Genius Loci and the Childhood Home

A personal interpretation of the book by the German philosopher Christian Norberg – Schulz through a look at my family house.


It is no coincidence that all of the examples of phenomenology in architecture that spring to mind when forced to search for them are from our personal and collective past. Although hard to grasp and explain through words, these ideas and concepts are instantly recognisable to anyone who ever went to a religious ceremony in an ancient temple or old church, played on the streets between the facades of edging houses, or visited their grandparent’s house. In “Genius Loci”, Christian Norberg – Schulz describes how man’s relationship to the “concrete environmental properties” takes shape during childhood, when man develops “perceptual schemata” that will “determine all future experiences” and interactions with the surroundings. There is little wonder then as to why our deepest memories of space, starting from when we first started exploring it, hold such a power. In “Thinking Architecture”, Peter Zumthor begins his spatial exploration by describing his aunt’s house as a young boy. All senses are used in expressing the feel of the place to his readers: smell, sounds, light, are all helping to form a picture of this place, but the sense of touch is probably the most important:

“Sometimes I can almost feel a particular door handle in my hand, a piece of metal shaped like the back of a spoon”.

The sense of touch also takes centre stage in the process of designing as theorised by Juhani Pallasmaa. In his books and lectures, Pallasmaa talks about the paramount importance of touch in creating architecture. Tactile designing has a strong correlation to phenomenology, he explains, as feeling with one’s hands is needed to create real architectural richness. He argues that with the now ubiquitous digital design tools and electronic imagery, architecture has lost its connection to man. Although there are some great contemporary examples, all of my thoughts when concerned with phenomenology and genius loci gravitate towards my grandparents’ house in Draganesti, Prahova County, Romania; a very personal piece of architecture, built by the hands of family members, most of whom I met personally only by touching the rippled, undulating walls of this house.

“The architectural scale and detailing are unavoidably products and projections of the maker’s body and hands”. J. Pallasmaa

Draganesti village sits somewhere beyond the realm of Google Street View, in between plots of agricultural land, cut right through by a main road. Opening up Google Maps to try and find this house for the first time, I realised that it is impossible to forget the local topography, landmarks of landscape and the way to reach it by car. And there it was, looking so alien from above, a clearly delimitated patch. In my childhood, the place looked like it had no beginning or end. As the main road splits into a Y-shaped crossing, my family’s cars would swerve right unto an unpaved road, with dust rising behind the wheels. The house sits immediately on the right. My uncle would park the car on the dusty road in front of it before unlocking the gates of the courtyard. There was a small bridge over the stream that went all the way along the road, but the bridge was low and with grass growing all over, as if part of the landscape: “The boundary is that, from which something begins its presencing”. The big gates would form an arc into the grass as they were opened. Nobody lived here during the week; my family would only come during weekends. After pulling the cars in, we rarely bothered to close the gates. One evening, a cow got confused on the way back from the fields and, straying from its place in the row, entered our courtyard to the sound of me screaming for my grandfather to kick the beast out. This was the only unwelcome intruder who did not recognise the unmistakable metal gates with layers of peeling paint.

The building was divided into two parts. The frontal part, almost a century old, has just missed out on being put on the list of heritage monuments in the village. Facing the road, it had a long porch with a concave clay floor, heavy stones for steps in the middle, and rough timber columns holding the roof up in the subtle style of Romanian village architecture. On the porch, my grandfather installed a small swing for me. It would squeak with every movement, and my feet would gather smoking red dust when I would try to stop to get off. The inside contained three rooms through which you could move freely like through train carriages. The only narrow corridor, leading up from the main doors and stone steps, was practically a middle room. It was furnished with a black and white television set (in the early 90’s) that only badly broadcasted the national television channel, around which we would sometimes gather to watch the news or some football match. The second part, out the back, comprised of the newer additions: a sleeping chamber with a straw bed and the kitchen, along with a couple of storage spaces and sheds. These newer rooms, poorly made with thinner walls, retained the summer heat so much it was unbearable to spend more than a few hours inside. I cannot recall the exact arrangement of the spaces in this area, just that these later additions formed a smaller semi-enclosed space with the original building – a courtyard within a courtyard – where we would gather around a wooden table to eat. Edging this small courtyard was also a tiny water well. We used the cold water for washing, but my grandfather was the only one allowed to actually drink from the stone well. To me, this was proof of his strength and magical powers of conquering nature. Beyond these outbuildings there was a vinery, a small forest-like untamed part and a great variety of allotments and, at the very back, the rear boundary, established by a huge field of corn, the leaves of which would cut your skin if you ran through its rows without long sleeves.

The secret of the old house’s ability to keep cool during summer – as opposed to the new kitchen – lied in its thick adobe wall construction. The bulging exterior walls had the appearance of a natural object, and were broad enough to even make a home for a small groundhog. Its connection to the ground was so intense, it looked as if the red earth simply sprung up like it was forming a clay mountain, with the only man made intervention being the whitewashing. There was no skirting or visual plinth. With time, cracks would appear along the height of these walls. That was when my grandfather would call the local gypsy family, specialists in traditional adobe wall construction, to come and patch it up with another layer of clay, dung and straw. This mix would be made by hand, and applied to the existing wall using only minimal tools. The children of the gypsy family also helped with this, forging an intimate, tactile relationship with every house in the village. As Norberg – Schulz writes, “A phenomenology of place […] has to comprise the basic modes of construction and their relationship to formal articulation. […] The things thereby <> the environment and make its character manifest”.

Other than the well, this original train carriage-like house was the other fascinating piece of building. This is where my recollections coincide with those of Zumthor and show, again, how tactile memories of the surrounding are so deeply imprinted into raw minds. Going from room to room, I vividly remember how you had to open and close the small wooden doors by holding a strange metal handle that blatantly presented its working mechanism to the user. There was no hidden latches or deadbolts like the door handles of our city flat: here, the latchboat, obviously going up and down by my moving of the handle, would gently sit on top of the exterior strike which had a little raised part to stop it from escaping.

Inside the rooms, the layers of carpets and wall hangings deafened the sounds. There were no creaking wooden floors: the cold adobe floor made only a silent thump when running across it. In the dead of night, while trying to fall asleep, I would listen to the sound of cars whizzing past on the main road. It seemed distant and alien, as there was no echo inside. The small single pane windows and fragile curtains filtered the light from the headlamps coming through.

As it was always open for air to flow through, the distinction between outside and inside, landscape and settlement, was hard to notice. Norberg – Schulz talks about “extension and enclosure” when establishing the differentiation between landscape and settlements but to me, as a child, these boundaries between the figure ground and the field were so blurred that they seemed more like making the connection smoother rather than separating the two realms – but without losing its identity, as the philosopher suggests. The adobe floored porch felt like the ground outside, while the cracks between the timber panels in the doors would let light and sound through easily. As Norberg – Schulz describes, this was a house “organically related to the environment […] where the environmental character is condensed”. Continuing on from that, the book outlines the concept of enclosure as a “centre” or “focus” from which space extends. This was indeed evident in the village house, as the adjoining spaces expanded in the horizontal direction. The horizontal aspect seemed paramount to the development of the settlement. Everything in Draganesti village, and my house, seemed to have a strong connection to the earth. It was there in the horizontal arrangements of houses and rooms, the material used for building, the low bridges above the mostly dry streams and in the endless flat agricultural fields. The concrete electric posts were the only vertical elements, but even they seemed to only emphasise the horizontality of the settlement by their countless number of parallel black wires and cables, which expanded during the summer months almost to touch the ground. Similarly, the trees bowed under the heavy foliage, their branches forming dens with the ground. On such a flat landscape, the sky and land looked infinite under the scorching sun.

“Buildings are […] related to their environment by resting on the ground and rising towards the sky”. Christian Norberg – Schulz

Although we only used the house as a holiday retreat, the minimal facilities ensured that our connection to the surroundings went very deep. Eating outside meant that we got no break from the hungry village cats, as well as the many flies buzzing in the low planes of Draganesti. The only signifier of class hegemony between us city people and the villagers surfaced when my aunt would want to sunbathe in the main courtyard facing the road. The only local tanned skin in the village showed the marks of the field-working attire, rather than the bikini.

When our mind is struggling to find newer experiences of phenomenology in architecture, it is likely because of how buildings are now being made. But perhaps, as Norberg – Schulz theorises, it also has something to do with how a child’s mind perceives and records the spaces around.

After my grandparents became too old, as I was growing up, we stopped visiting the house on weekends. Maintenance trips also ceased after a few years. I returned there only many years later with my mum, as my parents, uncles and the other descendants were trying to decide what to do with the land. I found most of the house has collapsed, with weeds growing everywhere. Perhaps not surprisingly, the roof that caved in was not the one of the old house, but that of the kitchen and sleeping chamber. Strangely, I now saw the courtyard and buildings as unbelievably small compared to how I remembered them, as if they could just fit into my palms. The elements were still there: the stone water well, the adobe walls, the wooden doors, but it was as though the character of the place was destroyed along with its hearth.

“The buildings bring the earth as the inhabited landscape close to man”.

The settlement had returned to landscape.

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