To live in a city is to live in two places at once. The physical city of roads, buildings, parks, and related infrastructure. This is where work live, eat, and play on a daily (and routine) basis. It is the world of planners, politicians and developers. Hovering beside the physical city is the contextual city. It is the realm of people: citizens, residents and visitors. It is what gives cities their ‘life’ and directly shapes our urban experience.
Each city has a unique ‘spirit of place,’ or a distinctive atmosphere, that goes beyond the built environment. This urban context reflects how a city functions in ‘real time’ as people move through time and space. Viewed through this lens, the architecture and physical infrastructure of a city give way to the rhythms of the passing of the day and transition of the seasons. This provides the ‘temporal spectacles’ that define a city.
This context of a city is more formally known as ‘genius loci,’ or the genetic footprint of a place. Latin for ‘the genius of the place,’ this phrase refers to classical Roman concept of the protective spirit of a place. In contemporary usage, genius loci usually refers to a location’s distinctive atmosphere, or the afore-mentioned ‘spirit of place,’ rather than a guardian spirit.
The concept of genius loci falls within the philosophical branch of ‘architectural phenomenology.’ This field of architectural discourse is most notably explored by the theorist Christian Norberg-Schulz in his book, Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture.