Today I will introduce to you a bizarre and mischievous genie: the genius loci. A friend of poets and storytellers, to the architect he may be the key to heaven or the lobby of hell.
When architecture vibrates in its context, highlighting the unique characters of the site and being magnified in exchange, we are there and then in the presence of the genius of the place, which the author has been able to recognize and activate.
The celebrated Fallingwater House by FLW, the Casa Malaparte in Capri by Adalberto Libera, the Casa Canoas by Oscar Niemeyer, are outstanding examples of buildings that, far from being mimetic, grasp the essence of the site where they are – I would say , rather than built – laid.
Not only the natural places possess a powerful genius: the glass pyramid by Pei, in the center of the center of Paris, is an example of aggressive intervention in a super-consolidated, high-rejection-risk site; yet, thanks to the typically French ease of the genius loci of the Louvre, the graft is very successful, and is still amazing and moving more than twenty years later.
The genius loci is the stratification of all energies, whether natural or manufactured, which inhabited a certain place since the origin of time: the huge forces that have shaped the topography, the rivers that have carved valleys, the trees that grew and the birds that laid on their branches. And then the men who worked that land, who built walls and roads and buildings and temples. And those who were born and died, and the loves and intrigues, and the sunset on windows and roofs inspiring poets and lovers generation after generation. That all is the memory of a place, and it is invisible and secret. Yet it can be revealed. We will never know, of course, who did or thought what and when; but we can feel that someone in a certain time has looked at the same scene that we are now watching and felt something vaguely similar to what we are experiencing now. This is the genius loci.
For those who can read the memory of the places the design process is the reconstruction of a puzzle, the discovery of the murderer in a crime novel, the plot of a drama. The design collects all the traces picked up by the author one by one, and gives them back in a poetic form, readable to the observer through the vocabulary of his own personal memory, which functions as a decryption key of the hidden references, otherwise incomprehensible. In the corners of the floor and steps of the stairs of Castelvecchio in Verona, in the bridge and the edges of the garden of the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice, are trapped the ghosts of nobles and servants who inhabited those rooms and who have entrusted Carlo Scarpa’s talent to be presented to the perception of the mindful observer.
In most cases, however, this just doesn’t happen. The genius loci, not understood, is offended by the transformations produced by the senseless and insensitive pencil of the ignorant architect on the white sheet, and transferred into reality by bulldozers, as if the whole world were a clean board offered to his vanity. Then the genius loci gets angry and hides, but continues to record everything. From now on, all grace is denied to that place until the wound is healed.
Sometimes, an attentive architect comes across an offended and saddened place. To awaken the spirit of that place and to restore its dignity and happiness becomes an exciting challenge with uncertain outcome. There is the risk, if it works, to create a masterpiece.
How can we perceive, awaken or enhance the place? First of all, we must learn to see inside ourselves, and from there to find something (if existing) that will sound in the eye of the inhabitant or visitor passing by. He will travel back the path that brought us to that design, and find, starting from the signs that we have left, the meanings that precede the architecture and inspired it.
We don’t have to do all this; we can just as well respect the fire regulations and anti-seismic requirements, and we’ll be given the building permit; but if we do, we make a nice gift to ourselves and to the world.
Cover: Guy Debord, The Naked City, 1958