Embracing the Spirit of the Place
The ancient Romans called it “Genius Loci”, my American architect friend pronounces it “Geeneus Lokay”, most European architects know it as “the spirit of the place” – the essential elements of any particular location that define it, in the past, right now and looking forward into the future – a sort of aura that protects the place.
In my role leading the early concept phases of projects for ReardonSmith, I am frequently asked to take a tranche of virgin land and envision a hotel or villas or an entire resort community on the site. Sadly, we only have to look at swathes of the Mediterranean coastline, redeveloped in the last quarter of the 20th Century, to see the barbarity of what architects and their clients can commit. Mile upon mile of dystopian development that shattered the harmony of its location and ignored architectural and cultural heritage when it was built and which is now out-of-date, probably in a poor state or repair and possibly abandoned because visitors have moved onto the newest shiny building. I have to believe that there is another way. Given that it’s very likely that resorts will be located in attractive locations, surely the opportunity for the architect is to celebrate what nature and history have created over the centuries, not destroy it.
We always begin our masterplanning work with a commitment to understanding, respecting, preserving and relating to the location’s specific qualities and energy. We are always more than happy to hear that our buildings are thought to “sink into the hillside” or “can barely be glimpsed” through the vegetation. This philosophy now has the sustainability agenda on its side. While the notion of eco-travel is seriously flawed considering the emissions each one of us generates in reaching our holiday hideaways, as architects we can at least plan and detail our schemes to mitigate the damage and we can insist upon designing for longevity. Far from reducing the quality of the leisure experience, such an approach increases visitors’ sense of well-being and the fond memories they will take away with them – the perfect sunset views from the bedroom window because the hotel has been carefully oriented, the easy yet intriguing walks through the village because thought has been given to place legibility, the sights and sounds of exotic local birds way above in the undisturbed tree canopy. Three things seem clear to me: the desire to travel and explore is natural in human beings, that this uses more of our planet’s depleting energy supply than we can really justify and that this means designing within, and with, the spirit of the place is more important than ever.
It also means an exciting journey of discovery for the architect, one that takes him or her to some fascinating places, both literally and figuratively. However, I don’t think I would go as far as some Japanese counterparts. I was once involved in a large masterplanning competition in Kuala Lumpur. We arrived at the site in good time to find that the Japanese team had already spent a night there, sleeping on the ground to feel the vibes and experience the energy flows despite knowing that this was contaminated land with open sewage running through it. I’m in awe of their commitment but I think I will stick to more congenial ways of tapping into Genius Loci!