselves to us – as houses. After Intentions Norberg-Schulz sought a way around the semiotic problem and the question of ‘how’ architecture can mean something. He put all his money on phenomenology, hoping that it would take him straight to the meaning by unveiling ‘what’ architecture is.

During his work with Intentions Norberg-Schulz studies the works of Hans Sedlmayr. In the foreword to Intentions Norberg-Schulz points him out as particularly important, and Sedlmayr continues to be central in Norberg-Schulz’ search for a stable base for architectural meaning. During the years following Intentions Norberg-Schulz is unable to overcome the semiotic problem. He keeps looking for a firm reference outside the relationship between the sign, or the representation, on the one hand and the signified or represented meaning on the other. To Norberg-Schulz, Sedlmayr’s method of interpretation in, Zu einer strengen Kunstwissenschaft, looks like a step in the right direction. By shifting the focus from content to intent, Sedlmayr introduces the metteur en ouevre as reference and judge to the true understanding. The metteur en oeuvre must not be perceived as a person, as the individual artist – in Sedlmayr’s work, the concept refers to art as an institution. The problem with shifting the reference from oeuvre to metteur en oeuvre is that the stability of the interpretation is made dependent of the stability of art as an institution. This in its turn is depending on the stability of the state, or on the ideology which supports the state within which the art is an institution. In the end the problem of meaning is referred back to the authority of the state.

In his text “The Fixation of Belief”, C. S. Peirce describes four methods for moving from mere assumption to firm conviction: the method of tenacity, the method of authority, the a priori method, and the method of scientific investigation.12 Peirce demonstrates that the method of authority as base for ‘Fixation of Belief’ inevitably will be followed by cruelty: “… and when it (the method of authority) is consistently carried out, they become atrocities of the most horrible kind in the eyes of any rational man.”

One year after Sedlmayr had written his Zu Einer strengen Kunstwissenschaft in 1932, he joined the Austrian Nazi party. He remained a party member until 1945 and made a fast academic career in Vienna. He enjoyed one of highest standings any art historian could achieve in the Third Reich, while seeing several of his Jewish friends and colleagues forced to flee. In 1945 the allied forces dismissed him from his position in Vienna. He moved to Bavaria, and in 1948 he published his theoretical work on modern art, Verlust der Mitte. In this work, which became a pillar in Norberg-Schulz’ Intentions as well as in several subsequent books, Sedlmayr criticizes modern art for dissolving and undermining art as an institution, and for leading culture into chaos and meaninglessness. This work has been attacked by its contemporary critics for being a structural reaction to what is still referred to as ‘degenerate’ art (entartete Kunst), as Sedlmayr’s critique used this term in the same sense as it was used by the Nazis themselves.


Inspired by Sedlmayr, and disappointed by modern science, Norberg-Schulz takes his own turn – from meaning to being. He reads perceptional psychology, how we perceive space. He searches for the points where this perception is engrained. He reads the Gestalt philosopher Otto Friedrich Bollnow on how man understands space and gives it with meaning by capturing it through use and movements (Gestaltung). The central point of perceived space (“Nullpunkt des Sehraums”) is, Bollnow explains, a spot somewhere between one’s eyes “… in der Gegend der Nasenwurzel”.13

The phenomenological problem can, however, not be solved subjectively. Norberg-Schulz realized that the question of what architecture ‘is’ must be addressed to something outside the subject and its individual relationship to the object. Hence, his quest for stable references becomes a quest for an “Archimedean Point”. The Archimedean point, however, implies a semiotic logic. The same way the sign is a mediator between the meaning and the representation of it, the lever is a mediator between the Archimedean point and the phenomenon one tries to influence. When Archimedes called out: “Give me a fixed point and I will move the world”, he referred to the physical fact that with a lever he would theoretically be able to lift any weight – given a fixed point on which to support the lever. He wanted to express something about the possibilities and the limitations of science and of technology.

During the 1960’s, working his way from Intentions to Existence, Space and Architecture (1971), Norberg-Schulz read Heidegger. Here, he discovered a phenomenology which appeared to merge the semiotic and the phenomenological problems, or ‘meaning’ with ‘being’.

Heidegger’s concept “ads Gevierte” signifies the intersection between two existencial axes; the axis between man and being, or between mortal/divine, on the one hand, and the axis between earth and heaven on the other. The intersection between these two axes forms, according to Heidegger, the center (‘die Mitte’) of existential space. “Das Gevierte” is symbolized by a circle, intersected by one horizontal and one vertical line; like the old Norse (Germanic) solar wheel.

The link between architecture and ‘place’ seems more immediate, or obvious, than the one between architecture and ‘point’. A natural consequence of Heidegger’s fusion between meaning and being is that Norberg-Schulz replaces the abstract, logical entity ‘point’ with the far more concrete, phenomenological ‘place’.


In 1969 Norberg-Schulz first published the article “The Concept of Place”.14 In this text Norberg-Schulz refers to Archimede and his fixed point. Two years later he publishes the book Existence, Space and Architecture. In this book he draws the first basic consequences of his Heidegger readings; carrying through the theoretical fusion of architectural meaning and being. He outlines the phenomenological merging of point and place, and he establishes his own concept of existential space founded on his own concept of place. And – underscoring his turn from sign to thing, he returns to Archimede a second time. But in Norberg-Schulz’ text this time Archimede exclaims: “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world!”15 Gone is the lever; and with it technology, science and mediation. Only the phenomenon (the world) and the place is left, and between place and world is only ‘I’. The question of what means or forces will empower ‘I’ – enabling ‘me’ to move the world, is left mute.

In other words: the concept of place enters the scientific oeuvre of Norberg-Schulz already after his first book. As of the article “The Concept of Place” from 1969, ‘Place’ is the basic concept throughout the rest of his authorship. All the concepts and theory Norberg-Schulz later builds, are founded on this ‘Concept of Place’.

A logical consequence of this operation is that meaning is something that can be captured, or uncovered, like a place can be found or captured. When speaking of life, Norberg-Schulz always used to refer to the trope “life takes place”. The problem with this construction of language is that it implies that whoever is the master of, or in control of a place, is also in control of meaning. This Heideggerian construction has a lot in common with the one on which Sedlmayr based his concept of meaning. Another point that Heidegger had in common with Sedlmayr was his membership in the Nazi Party - from the early 30’s (1933) on. One may ask if it is relevant to bring these facts to the fore in a discussion of architectural theory. To this one may answer that Sedlmayr and Heidegger were philosophers. They did not work with rocket engines, like Von Braun. They worked with thoughts on what a meaningful existence might be; how it could be pictured, spatially organized, built and captured, and neither of them ever distanced themselves from their Nazi memberships. It is therefore difficult to ignore this stock of ideas when it is used as a foundation for contemporary Norwegian architecture and planning.

The discussion about Heidegger and his relationship with Nazism was alive in Europe all through the post-war years, and it flared up when Victor Farias published the book Heidegger et le nazisme in 1987. In Norway these discussions never went beyond philosophical circles.16 Four years later the manual for ‘Place Analysis’, issued by the Royal Ministry of the Environment, landed on the desks of the planning authorities of all municipalities in Norway.


Norberg-Schulz always kept a keen eye on what was going on in architecture around him, and he always illuminated his writings with references to historical or contemporary examples. When post-modernism was the topic of discussion, and Norberg-Schulz threw himself into the battle in support of what he saw as ‘a figurative architecture’, the old modernist was accused of being a weathercock – creaking loudly every time the wind turned. This was an unjustified critique. Norberg-Schulz had carried the concept of ‘figure’ with him from Gestalt- and perception psychology and followed it via Kevin Lynch’s The Image if the City and Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction to Charles Jencks’ The Language of Post-modern Architecture. When Norberg-Schulz during the 1980’s took an interest in post-modern architecture, it was not opportunism. Norberg-Schulz never subscribed to isms. He just kept an open eye on things. He saw something interesting in almost everything, but that never prevented the concept of place from remaining the base of his quest for meaning in architecture.

In Meaning in Western Architecture (1975) he tested his concept of place as an analytical tool on European architectural history. In Genius Loci (1980) he elaborates the concept further, and outlines an architectural phenomenology based on it. Based on this phenomenology he then, in The Concept of Dwelling (1984), works out an architectural version of Heidegger’s concept of ‘wohnen’, dwelling.

From the Spirit of Place to the Art of Place

Norberg-Schulz remained faithful to his project: to establish an architectural phenomenology which was so concrete, so hands on, that it could be used as a manual for how to build meaningful environments. He extended his conceptual toolbox with concepts such as the ‘Understanding of Place’, the ‘Analysis of Place’ and the ‘Loss of Place’. The latter is an adaption of Sedlmayrs ‘Verlust der Mitte’. Obviously ‘Loss of Place’ does not signify the loss of a place such as a loss of for instance a hilltop or a bridgehead in war. The concept refers to a situation where a place, like a village or a town, looses its architectural consistency, its wholeness or its beauty through mindless modernization of its buildings, or the construction of a new traffic system, and consequentially is no longer perceived as a readable, understandable, meaningful environment. In other words: ‘Loss of Place’ signifies loss of meaning. ‘Meaning’ is replaced by ‘Place’.

Norberg-Schulz conveyed his message about the foundational cultural significance of architecture with such conscientiousness, such tenacity and such clarity that he brought it all the way into the Norwegian Ministry of Culture. Aesthetic quality was put on the political agenda, and by the beginning of the 1990’s the ministry established a working group with the mandate of outlining a definition of Norwegian environmental aesthetics. The resulting document contains statements such as “the experience of our common spaces is more and more linked to a feeling of alienation, in the sense of a threat…”. The work group points out that places are important because they constitute “our spaces of orientation”, and that it is essential to “consider the place from the point of view of its social content as in ‘home-place’, ‘a place to be’, ‘a scene where something took place’, ‘a place of presence’ (…)”. Throughout, one can observe how the concept of place is becoming a vehicle for the new ministerial interest in aesthetics, and trace its realization that “The Crisis of Place is a challenge to public management.”17 In order to appreciate the depth of this insight, it is important to bear in mind that the concept ‘Place’ in this terminology has now replaced the concept ‘Meaning’.

As a consequence of this political interest in aesthetics, Norsk Form was established in 1992, with the aim of being a national spearhead, ‘giving direction’ to the aesthetic development of Norwegian villages and towns, henceforth to be referred to as the ‘development of Place’.18 This ambition was materialized when the Ministry of the Environment in 1993 issued the booklet Place Analysis – Content and Implementation. Manual. The manual was supplemented by four case studies: Hokksund, Halden, Sykkylven and Brumundal. The cases represent a certain variation in the individual application of the method, but they are all explicitly based on the ministerial manual. All four examples of ‘Place Analysis’ are based on ‘Place’ as the basis of any relevant understanding of historical preconditions as well as of any recommended line of future development. Immigrant culture is not mentioned either as a problem, as a phenomenon or as representing relevant “Place Knowledge” of any other kind. And this in spite of the fact that one of the cases being studied, Brumundal, in 1990-91 saw a wave of racist attacks on immigrants – people out of place. In 1997 the manual “Place Analysis” was followed by an “Aesthetic Manual”, addressing how the individual building should adapt to Place in the best, most meaningful way. The trajectories from Sedlmayr’s Strengen Kunstwissenschaft to Norberg-Schulz’ ‘Loss of Place’ are impossible to ignore.19

Christian Norberg-Schulz considering the forest.

While the Ministry of Culture was establishing Norsk Form, and the Ministry of the Environment wrote the manual in “Place Analysis”, Norberg-Schulz wrote Nattlandene (1993).20 In this book he is drawing the logical conclusions of his phenomenological insistence on considering life and place as one whole. From using the entire European cultural heritage as empirical material, he now makes it all “heimlich”. Nattlandene deals with Nordic landscapes and Nordic architecture, and in this book Norberg-Schulz again underlines that ‘Place’ is a geographical entity. Meaning or Place, in other words, is one thing in the North and something else in the South. What happens to meaning when one migrates from the North to the South, as so many Norwegians do these days, or in the other direction, as so many immigrants to Norway have done?21

At this point the Concept of Place is firmly established, and Norberg-Schulz has based his architectural phenomenology on it. He has illustrated his phenomenology in Meaning in Western Architecture, elaborated it in The Concept of Dwelling, brought it home in Nattlandene, and in The Art of Place (1995) he fullfills his project. In this work he summarizes his thoughts and concepts from his oeuvre, fine-tuning them all one last time, before he reintroduces the language analogy. But this time it is cleansed of semiotic issues. Norberg-Schulz makes one last attempt at describing the elements of architecture with such precision that interpretation is no longer needed. He calls the result “The Ground Language” (die Grundsprache).22

The problem

The fact that architecture is not a mere private interest is now recognized by both politicians and developers. Architects are no longer automatically suspected of just serving their own business interests when they argue that architectural quality is important. There is little doubt that Norberg-Schulz has been of decisive importance to the process leading to the formation of Norsk Form and to the issuing of manuals in ‘Place Analysis’ and in environmental aesthetics. The core of this understanding is that architecture is a basic reflection of our culture – not a mere icing on the cake. This implies that architecture is not only something that we produce, it also produces us. When we build, we build our own culture – as human beings. Therefore the intellectual tradition on which we choose to found our architecture is vital.

At the base of the policy efforts of the past three decades, then, is the understanding that meaningful environments can only be formed based on Place: that the problem is ‘Loss of Place’, and that the solution is ‘Development of Place’, based on ‘Analysis of Place’ and ‘Knowledge of Place’.

Christian Norberg-Schulz in his office.

In Genius Loci (The Spirit of Place) Norberg-Schulz emphasizes that human identity springs from the ‘Identity of Place’. Norberg-Schulz underlines that it is Place as a geographical entity which gives man his identity. One’s identity is a reflection of who one considers oneself to be and of the position one considers oneself to fill within one’s socio-cultural context. When a meaningful existence is based in one geographical place, one will inevitably, as Norberg-Schulz points out in The Art of Place, identify oneself as for instance Glaswegian. Then, according to the ‘Theory of Place’, existence will be experienced as meaningful to the Glaswegian when he is at home, in Glasgow, finds himself surrounded by Glaswegian architecture and – implicitly – by fellow Glaswegians.

While Norberg-Schulz wrote Genius Loci and The Concept of Dwelling, the civil war went on in Lebanon. In that war, 17 different ethnic and religious groups fought each other, struggling to cleanse each of their respective territories of people with differing identities. After 17 years of war hundreds of thousands were killed, hundreds of thousands were in diaspora and 60% of the survivors who remained in Lebanon were internally displaced.

In the essay Les identité meurtrières (Identity that Kills), Amin Maalouf writes about his own background.23 He grew up as Christian and as Arab in Lebanon. After having been shelled from the neighbouring village in the Chouf Mountains, he and his family fled to France in order to escape the ethnic cleansing that followed. In France, Maalouf became a French author. His linguistic identity is Arab. This is an identity he shares with a billion Muslims. His religious identity is Christian. He shares that with the western world. His identity as an author is French. And still, he recounts, he starts to shiver when people ask him where he actually feels at home. “To me they reveal (the questions of a deeper, profound, actual identity) a very common conception of man which in my view is dangerous.”24 Maalouf points at Rwanda, at the Balkans, at the history of Spain, the Belgian question, Northern Ireland, at Sikhs, Hindus, at Germany, Turkey etc. He writes: “If they perceive ‘the other’ as a threat to their own origins, faith or nation, they also perceive anything which can be done to remove the threat as fully legitimate.”

In Norway there are problems related to the indigenous Sami people’s demands on property rights to land and water. In fact such demands have implicated up to 40% of the Norwegian land surface. In this light one may reflect on the concerns formulated by the working group of the Norwegian Ministry of Culture with regard to “the experience of our common spaces being more and more linked to a feeling of alienation, in the sense of a threat …”.

In Mensch und Raum, Bollnow poses the relationship between place, meaning and existential space as follows: “The one can only capture space (Raum) by taking it from the other. The struggle for life-space (Lebensraum) originates from the general struggle for existence whereby one can only succeed at the cost of the other”.

The town of Mostar in Bosnia after the destruction of the bridge in 1993.

While Europe discussed Heidegger’s relationship with Nazism and Norberg-Schulz wrote Nattlandene, the Balkans caught fire, and at the same time as The Art of Place was published, Radko Mladic cleansed the Bosnian-Serb town of Srebrenica of Muslims (1995).

It may come across as melodramatic to juxtapose the emergence of a Norwegian Place-based understanding of architecture, and the foundation of a national institution as an arrowhead directing Norwegian ‘Place-development’ with the atrocities in the Balkans and the Middle-East.25 But one should bear in mind that during those same years, immigration to Norway grew markedly. Many of those immigrants were refugees, victims of ethnic cleansing in their countries of origin, and many came in search of better and more meaningful lives. When forming the architectural environments of the future, a multicultural society will be built. A census from 2005 shows that 22,3% of Oslo’s inhabitants are immigrants.[^27] There is a sharp contradiction between ‘Development of Place’ based on geographically defined identities as the basis for meaningful architectural environments on the one hand, and an increasingly multicultural and mobile society on the other.

A phone booth at Sandaker, Oslo.

In a mobile and multicultural world Tamils in Balsfjord and Pakistanis in Oslo East will, if defined in the terms of Place Analysis, threaten the meaningful existence of the local Balsfjord fisherman or the native Oslo resident. Consider the protests against the prayer calls from the minaret in Åkerbergveien in Oslo. One may expect the Pakistanis, the Tamils or the Danes to learn Norwegian, but can they also be expected to build in Norwegian, live in Norwegian, expect that they become ‘ethnic’ Norwegians and identify themselves by saying “I am an Osloegian”? And what if they refuse, or are unable to do so? Will we be willing to allow the Sikhs in Holmestrand to import their architectural habits? Or should we? Shall we demand from Spanish building authorities that Norwegian residents in Marbella are allowed to build what they perceive as meaningful environments based on their ‘Knowledge of Place’ from Drammen?

When Norberg-Schulz towards the end of his authorship still insisted on the unity of place and identity, it feels like the world had left him behind. In his observations and descriptions on the other hand, he is sharp as a razor and at times even forward-looking. His goal has of course never been to promote any Blut und Boden ideology, as he himself emphasises in the introduction to Nattlandene. On the contrary, he worked incessantly to lay the ground for meaningful environments for all; which would implicitly mean also for Tamils, Pakistanis and Danes, for asylum seekers as well as immigrants looking for a better life, environments where everyone would feel welcome and be able to live their lives meaningfully. I believe Norberg-Schulz would nod approvingly if we would now rethink and reconsider the ways in which architecture can be developed in support of a multicultural and mobile society, and if we would reconsider and thoroughly discuss the concepts and thoughts on which we base our architecture.

Ole Møystad

  1. Cf Møystad, Ole, Architecture – the Body of Thought, PhD Thesis, Oslo School of Architecture, Oslo 1994. See also Møystad, Ole “Notes for a Brief History of Meaning”, Nordic Journal of Architectural Research no. 4, 1995. 

  2. Norberg-Schulz, Christian, Genius Loci, Academy Editions, London 1980 

  3. xxx 

  4. Cf. The difference between linguistically based semiotics (French School/semiology) and philosophically based semiotics (American School/C.S. Peirce). Intentions in Architecture is still listed in bibliographies of architectural semiotics. In French translation the book is entitled Système logique de l’architecture, a title which is probably more precise and more representative for the work’s content, than the title CNS himself gave it. Intentions in Architecture is still counted as foundatory to architectural semiotics. In this field CNS earned himself a position which in many ways is greatly underrated. 

  5. Cf Møystad, Ole. "Building Culture", Nordic Journal of Architectural Research no. 1996. 

  6. Linguistic semiotics was the only generally known semiotics of the time. 

  7. While he was writing his PhD at Harvard, he may also have had the chance to meet Morris in person. 

  8. The concept of ‘Intention’ in Norberg-Schulz is inspired by Sedlmayr’s theoretical manifesto “Zu einer strengen Kunstwissenschaft”. Sedlmayr wrote this manifesto in 1931 – one year prior to his entry into in the Austrian Nazi Party. In the manifesto Sedlmayr puts forward a method of interpretation created in order to unveil the aesthetic intentions of an artwork. According to Sedlmayr the key to the true understanding of a work of art and its relationship to society was not to be found in its content, but in its intentions. Norberg-Schulz adopts and develops Sedlmayrs concept of intention further by means of perceptional psychology and gestalt theory. 

  9. Cf. The title of the French translation of Intentions in Architecture: Système logique de l’architecture

  10. The classic introduction to Peirce’s work Philospohical Writings of C. S. Peirce, edited by Justus Buchler, was published in 1950. Collected Papers I-VIII were published by Harvard University Press successively from 1931 – 1958. 

  11. In this key work Morris adopted several of Peirce’s concepts, adapting them to his own work. Peirce’s significance for the work of Charles Morris is still poorly recognized. 

  12. Buchler, Justus, Philosophical Writings of C. S. Peirce, 1955 p.13 

  13. Otto Friedrich Bollnow, Mensch und Raum, Stuttgart 1963, p 56 

  14. The first print of the text appeared in Italian in the magazine Controspazio #1. 1969. In 1988 it was published in English in the anthology Architecture, Meaning and Place on Electa/Rizzoli 

  15. Norberg-Schulz, Existence, Space and Architecture, Studio Vista ltd, London 1971, p.19 

  16. See the special issue of the philosophical journal Agora #4-88/1-89: "Heidegger og nazism." 

  17. Pløger, Jon, 2003, p. 30. 

  18. Norsk Form is the Foundation for Design and Architecture in Norway: 

  19. The role of Norsk Form is very close to representing an institutional securing of aesthetical norms, or as John Pløger formulated it: “… a practical staging of discursive power”. Pløger’s report, produced for NIBR (Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research) can be downloaded here: 

  20. The title means ‘Countries of the Night’. In the introduction to the book the author refers to the Italian expression used to signify the countries of the north: “Mezzanotte” – as opposed to the countries of the south _“Mezzagiorno”. 

  21. Cf. The discussion of Nattlandene, by O.M. in Arkitektnytt Nov. 1993. 

  22. The original term from Norberg-Schulz is “Grunnspråk” in Norwegian. This term is strongly German inspired as the Norwegian ‘Grunn’ is the precise equivalent to the German ‘Grund’

  23. Maalouf, Amin, Les identités meurtrières, Editions Grasset & Fasquelles, Paris 1998 

  24. Amin Maalouf, Identitet som dreper, PAX, Oslo 1999, p. 8 

  25. By 2040 SSB (Statistics Norway) expects Oslo’s population to be 47% immigrants. 


An Introduction to the translation and re-publication

This text was first written in the winter of 2004-5. A lot has happened since then, but instead of rewriting or updating the text, I have chosen to translate it in its original form, adding a couple of a posteriori reflections on the topics of the text.

1. On the weight of words

After July 22nd 2011, there has been one big white elephant present in the discussion. In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist events in Norway last summer, it was important not to point fingers. The tragedy had struck everyone, and everyone needed to deal with their grief and to avoid giving way to anger or hatred. The result is, however, that it has become almost impossible to say out loud that the terrorist was not alone. He acted alone. But his acts were carried forward on a broad flow of words, arguments and concepts. The terrorist’s attitude to a multicultural society is shared by many.

Spontaneous memorial to the victims of the 22nd July terrorist attack, Oslo.

Even though they cannot and must not be reduced to each other, there is an intimate relationship between words and acts, between thoughts and things – as there is between meaning and place.

2. On the Arbitrariness of Meaning

When Christian Norberg-Schulz set out on his quest for meaning, he was looking for the relationship between words and acts, thoughts and things, meaning and place. How does this relationship work? What is the logic of it? Is it arbitrary, or is there a code for it, an interpretant? Can we control it?

This relationship is the classical problem, not only in linguistics, but in philosophy at large – and implicitly in architecture. We form our environments in order to live as human beings in houses and cities, to make our society work, to build our culture, to make sense of everyday life. This is only possible if we master the relationship between words and acts, thoughts and things and between meaning and place.

It was, in other words, a problem of existential significance that Norberg-Schulz set out to solve in his PhD thesis Intentions in Architecture. In hindsight, the French translation of the title, “Système logique de l’architecture”, may seem more appropriate than the original title.

After Norberg-Schulz died, I have had many conversations with his associate, Anne-Marit Vagstein. I usually criticize the old giant, and she criticizes me for deliberately misinterpreting him. I wonder if our differences actually concern the relationship between the man and his ideas. This essay is dedicated to Anne-Marit Vagstein.

Ole Møystad