Architecture occupies a unique and unrepeatable location on the land where it is built. This condition suggests an inherent connection between architecture and place. At this point, place must be understood as a concept that goes beyond the dictionary definition of site, which limits itself to the “area of ground on which a building is constructed”. A place encompasses the local conditions of site, but also refers to the intangible aspects of a given context. This allows a place to become an acting force in the construction of a people’s identity.
Place has been acknowledged since the dawn of civilization, as people in Predynastic Egypt aligned temples with solar paths and other natural features after identifying a relation between the forces of nature and specific gods (Weston, 2011, p. 80). The Romans later coined the idea of the genius loci, which in their mythology was a spirit that protected a certain place (Vogler and Vittori, 2006, p. 7). The term would later be translated as ‘the spirit of the place’ and used to refer to the “physical atmosphere or environmental quality supposedly embedded in the locality” (Weston, 2011, p. 80). This meant that every place has its own set of characteristics that defines its physicality as well as its perception. Such perception gives way to a sense of place, which has to do with being able to identify one’s location and consciously relate to a place identity (Wellborn, 1966, p. 1).
In 1731, the English poet Alexander Pope, wrote: “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” (Oxford Reference, 2019). Thereafter, the urge to respond to the place through design has been present in architectural history. For example, Frank Lloyd Wright searched for an American identity and found in the Midwest a place to materialize the Prairie Houses, enhancing the singularity of its broad landscape. In Mexico, the use of the vernacular in Luis Barragán’s work also suggests a sense of place. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown would move away from the pure glass box to an architecture that was more rooted to its context and that contained symbolism that could relate to people’s daily life. Aldo Rossi would then argue that “the city was an organic work of art, the rhythms, history, and context of which must be respected in any new architectural endeavor” (Hörnqvist, 2004). This Post-modern view, in which the reading of the context was important in the design process of architecture, revived the concept of place after its apparent death during Modernism.
Today, one cannot talk about a building without referring to the singularities of the place where it is located. It is place which must define architecture in order to build identity in an ever-globalizing, hyper-connected, and more generic world. Through materiality, orientation, building techniques, space configuration, and other context-responding strategies, architects have the possibility of enhancing the qualities of a place with their work. Such architecture is sensible and is charged with a sense of belonging, which at the end contributes to the reinforcement or construction of local identity.
Hörnqvist, M. (2004). Robert Venturi, Aldo Rossi and post-modern architecture. Retrieved from: http://www2.idehist.uu.se/distans/ilmh/pm/pm-venturi-rossi.htm
Oxford Reference. (2019). Genius loci. Oxford University Press. Retrieved from: https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095847893
Wellborn, C. (1966). The Sense of Place in Architecture. Retrieved from: https://scholarship.rice.edu/bitstream/handle/1911/89507/RICE0537.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
Weston, R. (2011). 100 Ideas that Changed Architecture. Laurence King: London.
Vogler, A., and Vittori, A. (2006). Genius Loci in the Space-Age. Retrieved from: http://www.architectureandvision.com/av/download/vision/061123_PP_GeniusLociintheSpace-Age.pdf