When we urban designers start to design a site, we will generally be required to understand the place at the very early stage. However, what shall we look at? what should be experienced from the site?
Refer to these questions, Christian Norberg-Schultz (in Larice and MaCdonald (ed.), 2013 (2nd)) used Georg Trakl`s (1914) poem “A Winter Evening”:
“When the snow falls against the window,
The evening bell rings long,
The table is prepared for many,
And the house is well cultivated.
Some in their wanderings
Come to the gate on dark paths.
The tree of grace blooms golden
From the earth’s cool sap.
Wanderer, step silently inside;
Pain has petrified the threshold.
There in pure radiance
Bread and wine glow upon the table.”
This poem using the daily used items and words such as the “house”, “path”, “Tree” to represent a imaginary place. Norberg-Schultz believes that in this phenomenon, the identification between private and public is blur as the private insides are also part of public outsides. The private and public is thus produces a public totality. Based on such understanding, the structure of a place could be simplified as “landscape” and “settlement”, which, in other words, is “space” and “character”. Norberg-Schultz summarises these as genius loci, which could also be understood as the identity of the area.
Refer to our reality, when we start doing a project. understanding the area always require a detailed observation and direct feeling. In terms of observations, a wide range of settlements are needed such as building types, materials, resources distribution, topography, water, trees and so on. Direct feelings could be lifestyle, how people talk, activities, views from different angles and so on. These elements and information collected could help us to build up a genius loci. Genius loci is not necessarily to be changed with the physical changes of local settlement, it is the identity of the area. Therefore, it is important to put genius loci in priority as it is always where our design concept comes from.
Norberg-Schultz, C., “The Phenomenon of Place”, in Larice, M., and MaCdonald, E (ed), 2013, “The Urban Design Reader (2nd)“, Routledge: London
Trakl, G., 1914, “A Winter Evening“[Online], Available at: http://www.lochravenreview.net/retrospectives/georgtrakl/traklS17.html [Accessed at 17th May 2015].