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Friday25 July 2014

Building a Library 50: Genius Loci by Christian Norberg-Schulz

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Robert Harbison picks 50 books that should feature in any architectural library.

Genius loci: Towards the Phenomenology of Architecture
By Christian Norberg-Schulz, 1979

Here I am at the end of a journey through 50 books, which hasn’t crept up on me unawares, and yet… by now surely no one is thinking of the series as a definitive survey, and yet I can’t help thinking of other books I might have chosen, and of less imperfect culminations than Genius Loci, which defines architecture as “a concretisation of existential space”.

I want to save this writer from himself: his homage to Heidegger at the beginning is embarrassing, and his attempt to set his work on a firm philosophical basis is a mistake, but the book is invaluable for three central chapters about places, Prague, Khartoum and Rome.

His choices aren’t explained. There’s no reason we couldn’t have ten instead of just three. The idea of Place is the key thing. Maybe DH Lawrence or Zbigniew Herbert are better writing about place, but no one has equalled Norberg-Schulz in showing how you might view a whole complicated urban settlement as one place, seating it deeply in its landscape and telling how its buildings belong to its soil.

None of the three treatments is predictable, but the most remarkable is Khartoum. Norberg-Schulz describes persuasively a place that is hardly there to western eyes, consisting of three distinct parts distant from each other and from the converging rivers, two branches of the Nile that meet at Khartoum.

His idea of an order founded on separation is a wonderful bit of letting go, but the real tour de force is his treatment of the colonial city, planned by Kitchener using the Union Jack as a template.

It just happens that the diagonals of the flag coincide with the qibla angle with which all mosques here must be aligned. For once the alien geometry calls forth unexpected harmonies.

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