The Guggenheim Museum Forum is hosting a conversation this week titled "Genius loci". It's a online panel discussion about ideas that relate to place and the spirit of place, and a live blog event today at 2 PM. I encourage you to take a look, enjoy and maybe even comment, there, or here, if you are so inclined.
In the first couple of days of conversation an idea was floated by the moderator Jeffrey Kastner, writer and senior editor of Cabinet magazine. Kastner commented that the concept can have both a top-down and bottom-up connotation.
As I understand it, the 'top-down' quality has to do with the idea of each place having a spirit - like a guardian for the locale. The 'bottom-up' aspect has to do with the way that the place acquires a sensibility which we refer to in the generalized term 'spirit'. I find this to be an interesting idea. I have not ever considered 'spirit of place' as referring to a guardian angel that city or place might have.
I've always thought of 'spirit of place' as referring to the the energy of a place, not even necessarily spiritual exactly, but more broad, incorporating the way people think, the way the buildings are arranged, the way people use their parks, the energy that is given out by the place and also the inhabitants of it.
I was intrigued by a comment made by one of the participants in the Guggenheim conversation, artist Bani Abidi, who spent time in Chicago. She received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Abidi makes her home in Karachi. She said she feels that the idea of "spirit of place" might be striving for something 'essentialist', meaning, as I understand it, that she feels the effort is a bit derivative. This is an interesting caution to have in mind when trying to put a finger on something broad like 'Spirit of Place'. It's worthwhile to think about broad ideas, but also worthwhile to try to be specific.
What do you think? If Chicago had a spirit, what would its guardian angel be? And, if you had to put your finger on it, what defines Chicago's 'spirit of place'? It's the city of big shoulders, it's the Windy City, but those terms somehow seem a little diminishing of the fullness of this amazing city.