Genius Loci

Architect Tom Lane of Whitten Architects on the spirit of a place

“Our work begins by observing and asking what makes that place special and how can we heighten and elevate awareness of those qualities into everyday experience.”

MH+D asks Lane to tell us more.

Q. As a practicing architect, do you often draw on design history and theories?
A. Architectural design theory, as opposed to practice, has to do with observing, thinking, and writing about architecture; this kind of work is usually done by academics. Some of the material generated by this activity is required reading by students training to be architects, and most of it is left in academic books, for an academic audience, seldom revisited by practitioners. However, I think most practicing architects come across a theory or theorist that speaks to them on a personal level, and that “voice” or “attitude” becomes a way of seeing built work and a way of testing work in the design process.

Q. Can you tell us about a theory that really resonates with you?
I learned about the exotic and sophisticated sounding term genius loci in a course on Scandinavian architectural history. As used by architect, professor, and theorist Christian Norberg-Schulz, the basic idea of genius loci is that each particular place has a spirit that dwells there and gives atmosphere to the natural and built environment. This struck me as both true and mysterious.

Q. How do you go about discovering the spirit of a site?
Discovering the spirit of a particular place requires observation. At Whitten Architects, where I have practiced since 2017, I work with a group of architects who emphasize site-specific design. In practice, this means that we collect quantitative and qualitative data before any design work can begin. We visit the sites and tromp around with printed topographic surveys, flags, field stakes, and, of course, our iPhones to figure out where we are on the face of the earth. Where is the view?Where is the light? Where is the wind coming from?

I consider myself to be observant, but I recognize that I am only beginning to learn to read a site like my mentors. What I have observed is that walking onto a wooded property in Maine with principal Rob Whitten is an opportunity to learn the language and meaning of local flora, fauna, and geology. Of all the possible locations for a house, the more you can interpret the data from a site, the clearer the options become. Searching for the spirit of a place requires interpreting the same data with a more personal lens. What memory did the view conjure up? What is the quality of light? What did the wind feel like?

Q. Can you give us an example of a genius loci project you and the firm recently worked on?
While in the process of designing a home on a small lake we studied the program and functions in discrete parts on a scale model of the site topography. We discovered that a collection of small buildings best fit the scale of the lake and gave each function its own distinct views and experience. We appreciated that these buildings gave a sense of a village and enclosure around a private meadow. The detached screened porch is perched on galvanized steel columns on the edge of the woods about 100 yards away from the house.

The few pine trees that were felled to make way for the house laid on-site in a neat stack of logs. When there, we noted the contrast in color and texture between the bark and the sapwood and heartwood. The sap dripped like white frosting. These elements, each natural and purposeful, contributed to the spirit of that place; we adopted and reflected this in the treatment of the dark cedar board-and-batten siding, oiled fir boards and posts, and natural plaster interior of the home.

As a practitioner, considering the genius loci, or spirit of a place, makes the design process an interesting and surprising process of discovery. The resulting built work is derived from a particular place and is unique. Our clients appreciate the results from this way of working because the particular place where they want to build a home is always special for them.

MH+D is proud to partner with acclaimed architectural photographer Trent Bell on his architecture, design, and photography podcast. to hear bell’s conversation with Tom lane, please visit