Danish architect Anders Barslund reflects on how modern architecture can lose touch with its surroundings. In his own work, Barslund tries to reconnect buildings with the spirit of their location, by using materials and colours suited to the environment.
The ancient Romans believed in a spirit called genius loci – the guardian spirit of a place that protected it from anybody who wished it harm. The Romans dedicated altars to it; then, over time, people stopped believing in spirits and, instead, genius loci found its way into architecture. Here, the spirit is used to describe a location’s distinctive atmosphere.
Anders Barslund first encountered the term in the early 1990s, as he attended Aarhus School of Architecture. Today, genius loci is one of the defining characteristics in his architecture firm, where he remodels old houses and designs new family homes.
‘It is about understanding the essence of a place and designing a building accordingly. Any place has its own context and a good architect will consider the surrounding environment of his or her project. However, much of modern architecture seems to have forgotten to consider the spirit of the place,’ says Barslund.
He considers this a shame, since recent studies have shown that connecting buildings to their surroundings can have health benefits – especially if the connection involves nature.
Anders Barslund has worked at big Danish architecture firms where he helped design large steel and glass structures. While he liked to work in these places, he did not feel any satisfaction from the buildings he helped to create.
‘I helped design an endless stream of glass boxes and, somewhere along the way, it became boring. Don’t get me wrong, there are many beautiful buildings made of glass and steel, but they aren’t very fun to work on – at least not to me – and it often seems as though these projects dismiss the locations on which they are built,’ Barslund says.
In 2006, he quit his job and started his own architecture firm. It felt liberating. Now, Anders Barslund designs a different kind of architecture where genius loci takes centre stage.
‘I like architecture which is designed to fit humans. When I work on a new house or remodel an old one, I can sketch out the building in size 1:100 and it fits on a piece of A3 paper; something I could never do with the large structures I worked on before. The smaller scale enables me to gain a sense of what it feels like passing from room to room and how the building merges with its environment,’ he says.
In architecture, the kind of building that is to be built is defined not only by the spirit of the place but also by the client’s wishes, since they initiated the building process. Client wishes and municipality demands can override the care for genius loci – sometimes resulting in buildings that feel out of touch with the spirit of their location.
That is rarely the case when Anders Barslund works with private clients, who wish to build a new home or to remodel their existing house.
‘I work to unite the wishes of the client with the spirit of the building site. I find common ground between the two, which can help me create even better architecture. I do as much as I can to fulfil my client’s wishes, while insisting on reconnecting their home with the surrounding site,’ Barslund says.
To Anders Barslund, this also entails using a colour palette that suits the next-door buildings and the surrounding nature. He tries to bring the feel of nature into the building thereby weaving the connection between inside and outside as close as possible.
‘I am very aware of the tools I have as an architect – be it in sketching or dealing with clients. And when I think back to my time at the School of Architecture in Aarhus, I believe caring about genius loci is one of the most important tools I have brought with me.’