Thoughts on Beauty (1/3) | Genius Loci


I am currently studying at the Fay Jones School of Architecture + Design at the University of Arkansas as a fifth-year student in landscape architecture.  For my ninth and final studio, I am a part of an inter-disciplinary studio including landscape architecture students, interior design students, and architecture students.  The studio is led by landscape architecture department chair and professor Ken McCown and landscape architecture Professor Scott Biehle.  This purpose of this studio is to take part in the Living Buildings Challenge.  The Living Buildings Challenge ‘is a certification program that defines the most advanced measure of sustainability—providing a framework for design, construction and the symbiotic relationship between people and all aspects of the built environment’.

The Living Buildings Challenge is organized into seven performance areas called Petals.  These Petals include Place, Water, Energy, health & Happiness, Materials, Equity, and Beauty.  I would argue that these seven areas are a fantastic way of organizing almost any design.  Although all seven Petals are complexly interconnected, I would like to spend some time thinking about the final Petal – Beauty.  

I have been fascinated with the idea beauty, even since before my days in design school.  As a child, I was fortunate to be a part of a family who prioritized traveling.  I think this was important for a number of reasons.  First, traveling exposed me from a young age to people and the places they lived that were different from home.  My parents allowed an open dialog about these differences and it helped me to understand more walks of life and be more opened minded about people.  Secondly, on our trips, we often took the road less traveled and stayed at local establishments which allowed me to have a better understanding of the regional vernacular. This was important because it expanded my thinking about concepts like place, home, environment.  These trips always left me feeling extremely fulfilled and happy.  I relished the opportunity to see new beautiful things, and I felt a renewed appreciation of home after we returned. So what was it about these beautiful places and experiences that made them beautiful?  Why were they inspiring to me, even as a child?  How can these principles be implemented in design to make things beautiful?

  **While discussing the concept of beauty, I will be viewing it through the lens of design; specifically design of the built environment and even more specifically, Landscape Architecture.  

First, I will point out that I am aware of the vast amount of literature and thinking that exists on the topic of beauty within design.  I will in no way attempt to tackle the origins or fundamentals of beauty as an architectural or philosophical concept (sorry to disappoint you if you came here for the form vs. function debate).  As I have stated before, this blog is intended for both critical thought and self-evaluation, so I will simply be grappling with what beauty means to me. 

Axiology is the study of the nature of value.  Within Axiology are sub-components of ethics and aesthetics.  I can assert that in for my purposes, beauty = a kind of value.  However, the question remains, what is value?  Valuable to whom?  How is Value represented or manifested?  I will be thinking about these axiological questions and breaking down a response broken into four parts.  

1. Genis Loci           2. Biophillia           3. Place Potential

 The Living Buildings Challenge answers some of the questions I have about beauty within the context of built design.  Instead of offering a definition, the LBC suggests a construction of building blocks beginning with Sense of Place + Communication

beauty diagram [Converted].jpg

Genus Loci

In classical Roman religion, a Genius Loci (plural genii loci) was the protective spirit of a place.  The idea of Genius Loci evolved to become a term referring to the unique and special character of a place.  The 18th century English poet Alexander Pope made the Genius Loci an important principle in garden and landscape design with the following lines:

Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.

Pope's verse laid the foundation for one of the most widely agreed upon principles of landscape architecture. This is the principle that landscape designs should be adapted to the context in which they are located.  Arguably, the most beautiful designs are rooted in place.  These designs incorporate specific value and understanding about local culture, and vernacular while also working to extenuate the spatial and material character of a place.  


In ‘Signature-Based Landscape Design’, Joan Woodward addresses relationships in the environment.  According to Woodward, relationships both natural and cultural act as signatures of place.  These signatures play a role on a regional level as indicators of function and appropriate human response.  Patterns and systems act to inform people as “artifacts of a formative process” which in turn, guides the creation of new spaces.  

The built environment differs from other forms of art in that its intention is to be inhabited.  Users of the site, may or may not understand all of the intention of the designer but can find meaning through the design.So how should users be informed about a place?  How is meaning communicated?  In his essay ‘Must Landscapes Mean?, Marc Treib examines attempts at bringing meaning into landscape design.  Treib points out several techniques and limitations for the use of meaning in the landscape as well as questioning the significance of meaning.  Trieb argues that meaning is derived not completely by a semantic dimension inscribed within the design but by an awareness of the user as a part of a greater societal whole.  According to Treib, a symbolic system of understanding that place exists inherently within the human make-up; significance and meaning exists not as an accessory to design but is ultimately created by the recipient.  This way of thinking shifts control to the user and infers restraint and a cognizant approach to design.  In my opinion, every place communicates something.  I believe that the most beautiful places, are those with a message.  Places that inspire us and educate us are places of value.