Note: The following entry is the result of the reflection I’ve had at end of last year about why each settlement makes us feel -through the environment- something specific and different to our place of origin. While writing, it was then that I resorted to research and found people and concepts (such as Genius Loci) that many years ago raised ideas similar to mine. I am amazed and I feel somewhat… uninformed.
“Whoso hurries unduly will never catch the genius loci of those regions”.
– Peter Ackroyd. English biographer, novelist and critic.
I have been walking the same route for several months to go to work in the mornings. I consider myself a person who likes to vary the obligatory daily walk to get from point A to point B. But lately this habit is the exception when it comes to the fork that is in the alley outside my house. Imagine my house is up on a hill. There are two ways to get to the main street (which is downhill): (1) Walking down the alley where my house is located or (2) walking down the alley parallel to mine. I think a lot of my decision about walking every morning through option (1) is thanks to the language contained in that route. A language? Put another way: The coherent way in which the Environmental Design transmits a visual and spatial language to be interpreted by humans.
To continue, I would like to outline to you what Environmental Design is in this context:
It is the ordering of the physical environment by means of architecture, engineering, construction, landscape architecture, urban design, and city planning.
If I walk downhill any of the alleys does not save me time traveling one or the other. Nor do I get tire of walking one alley or the other. Actually my choice has been the result of a matter of language and visual delight. The environmental design in my alley greets me every morning kindly and good looking, wishing me a good day at work. When I open the door to the exit, the first thing I see is my neighbor, Mr. Treetrunk (my neighbor’s trunk of a dead tree); Then always at the same hour I see a lady feeding in unconventional ways to the birds (that lady has the strange habit of drawing figures on the floor using the bird’s food as a brush; And at the end of the alley a jacaranda and an orange tree that serve as exit portal. When crossing that portal there’s a building that stands vigilantly up on the hill. That building is the handsome part of my daily journey, it is who communicates “the final verse of the alley”.
That architectural work has always evoked me vigor and vigilance. In addition I have several memories of that building: There I captured my first Pikachu playing Pokémon Go; I’ve witnessed incredible plays and concerts and it is one of the host buildings of the city’s film festival, where I helped my father to coordinate the installations staff, booths, scenographies and scenarios.
While writing this new post I researched a bit about its history and surprisingly discovered that it was designed by Abraham Zabludovsky… 2 years seeing this building every morning and never had an idea that the architect was one of the most symbolic in my country (I will eventually write about him and his importance). This discovery only reaffirmed my thoughts about language, emotions and the environment. It is as if the architect Abraham has been commissioned to create the verses that embellish the landscape of this place. I thought: This guy is a poet… a poet in the architecture. He’s responsible of many impressions in the people who sees that landscape.
The concept that will help us to better relate environmental design, language and architecture is Genius Loci:
In ancient Rome people spoke about the Genius Loci or Spirit of Place to refer to the spirit that would protect towns or other populated areas, acting as the town’s Genius. This term was adopted by late 20th century architects to describe the identifying qualities or emotional experience of a place (Remember when I said that building evoked to me vigor and vigilance?). Some call designing to the concept of Genius Loci placemaking, that is, creating memorable or unique experiences in a designed space. Genius Loci can be built through manipulations in lighting, shadows, spatial organization, and the size of spaces… Knowing this can help designers, storytellers, and creators of worlds reinforce their practices when creating cities or environments.
A Norwegian architect said:
“The spaces where life occurs are places… A place is a space which has a distinct 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. Architecture means to visualize the genius loci and the task of the architect is to create meaningful places, whereby he helps man to dwell.”
-Christian Norberg-Schulz. Architect and architectural theorist.
Norberg-Schulz’ substantive interest is in architecture and its intentions. He argues that it is not enough for architects to make practical towns and buildings. Architecture has to concretize Genius Loci, and he suggest that this is done by creating buildings which gather the properties of the place and help people to dwell poetically and to know how they belong to a place…
If you pay enough attention as you walk the routes from point A to point B, you will always discover hidden stories that are narrated by the environment. You will notice that there will always be an embellished, rhythmic and directional communication. If you hurry unduly you will never catch the Genius Loci of those regions, thus you’d be missing out on landscapes and stories. It does not matter if the environment was built by architects or by ordinary people, it is possible that certain districts, regions, buildings or neighborhoods can actively modify the behavior of people who live or habit in them. This will last even though the civilization or society that lives there disappears. It is probably a matter of influence of nature and the environment in our psychology. In fact… I feel very attracted to people who enjoys a walk in the park, a hiking or a time to meditate when walking.
To be continued…
In the second part of this post I will tell you about what I discovered while walking down a street in the city of Vancouver, B.C. The discovery of a book recommended by Joel Burgess (World Director in Ubisoft), and the applications that may have to know about patterns of this type of language in the creation of a virtual or fictitious world in disciplines like the Environmental Design or the Level Design in video games. Just remember, I’m not a designer, I just like to share about topics I love. I’m sure you can apply widely anything you can learn from this writings.