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The spirit of place

in a
multicultural society
On how Christian Norberg-Schulz
developed place into a basic
concept in architecture, and the
use of that concept as an
instrument of national
cultural policy
By Ole Mystad

Published 24 Aug, 2012 Share

Ole Mystad is Professor at the Department of

Architectural Design and Management at the
Norwegian University of Science and
Technology in Trondheim.

The concept of 'place' has

become firmly established in
the understanding of
architecture within Norway,
and even in the building
legislation, within the past two
or three decades. How do we
build places that are not only
good, but meaningful?
Ole Mystad has looked at
how Christian Norberg-Schulz
worked to define meaning in
architecture, an effort that
culminated in the concept of
But there is a
contradiction between the
accepted definition of the
homely and the demands of an
increasingly mobile and multi-
cultural society. Mystad
points to significant
uncomfortable knots in
Norberg-Schulz's work, knots
that remain crucial theoretical
challenges for
Norwegian architecture.

In 1993, the Norwegian Ministry of

the Environment issued a guide to
Place Analysis. The guide was
supplemented by four booklets
containing four sample analyses. The
guide and the sample cases
demonstrated a phenomenological
approach, based on the Concept of
Place as formulated by Christian
Norberg-Schulz and established by
him as a foundational concept of
architectural phenomenology. The
guide recommends that all Norwegian
towns and municipalities base their
planning- and urban design processes
on an initial Place Analysis; explicitly
stating that Political guidelines for
later project assessment and
development within the plan can be
based on the Place Analysis. In the
following I will discuss why and how
Norberg-Schulz developed his
Concept of Place, and how it has been
put to use.
The Concept of Place was
developed as an answer to the
question of meaning: what is meaning,
and how do we build meaningful
environments? This is a semiotic
question, a question of how
something can stand for something
else. 1 How can a building be both a
physical object and a cultural
meaning at the same time, and what
is the nature of the relationship
between the object and its meaning, if
such a relationship exists? Do
architects control, or even influence,
what cultural meanings they produce
when they make buildings, cities
and places?
In order to understand the
background for the Concept of Place,
we need to adopt a semiotic
perspective. This will allow us to trace
how Norberg-Schulz went about
relating meaning to object. First he
adopted the concept of Intention,
then he introduced his own version of
the Archimedean Point before
establishing Place as the only source
of architectural meaning the Spirit
of Place or Genius Loci. 2 Finally we
will look into some of the implications
of the adoption of Genius Loci as the
foundation of meaning in Norwegian
architectural politics.
The Loss of Meaning
Throughout much of history, religion
and politics have been the two sources
of social meaning. As modern science
developed, however, it challenged the
ecclesiastical monopoly on truth and
existential insight. When Galileo lifted
his telescope towards the sky, he soon
uncovered that the earth was neither
flat nor the center of the universe,
contrary to the claims of the church.
Galileos discovery inevitably led to
questions about how God could have
created man in his image if he is
merely an inhabitant of a speck of
dust in an endless universe.
As time went by, modern science
demonstrated its superiority over
religion when it came to changing the
world. It was science, not religion,
that triggered the industrial
revolution. And it was science, not
religion, which was called upon to
solve the problems created by the
industrial revolution. As modernism
eventually reached architecture, the
discipline was no longer called upon
to reflect divine or royal ideals, but
rather modern, scientific truths.
Halfway through the twentieth
century, after two world wars, Europe
had lost much of its faith in the
blessings of modern science.
Architectures scientific
contributions form follows function
and neue Sachlichkeit offered little
to the task of reconstructing a
meaningful architecture for a post-war
Europe. Modernism had reduced
architecture to one of the industrial
products of modern capitalism. What
kind of a future could be built with an
architecture that had no other
meaning to convey than this
construction is made of concrete, or
this is a housing area, and it is
planned and built according to the
most modern industrial methods?
When Norberg-Schulz published
his PhD thesis, Intentions in
Architecture, in 1963, it seemed to
address a desperate need for a
renewed understanding of and
reflection on architectural meaning. 3

With his PhD thesis, Norberg-Schulz
started a life-long struggle with the
problem of meaning in architecture.
The problem arises from the fact that
something (architecture), besides
being something can also mean
something to someone. The same
piece of architecture can even mean
something to someone and
something else to someone else. The
problem is semiotic not language
semiotics (as in linguistics), but
architectural semiotics. 4
In simple terms one can say that
the question of how something can
mean something is a semiotic
problem, while what something is is
a phenomenological question. A
semiotician will, however, claim that
an answer to the phenomenological
question can only be reached via the
semiotic one. The semiotician will
hence claim that when the
phenomenologist asks what for
instance a place is, he is not merely
asking whether it is a dwelling, a
village or an urban space. He will
argue that the phenomenologist not
only asks what a place is, but also
what it means what kind of meaning
the dwelling, the village or the urban
space conveys to its user or inhabitant.
And this, the semiotician will insist, is
precisely what architectural semiotics
is about: the triangular relationship
between a) meaning, b) the object (or
place) which represents or carries the
meaning and c) the subject (the user)
who experiences a+b. 5
The phenomenologist, on the
other hand, will now accuse the
semiotic analysis of standing in the
way of the phenomenological
experience. He will claim that the
semiotician is depriving the subject
(the user) of the pure and true
experience by covering the
phenomenon with a veil of scientific
logic. By doing this, says the
phenomenologist, the semiotician is
shrouding the true nature of things.
During the work on his PhD,
Norberg-Schulz reads the classics of
architecture, but he also works his
way through the new and promising
scientific fields of his time: semiotics
(C. Morris), perceptional psychology
(Piaget, Brunswick), Gestalt Theory
(Wertheimer, Bollnow) and sociology
(Parsons), and he combines them with
philosophy (Cassirer, Wittgenstein)
and with art history (Panovsky,
Gombrich, Sedlmayr). 6
He searches for the structures
and models that relay meanings, or
significance, between us and our
architectural environments. He is
aware of semiotic studies of the sign,
of language as carrier of meaning and
of communication theory. He reads
the semotic classic Charles Morris. 7
The linguistic sign has an expression
side, the signifier (the word), and a
content side, the signified or the
meaning to which the expression side
refers. The weakness of this sign
structure, however, is that it does not
include a strong or a stable link
between the sound house and the
concept of house in the form of an
inherent reference to the physical
phenomenon house. But in Gestalt
theory Norberg-Schulz finds the
figure house, and in perceptional
psychology he finds a relationship
between the house and the
perceiving subject.
An answer to the semiotic
question, how something can signify
something, however presupposes
something that can mediate the
meaning; a sign. In Brunswick
Norberg-Schulz finds the concept
Zwischengegenstand, or Middle
Object. The Middle Object is a term
that signifies an object as it is
perceived by a subject. It is in other
words a real perception of a real
object, without however, being that
real object itself. Through an analysis
of the middle object by means of
perceptional psychology, and by
aligning this analysis with the real
object, one would in theory be
able to approach the semiotic
problem without getting lost in the
infinity of possible interpretations of
the linguistic sign. Intention relates
to the intended perception (Middle
Object) of the real object. 8
In his doctoral work, Norberg-
Schulz came very close to the logical,
stable and phenomenon based sign
structure that Charles Sanders Peirce
had developed half a century earlier,
and which has later turned out to be a
robust answer to the question of
signification that Norberg-Schulz
grappled with. 9 Unfortunately
Peirces Collected Papers I-VIII were
not yet fully published, and their
contents not generally known at the
time when Norberg-Schulz wrote his
Intentions. 10 The bulk of the
Collected Papers were published over
the course of the 1950s, but they only
reached a widespread readership 20
years later. The historical irony of this
is that Peirces Collected Works were
all stored in the archives of Harvard
University; where Norberg-Schulz was
writing his PhD, and where Peirces
apprentice, Charles Morris, was
teaching in the 1950s. How would
Norberg-Schulz quest for a stable
foundation for a theory of meaning in
architecture have developed if he,
while reading Morris Foundations of
the Theory of Signs at Harvard, had
gone down to the archives and
checked the primary source in Peirces
papers? 11
But he didnt, and his search for
a stable foundation for meaning was
exhausted in the arbitrariness of the
linguistic sign structure. As is well
known, a word can be used and
misused to carry basically any
meaning. Norberg-Schulz understood
very early compared to Charles
Jencks and the others who joined the
linguistic turn only around 1970 that
houses do not behave like words.
Therefore he abandoned the entire
problem of representation. He may
have reasoned something like this:
houses do not re-present themselves,
they present themselves to us as
houses. After Intentions Norberg-
Schulz sought a way around the
semiotic problem and the question of
how architecture can mean
something. He put all his money on
phenomenology, hoping that it would
take him straight to the meaning by
unveiling what architecture is.
During his work with Intentions
Norberg-Schulz studies the works of
Hans Sedlmayr. In the foreword to
Intentions Norberg-Schulz points him
out as particularly important, and
Sedlmayr continues to be central in
Norberg-Schulz search for a stable
base for architectural meaning.
During the years following Intentions
Norberg-Schulz is unable to overcome
the semiotic problem. He keeps
looking for a firm reference outside
the relationship between the sign, or
the representation, on the one hand
and the signified or represented
meaning on the other. To Norberg-
Schulz, Sedlmayrs method of
interpretation in, Zu einer strengen
Kunstwissenschaft, looks like a step in
the right direction. By shifting the
focus from content to intent,
Sedlmayr introduces the metteur en
ouevre as reference and judge to the
true understanding. The metteur en
oeuvre must not be perceived as a
person, as the individual artist in
Sedlmayrs work, the concept refers to
art as an institution. The problem
with shifting the reference from
oeuvre to metteur en oeuvre is that
the stability of the interpretation is
made dependent of the stability of art
as an institution. This in its turn is
depending on the stability of the state,
or on the ideology which supports the
state within which the art is an
institution. In the end the problem of
meaning is referred back to the
authority of the state.
In his text The Fixation of
Belief, C. S. Peirce describes four
methods for moving from mere
assumption to firm conviction: the
method of tenacity, the method of
authority, the a priori method, and
the method of scientific
investigation. 12 Peirce demonstrates
that the method of authority as base
for Fixation of Belief inevitably will
be followed by cruelty: and when
it (the method of authority) is
consistently carried out, they become
atrocities of the most horrible kind in
the eyes of any rational man.
One year after Sedlmayr had
written his Zu Einer strengen
Kunstwissenschaft in 1932, he joined
the Austrian Nazi party. He remained
a party member until 1945 and made
a fast academic career in Vienna. He
enjoyed one of highest standings any
art historian could achieve in the
Third Reich, while seeing several of
his Jewish friends and colleagues
forced to flee. In 1945 the allied forces
dismissed him from his position in
Vienna. He moved to Bavaria, and in
1948 he published his theoretical
work on modern art, Verlust der Mitte.
In this work, which became a pillar in
Norberg-Schulz Intentions as well as
in several subsequent books, Sedlmayr
criticizes modern art for dissolving
and undermining art as an institution,
and for leading culture into chaos and
meaninglessness. This work has been
attacked by its contemporary critics
for being a structural reaction to what
is still referred to as degenerate art
(entartete Kunst), as Sedlmayrs
critique used this term in the same
sense as it was used by the
Nazis themselves.

Inspired by Sedlmayr, and
disappointed by modern science,
Norberg-Schulz takes his own turn
from meaning to being. He reads
perceptional psychology, how we
perceive space. He searches for the
points where this perception is
engrained. He reads the Gestalt
philosopher Otto Friedrich Bollnow
on how man understands space and
gives it with meaning by capturing it
through use and movements
(Gestaltung). The central point of
perceived space (Nullpunkt des
Sehraums) is, Bollnow explains, a
spot somewhere between ones eyes
in der Gegend der Nasenwurzel. 13
The phenomenological problem
can, however, not be solved
subjectively. Norberg-Schulz realized
that the question of what architecture
is must be addressed to something
outside the subject and its individual
relationship to the object. Hence, his
quest for stable references becomes a
quest for an Archimedean Point. The
Archimedean point, however, implies
a semiotic logic. The same way the
sign is a mediator between the
meaning and the representation of it,
the lever is a mediator between the
Archimedean point and the
phenomenon one tries to influence.
When Archimedes called out: Give
me a fixed point and I will move the
world, he referred to the physical fact
that with a lever he would
theoretically be able to lift any weight
given a fixed point on which to
support the lever. He wanted to
express something about the
possibilities and the limitations of
science and of technology.
During the 1960s, working his
way from Intentions to Existence, Space
and Architecture (1971), Norberg-
Schulz read Heidegger. Here, he
discovered a phenomenology which
appeared to merge the semiotic and
the phenomenological problems, or
meaning with being.
Heideggers concept ads
Gevierte signifies the intersection
between two existencial axes; the axis
between man and being, or between
mortal/divine, on the one hand, and
the axis between earth and heaven on
the other. The intersection between
these two axes forms, according to
Heidegger, the center (die Mitte) of
existential space. Das Gevierte is
symbolized by a circle, intersected by
one horizontal and one vertical line;
like the old Norse (Germanic)
solar wheel.
The link between architecture
and place seems more immediate, or
obvious, than the one between
architecture and point. A natural
consequence of Heideggers fusion
between meaning and being is that
Norberg-Schulz replaces the abstract,
logical entity point with the far more
concrete, phenomenological place.
In 1969 Norberg-Schulz first
published the article The Concept of
Place. 14 In this text Norberg-Schulz
refers to Archimede and his fixed
point. Two years later he publishes
the book Existence, Space and
Architecture. In this book he draws the
first basic consequences of his
Heidegger readings; carrying through
the theoretical fusion of architectural
meaning and being. He outlines the
phenomenological merging of point
and place, and he establishes his own
concept of existential space founded
on his own concept of place. And
underscoring his turn from sign to
thing, he returns to Archimede a
second time. But in Norberg-Schulz
text this time Archimede exclaims:
Give me a place to stand, and I will
move the world! 15 Gone is the
lever; and with it technology, science
and mediation. Only the phenomenon
(the world) and the place is left, and
between place and world is only I.
The question of what means or forces
will empower I enabling me to
move the world, is left mute.
In other words: the concept of
place enters the scientific oeuvre of
Norberg-Schulz already after his first
book. As of the article The Concept
of Place from 1969, Place is the
basic concept throughout the rest of
his authorship. All the concepts and
theory Norberg-Schulz later builds,
are founded on this Concept of Place.
A logical consequence of this
operation is that meaning is
something that can be captured, or
uncovered, like a place can be found
or captured. When speaking of life,
Norberg-Schulz always used to refer
to the trope life takes place. The
problem with this construction of
language is that it implies that
whoever is the master of, or in control
of a place, is also in control of
meaning. This Heideggerian
construction has a lot in common
with the one on which Sedlmayr
based his concept of meaning.
Another point that Heidegger had in
common with Sedlmayr was his
membership in the Nazi Party - from
the early 30s (1933) on. One may ask
if it is relevant to bring these facts to
the fore in a discussion of
architectural theory. To this one may
answer that Sedlmayr and Heidegger
were philosophers. They did not work
with rocket engines, like Von Braun.
They worked with thoughts on what a
meaningful existence might be; how it
could be pictured, spatially organized,
built and captured, and neither of
them ever distanced themselves from
their Nazi memberships. It is
therefore difficult to ignore this stock
of ideas when it is used as a
foundation for contemporary
Norwegian architecture and planning.
The discussion about Heidegger
and his relationship with Nazism was
alive in Europe all through the post-
war years, and it flared up when
Victor Farias published the book
Heidegger et le nazisme in 1987. In
Norway these discussions never went
beyond philosophical circles. 16 Four
years later the manual for Place
Analysis, issued by the Royal Ministry
of the Environment, landed on the
desks of the planning authorities of all
municipalities in Norway.

Norberg-Schulz always kept a keen
eye on what was going on in
architecture around him, and he
always illuminated his writings with
references to historical or
contemporary examples. When post-
modernism was the topic of
discussion, and Norberg-Schulz threw
himself into the battle in support of
what he saw as a figurative
architecture, the old modernist was
accused of being a weathercock
creaking loudly every time the wind
turned. This was an unjustified
critique. Norberg-Schulz had carried
the concept of figure with him from
Gestalt- and perception psychology
and followed it via Kevin Lynchs The
Image if the City and Venturis
Complexity and Contradiction to
Charles Jencks The Language of Post-
modern Architecture. When Norberg-
Schulz during the 1980s took an
interest in post-modern architecture,
it was not opportunism. Norberg-
Schulz never subscribed to isms. He
just kept an open eye on things. He
saw something interesting in almost
everything, but that never prevented
the concept of place from remaining
the base of his quest for meaning
in architecture.
In Meaning in Western
Architecture (1975) he tested his
concept of place as an analytical tool
on European architectural history. In
Genius Loci (1980) he elaborates the
concept further, and outlines an
architectural phenomenology based
on it. Based on this phenomenology
he then, in The Concept of Dwelling
(1984), works out an architectural
version of Heideggers concept of
wohnen, dwelling.
From the Spirit of Place to the
Art of Place
Norberg-Schulz remained faithful to
his project: to establish an
architectural phenomenology which
was so concrete, so hands on, that it
could be used as a manual for how to
build meaningful environments. He
extended his conceptual toolbox with
concepts such as the Understanding of
Place, the Analysis of Place and the
Loss of Place. The latter is an
adaption of Sedlmayrs Verlust der
Mitte. Obviously Loss of Place does
not signify the loss of a place such as a
loss of for instance a hilltop or a
bridgehead in war. The concept refers
to a situation where a place, like a
village or a town, looses its
architectural consistency, its
wholeness or its beauty through
mindless modernization of its
buildings, or the construction of a new
traffic system, and consequentially is
no longer perceived as a readable,
understandable, meaningful
environment. In other words: Loss of
Place signifies loss of meaning.
Meaning is replaced by Place.
Norberg-Schulz conveyed his
message about the foundational
cultural significance of architecture
with such conscientiousness, such
tenacity and such clarity that he
brought it all the way into the
Norwegian Ministry of Culture.
Aesthetic quality was put on the
political agenda, and by the beginning
of the 1990s the ministry established
a working group with the mandate of
outlining a definition of Norwegian
environmental aesthetics. The
resulting document contains
statements such as the experience of
our common spaces is more and more
linked to a feeling of alienation, in the
sense of a threat. The work group
points out that places are important
because they constitute our spaces of
orientation, and that it is essential to
consider the place from the point of
view of its social content as in home-
place, a place to be, a scene where
something took place, a place of
presence (). Throughout, one can
observe how the concept of place is
becoming a vehicle for the new
ministerial interest in aesthetics, and
trace its realization that The Crisis of
Place is a challenge to public
management. 17 In order to
appreciate the depth of this insight, it
is important to bear in mind that the
concept Place in this terminology has
now replaced the concept Meaning.
As a consequence of this political
interest in aesthetics, Norsk Form was
established in 1992, with the aim of
being a national spearhead, giving
direction to the aesthetic
development of Norwegian villages
and towns, henceforth to be referred
to as the development of Place. 18
This ambition was materialized when
the Ministry of the Environment in
1993 issued the booklet Place Analysis
Content and Implementation.
Manual. The manual was
supplemented by four case studies:
Hokksund, Halden, Sykkylven and
Brumundal. The cases represent a
certain variation in the individual
application of the method, but they
are all explicitly based on the
ministerial manual. All four examples
of Place Analysis are based on Place
as the basis of any relevant
understanding of historical
preconditions as well as of any
recommended line of future
development. Immigrant culture is
not mentioned either as a problem, as
a phenomenon or as representing
relevant Place Knowledge of any
other kind. And this in spite of the
fact that one of the cases being
studied, Brumundal, in 1990-91 saw a
wave of racist attacks on immigrants
people out of place. In 1997 the
manual Place Analysis was followed
by an Aesthetic Manual, addressing
how the individual building should
adapt to Place in the best, most
meaningful way. The trajectories from
Sedlmayrs Strengen
Kunstwissenschaft to Norberg-Schulz
Loss of Place are impossible to
ignore. 19

While the Ministry of Culture

was establishing Norsk Form, and the
Ministry of the Environment wrote
the manual in Place Analysis,
Norberg-Schulz wrote Nattlandene
(1993). 20 In this book he is drawing
the logical conclusions of his
phenomenological insistence on
considering life and place as one
whole. From using the entire
European cultural heritage as
empirical material, he now makes it
all heimlich. Nattlandene deals with
Nordic landscapes and Nordic
architecture, and in this book
Norberg-Schulz again underlines that
Place is a geographical entity.
Meaning or Place, in other words, is
one thing in the North and something
else in the South. What happens to
meaning when one migrates from the
North to the South, as so many
Norwegians do these days, or in the
other direction, as so many
immigrants to Norway have done? 21
At this point the Concept of
Place is firmly established, and
Norberg-Schulz has based his
architectural phenomenology on it.
He has illustrated his phenomenology
in Meaning in Western Architecture,
elaborated it in The Concept of
Dwelling, brought it home in
Nattlandene, and in The Art of Place
(1995) he fullfills his project. In this
work he summarizes his thoughts and
concepts from his oeuvre, fine-tuning
them all one last time, before he
reintroduces the language analogy.
But this time it is cleansed of semiotic
issues. Norberg-Schulz makes one last
attempt at describing the elements of
architecture with such precision that
interpretation is no longer needed. He
calls the result The Ground
Language (die Grundsprache). 22

The problem
The fact that architecture is not a
mere private interest is now
recognized by both politicians and
developers. Architects are no longer
automatically suspected of just
serving their own business interests
when they argue that architectural
quality is important. There is little
doubt that Norberg-Schulz has been
of decisive importance to the process
leading to the formation of Norsk
Form and to the issuing of manuals in
Place Analysis and in environmental
aesthetics. The core of this
understanding is that architecture is a
basic reflection of our culture not a
mere icing on the cake. This implies
that architecture is not only
something that we produce, it also
produces us. When we build, we build
our own culture as human beings.
Therefore the intellectual tradition on
which we choose to found our
architecture is vital.
At the base of the policy efforts
of the past three decades, then, is the
understanding that meaningful
environments can only be formed
based on Place: that the problem is
Loss of Place, and that the solution is
Development of Place, based on
Analysis of Place and Knowledge
of Place.

In Genius Loci (The Spirit of

Place) Norberg-Schulz emphasizes
that human identity springs from the
Identity of Place. Norberg-Schulz
underlines that it is Place as a
geographical entity which gives man
his identity. Ones identity is a
reflection of who one considers
oneself to be and of the position one
considers oneself to fill within ones
socio-cultural context. When a
meaningful existence is based in one
geographical place, one will
inevitably, as Norberg-Schulz points
out in The Art of Place, identify oneself
as for instance Glaswegian. Then,
according to the Theory of Place,
existence will be experienced as
meaningful to the Glaswegian when
he is at home, in Glasgow, finds
himself surrounded by Glaswegian
architecture and implicitly by
fellow Glaswegians.
While Norberg-Schulz wrote
Genius Loci and The Concept of
Dwelling, the civil war went on in
Lebanon. In that war, 17 different
ethnic and religious groups fought
each other, struggling to cleanse each
of their respective territories of
people with differing identities. After
17 years of war hundreds of thousands
were killed, hundreds of thousands
were in diaspora and 60% of the
survivors who remained in Lebanon
were internally displaced.
In the essay Les identit
meurtrires (Identity that Kills), Amin
Maalouf writes about his own
background. 23 He grew up as
Christian and as Arab in Lebanon.
After having been shelled from the
neighbouring village in the Chouf
Mountains, he and his family fled to
France in order to escape the ethnic
cleansing that followed. In France,
Maalouf became a French author. His
linguistic identity is Arab. This is an
identity he shares with a billion
Muslims. His religious identity is
Christian. He shares that with the
western world. His identity as an
author is French. And still, he
recounts, he starts to shiver when
people ask him where he actually
feels at home. To me they reveal (the
questions of a deeper, profound,
actual identity) a very common
conception of man which in my view
is dangerous. 24 Maalouf points at
Rwanda, at the Balkans, at the history
of Spain, the Belgian question,
Northern Ireland, at Sikhs, Hindus, at
Germany, Turkey etc. He writes: If
they perceive the other as a threat to
their own origins, faith or nation, they
also perceive anything which can be
done to remove the threat as
fully legitimate.
In Norway there are problems
related to the indigenous Sami
peoples demands on property rights
to land and water. In fact such
demands have implicated up to 40%
of the Norwegian land surface. In this
light one may reflect on the concerns
formulated by the working group of
the Norwegian Ministry of Culture
with regard to the experience of our
common spaces being more and more
linked to a feeling of alienation, in the
sense of a threat .
In Mensch und Raum, Bollnow
poses the relationship between place,
meaning and existential space as
follows: The one can only capture
space (Raum) by taking it from the
other. The struggle for life-space
(Lebensraum) originates from the
general struggle for existence whereby
one can only succeed at the cost of
the other.
While Europe discussed
Heideggers relationship with Nazism
and Norberg-Schulz wrote
Nattlandene, the Balkans caught fire,
and at the same time as The Art of
Place was published, Radko Mladic
cleansed the Bosnian-Serb town of
Srebrenica of Muslims (1995).
It may come across as
melodramatic to juxtapose the
emergence of a Norwegian Place-
based understanding of architecture,
and the foundation of a national
institution as an arrowhead directing
Norwegian Place-development with
the atrocities in the Balkans and the
Middle-East. 25 But one should bear
in mind that during those same years,
immigration to Norway grew
markedly. Many of those immigrants
were refugees, victims of ethnic
cleansing in their countries of origin,
and many came in search of better
and more meaningful lives. When
forming the architectural
environments of the future, a
multicultural society will be built. A
census from 2005 shows that 22,3% of
Oslos inhabitants are immigrants.
[^27] There is a sharp contradiction
between Development of Place
based on geographically defined
identities as the basis for meaningful
architectural environments on the
one hand, and an increasingly
multicultural and mobile society on
the other.
In a mobile and multicultural
world Tamils in Balsfjord and
Pakistanis in Oslo East will, if defined
in the terms of Place Analysis,
threaten the meaningful existence of
the local Balsfjord fisherman or the
native Oslo resident. Consider the
protests against the prayer calls from
the minaret in kerbergveien in Oslo.
One may expect the Pakistanis, the
Tamils or the Danes to learn
Norwegian, but can they also be
expected to build in Norwegian, live
in Norwegian, expect that they
become ethnic Norwegians and
identify themselves by saying I am an
Osloegian? And what if they refuse,
or are unable to do so? Will we be
willing to allow the Sikhs in
Holmestrand to import their
architectural habits? Or should we?
Shall we demand from Spanish
building authorities that Norwegian
residents in Marbella are allowed to
build what they perceive as
meaningful environments based on
their Knowledge of Place
from Drammen?
When Norberg-Schulz towards
the end of his authorship still insisted
on the unity of place and identity, it
feels like the world had left him
behind. In his observations and
descriptions on the other hand, he is
sharp as a razor and at times even
forward-looking. His goal has of
course never been to promote any
Blut und Boden ideology, as he himself
emphasises in the introduction to
Nattlandene. On the contrary, he
worked incessantly to lay the ground
for meaningful environments for all;
which would implicitly mean also for
Tamils, Pakistanis and Danes, for
asylum seekers as well as immigrants
looking for a better life, environments
where everyone would feel welcome
and be able to live their lives
meaningfully. I believe Norberg-
Schulz would nod approvingly if we
would now rethink and reconsider the
ways in which architecture can be
developed in support of a
multicultural and mobile society, and
if we would reconsider and
thoroughly discuss the concepts and
thoughts on which we base
our architecture.
Cf Mystad, Ole, Architecture the Body of
Thought, PhD Thesis, Oslo School of
Architecture, Oslo 1994. See also Mystad, Ole
Notes for a Brief History of Meaning, Nordic
Journal of Architectural Research no. 4, 1995.

Norberg-Schulz, Christian, Genius Loci,
Academy Editions, London 1980


Cf. The difference between linguistically based
semiotics (French School/semiology) and
philosophically based semiotics (American
School/C.S. Peirce). Intentions in Architecture is
still listed in bibliographies of architectural
semiotics. In French translation the book is
entitled Systme logique de larchitecture, a title
which is probably more precise and more
representative for the works content, than the
title CNS himself gave it. Intentions in
Architecture is still counted as foundatory to
architectural semiotics. In this field CNS
earned himself a position which in many ways
is greatly underrated.

Cf Mystad, Ole. "Building Culture", Nordic
Journal of Architectural Research no. 1996.

Linguistic semiotics was the only generally
known semiotics of the time.

While he was writing his PhD at Harvard, he
may also have had the chance to meet Morris
in person.

The concept of Intention in Norberg-Schulz is
inspired by Sedlmayrs theoretical manifesto
Zu einer strengen Kunstwissenschaft. Sedlmayr
wrote this manifesto in 1931 one year prior
to his entry into in the Austrian Nazi Party. In
the manifesto Sedlmayr puts forward a method
of interpretation created in order to unveil the
aesthetic intentions of an artwork. According
to Sedlmayr the key to the true understanding
of a work of art and its relationship to society
was not to be found in its content, but in its
intentions. Norberg-Schulz adopts and
develops Sedlmayrs concept of intention
further by means of perceptional psychology
and gestalt theory.

Cf. The title of the French translation of
Intentions in Architecture: Systme logique de

The classic introduction to Peirces work
Philospohical Writings of C. S. Peirce, edited by
Justus Buchler, was published in 1950. Collected
Papers I-VIII were published by Harvard
University Press successively from 1931

In this key work Morris adopted several of
Peirces concepts, adapting them to his own
work. Peirces significance for the work of
Charles Morris is still poorly recognized.

Buchler, Justus, Philosophical Writings of C. S.
Peirce, 1955 p.13

Otto Friedrich Bollnow, Mensch und Raum,
Stuttgart 1963, p 56

The first print of the text appeared in Italian in
the magazine Controspazio #1. 1969. In 1988 it
was published in English in the anthology
Architecture, Meaning and Place on

Norberg-Schulz, Existence, Space and
Architecture, Studio Vista ltd, London 1971,

See the special issue of the philosophical
journal Agora #4-88/1-89: "Heidegger og

Plger, Jon, 2003, http://www.nibr.no/filer/2003-
103.pdf p. 30.

Norsk Form is the Foundation for Design and
Architecture in Norway:

The role of Norsk Form is very close to
representing an institutional securing of
aesthetical norms, or as John Plger
formulated it: a practical staging of
discursive power. Plgers report, produced for
NIBR (Norwegian Institute for Urban and
Regional Research) can be downloaded here:

The title means Countries of the Night. In the
introduction to the book the author refers to
the Italian expression used to signify the
countries of the north: Mezzanotte as
opposed to the countries of the south

Cf. The discussion of Nattlandene, by O.M. in
Arkitektnytt Nov. 1993.

The original term from Norberg-Schulz is
Grunnsprk in Norwegian. This term is
strongly German inspired as the Norwegian
Grunn is the precise equivalent to the German

Maalouf, Amin, Les identits meurtrires,
Editions Grasset & Fasquelles, Paris 1998

Amin Maalouf, Identitet som dreper, PAX, Oslo
1999, p. 8

By 2040 SSB (Statistics Norway) expects Oslos
population to be 47% immigrants.


An Introduction to the translation and re-

This text was first written in the winter of 2004-
5. A lot has happened since then, but instead
of rewriting or updating the text, I have chosen
to translate it in its original form, adding a
couple of a posteriori reflections on the topics
of the text.

1. On the weight of words

After July 22nd 2011, there has been one big
white elephant present in the discussion. In the
immediate aftermath of the terrorist events in
Norway last summer, it was important not to
point fingers. The tragedy had struck everyone,
and everyone needed to deal with their grief
and to avoid giving way to anger or hatred. The
result is, however, that it has become almost
impossible to say out loud that the terrorist
was not alone. He acted alone. But his acts
were carried forward on a broad flow of words,
arguments and concepts. The terrorists
attitude to a multicultural society is shared
by many.

Even though they cannot and must not be

reduced to each other, there is an intimate
relationship between words and acts, between
thoughts and things as there is between
meaning and place.

2. On the Arbitrariness of Meaning

When Christian Norberg-Schulz set out on his
quest for meaning, he was looking for the
relationship between words and acts, thoughts
and things, meaning and place. How does this
relationship work? What is the logic of it? Is it
arbitrary, or is there a code for it, an
interpretant? Can we control it?

This relationship is the classical problem, not

only in linguistics, but in philosophy at large
and implicitly in architecture. We form our
environments in order to live as human beings
in houses and cities, to make our society work,
to build our culture, to make sense of everyday
life. This is only possible if we master the
relationship between words and acts, thoughts
and things and between meaning and place.

It was, in other words, a problem of existential

significance that Norberg-Schulz set out to
solve in his PhD thesis Intentions in
Architecture. In hindsight, the French
translation of the title, Systme logique de
larchitecture, may seem more appropriate
than the original title.

After Norberg-Schulz died, I have had many

conversations with his associate, Anne-Marit
Vagstein. I usually criticize the old giant, and
she criticizes me for deliberately
misinterpreting him. I wonder if our
differences actually concern the relationship
between the man and his ideas. This essay is
dedicated to Anne-Marit Vagstein.

Ole Mystad


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