Seaside Park, Bridgeport
Sustainable Site Planning, Design and Landscape Architecture
Finding Olmsted – Genius of Place
“Genius of Place,” Olmsted’s first design principle, led me on a surprising Google journey. I fell into a rabbit hole of information as I searched through the old stand-bys like Wikipedia and Britannica, and other, more-surprising resources in order to uncover the story behind this phrase. The first revelation was that it is generally not used to describe Olmsted himself (although I do think that was Jason Martin’s intent when he titled his biography of Olmsted “Genius of Place”) but instead the genius of a particular place and how it can inform the landscape. Olmsted wrote about this as part of his philosophy of design.
My second revelation was that Olmsted did not create that phrase. As it turns out, it was Alexander Pope, a famous poet of the early 18th century, who is credited with its invention in his Epistle IV, to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington:
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.
Although I am not a poetry lover, especially in older English, I did read the entire 300-year-old poem. I felt that another verse could be written now.
To build, to plant, whatever you intend,
To rear the column, or the arch to bend,
To swell the terrace, or to sink the grot;
In all, let Nature never be forgot.
As I progressed further down the Google rabbit hole, I found the term Genius Loci referred to as the influence on Pope, who is actually credited with translating this Ancient Roman belief into a philosophy for landscape and garden design. The definition of Genius Loci is a protective spirit of a place. Britannica defined it as “the prevailing character or atmosphere of a place.” Pope defined it as Genius and Olmsted made it a driving principle in how he designed his landscapes.
Moving beyond Olmsted, there are many other translators of the Genius Loci or Genius of Place. The most extensive modern treatise was written by Norwegian architect Christian Norberg-Schulz in several books, most importantly his book titled Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture. His theory was that people had a sense of a place based on the physical as well as symbolic features that define the place, natural and manmade.
But a TED© talk I watched a few years ago by Janine Benyus, cofounder of The Biomimicry Institute, presented the most comprehensive theory on genius of place. She defined it in the context of her theory of biomimicry as “… an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.” In other words, nature is the genius and its lessons can be translated into various forms of design including industrial, product, energy, marine, architecture and landscape architecture.
The concept expressed so poetically by Pope, brilliantly by Olmsted and scientifically by Benyus is still being explored by landscape architects. In the current issue of the Connecticut Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects magazine, “The Connecticut Landscape Architect,” there is an excellent article about biomimicry and the landscape by UConn student Rubson Guimaraes. “By utilizing nature’s genius,” Guimaraes writes, “we can design in a sustainable way.” Another interesting article, Biomimicry from the Ground Up, is in November, 2016 issue of Landscape Architecture magazine by Zach Mortice. It discusses what we can learn from nature methods that can rehabilitate soil, which is the building block of every landscape.
Olmsted was a genius but he also was a student of the landscape. He incorporated the landscape’s knowledge into his designs, which continue to be vibrant and sustainable because he believed in the Genius of Place. This is our history as landscape architects -- and our future.