Genius Loci – ‘the spirit of place’

by Mark

The concept of ‘spirit of place’ (genius loci) has held my interest for some time.  I am a regional architect, born in country NSW and, having practised on the east coast for 30 years, I am inspired by the unique environment of the region and resist the ubiquitous effects of globalisation.

During a recent trip to Los Angeles I stumbled across the cathedral seemingly looming out of the ground, it’s earthy tones glowing in the late afternoon sun. The fact that this magnificent structure was designed by a Spanish architect, Rafael Moneo, challenged my precept that architecture is best done by an architect ‘of the place’.

Captivated by the presence of Our Lady of the Angels, I explored the courtyard and the interior.  The internal space resonated with the overall aesthetic.  A seamless transition from the shadow inducing splayed off-form concrete of the exterior to a smooth version of the same clay coloured material.  Moneo deftly combines aesthetics with functionality to create airy interiors that inspire culture and enliven the spirit.  He used two essential truths to guide his design – the first was to seek the light of God and the second to have a sense of journey.







The depth to which Moneo understood the ‘spirit of place’ was apparent a short 15-minute walk from the cathedral. There I found the oldest house in LA, Avila Adobe, a hacienda with thick mud brick walls built in in 1818.  It was faithfully restored as a memorial to the ranchers of Spanish decent that established the original Los Angeles, then known as “The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels”.

Although the cathedral is at a scale as far as you could imagine from this humble cottage, the link to the history of LA was unmistakeable not only in the contemporary interpretation of adobe construction but also in the honest simplicity of the building.

Moneo achieved his ambition of incorporating history into the cathedral reaffirming his belief that the design of a building depends entirely on its location, the history of the place and its function into the future.

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