Happy Independence Day
Join Now
The Future Of Design
Explore & Enjoy!!!

Genius Loci: 'Spirit of a Place'

Posted by
on May 06, 2014 at 01:25 PM

Many ancient cultures reverberate with similar concepts. Access to knowledge was limited; much of the society was therefore in darkness. Originating from day-to-day living, experiences and tales narrated from generation to generation, these concepts emerged and evolved, over time. Different countries/regions, cultures/civilizations have varied interpretations of an essentially identical thought process or belief system. In case of land and buildings, a generic belief prevalent amongst all cultures is the existence of a ‘spirit’ of the place. Present-day architecture does discuss a 'sense of place'; but have we been able to understand and retain the 'spirit of a place'?

© Courtesy of sources & research

The term ‘genius loci’ is an ancient Roman belief suggesting that each place has its own guardian spirit; this spirit gives life to people and places, accompanies them from birth to death and determines their character. Although places may change and so do structures; their ‘genius loci’ remains the same. Therefore, even time cannot cancel the ‘genius loci’; as a result of which places preserve their identity. In Roman religious iconography, the genius loci was often depicted as a figure holding attributes such as a cornucopia, libation bowl or snake. 

In ancient Indian architecture and scriptures, ‘Genius Loci’ manifests as the Vastu Purusha Mandala - an indispensable part of the science of building, which constitutes the mathematical and diagrammatic basis for generating design. It is the metaphysical plan of a building that also incorporates the presence of supernatural forces. Purusha refers to energy, power, soul or cosmic man. Mandala is the generic name for any plan or chart which symbolically represents the cosmos.


The Vastu Purusha is the presiding deity of any site. Usually he is depicted as lying on it with the head in the northeast and legs in the southwest but he keeps changing position throughout the year. Vastu shastra prescribes desirable characteristics for sites and buildings based on flow of energy. The morning sun is considered especially beneficial and purifying however the sun does not play a specific role in the Vaastu shastras. Energy is primarily considered as emanating from the ‘brahmasthan’ or center of the building. This energy is a mixture of Vaastu energy, which is subtle energy from the earth, and Vastu energy which is subtle energy from Consciousness itself. Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space are the five elements or ‘panch mahabhoota’ that remain at the core of the science.

Spirit of place (or soul) refers to the unique, distinctive and cherished aspects of a place; often those celebrated by artists and writers, but also those cherished in folk tales, festivals and celebrations. It is thus as much in the invisible weave of culture (stories, art, memories, beliefs, histories) as it is the tangible physical aspects of a place; such as monuments, boundaries, rivers, woods, architectural style, rural crafts, styles, pathways,or its interpersonal aspects (the presence of relatives, friends, kindred spirits, and the like).

From macro to micro, all ‘places’ are said to have their own spirits. A city has its genius loci, as does a building. Guardian spirits are also seen in the form of tutelary deities. A tutelary is a deity or spirit who is a guardian, patron or protector of a particular place, geographic feature, lineage, nation, culture, community or occupation. An individual too may be said to have a guardian spirit, the personal deity who protects him/her from birth to death. 

Historically, in many cultures, tutelary deities of places are seen. The Capitoline Triad of Juno, Jupiter and Minerva were tutelaries of Rome. In Greece, Athena is said to be the tutelary of Athens. Native American religion has zoomorphic tutelaries, or power animals. In many African cultures, tutelaries appear as totems around villages. Chinese folk religion includes a myriad of tutelary deities such as Guan Yuis, from the Three Kingdoms period. In Korean Shamanism, two figures were worshipped as deities and placed at the edge of villages to frighten off demons. Thai provincial capitals have tutelary citypillars and palladiums. The guardian spirit of a house is known as Chao Thi or Phra Phum, with a miniature shrine placed in the home for worshipping this spirit. Tibetan Buddhism has Yidam as a tutelary deity. Dakini is the patron of those who seek knowledge. In Hinduism, tutelary deities (ishta-devata) are known as Kuldevi or Kuldeva. Gramadevata are guardian deities of villages. Devas can also be seen as tutelary. Shiva is said to be the patron tutelary of yogis and saints. 

However, in contemporary usage, the term genius loci usually refers to a location's distinctive atmosphere, rather than a guardian spirit. Often the term ‘spirit of the place’ is applied to a rural or a relatively unspoiled or regenerated place; whereas the very similar term 'sense of place' would seem more applicable for domestic, urban or suburban spaces. For instance, one could logically apply 'sense of place' to an urban high street; the architecture, width of the roads and pavements, shop-fronts, street furniture and so on, but cannot really talk about the 'spirit of place' of such an essentially urban and commercial environment. Modern architecture and design does dwell on the ‘sense of place’ but somehow has forgone the ‘spirit of place’.

Share your thoughts

(required) Characters Left 500