Hotel Design Inspiration – Genius Loci, or “The Spirit of Place”

Capturing the essence and soul of a location that surrounds a structure, and exhibiting that essence through the design extends the cultural experience into the hotel and further establishes a sense of place within the lodging experience. In architecture and interior design, genius loci is a profound inspiration for creating a sense of “place” and a truly unique experience for guests. How does genius loci inspire hotel design, both structurally and in the interior design, and how can hotels use it to create a more enhanced guest experience?
What is Genius Loci?
The genius loci is a long-familiar concept in architecture and design, and has, over many years, been adapted and incorporated in a variety of ways. In fact, the origins of genius loci (Latin for “spirit of place”) date back to ancient Roman religion. The Romans constructed numerous altars throughout the empire dedicated to the protective spirits of those places. In Asia, the spirits of places are still honored today in numerous indoor and outdoor shrines.
The genius loci is widely known as one of the principles of garden and landscape design, established by 18th-century poet Alexander Pope, who determined that the design of a landscape should always be adapted to the context of the location. In architecture, the Neo-Rationalist style, derived from the genius loci concept, is identified by the incorporation of vernacular elements and forms, and adapting the structure to the existing environment.
What motivates a traveler to journey to a distant locale? Often it is the desire to be immersed in the culture and character of that place, to have an authentic experience unlike any other. A hotel that presents an exclusive experience that is an extension of the culture and feeling of the locale is likely to excite and attract these guests.
The “spirit” and “power” that resides in a place is unique to that native area, and is considered part of the land. Capturing the essence and soul of a location that surrounds a structure, and exhibiting that essence through the design extends the cultural experience into the hotel, its restaurants and services, and further creates a sense of place for guests.
The genius loci is more than simply placing traditional or vernacular objects on display, or incorporating regional materials in the construction process. The spirit of place is translated through creating special abodes that reflect local sacred spaces, or creating opportunities for guests to experience excitement and memorable moments. Genius loci often incorporates a historical narrative, sometimes layered with the complexity of that particular place, or involves infusing elements of the local culture that make that place distinctive. The structure, both inside and outside, portrays the character and individuality of the location but is also part of the larger ecosystem of place. Authenticity is integral.
In his 2001 article, “Can Spirit of Place be a guide to Ethical Building?” Isis Brook suggests that genius loci is a means to prevent homogenized design and instead celebrate design diversity by creating meaningful places. Likewise, the author Christian Norberg-Schulz encourages architects and designers to create spaces with distinct character, buildings that help people to know how they belong to that place.
What Does This Mean for Hotel Design?
In tapping into the genius loci architects and interior designers not only immerse themselves into the environment surrounding the structure to observe and harness a “feeling” for the location, they also conduct an immense amount of research to ascertain any historical, cultural and environmental information to help formulate a design narrative. The narrative is the backbone that guides all design decisions, from furnishings to fixtures and from room layout to finishes. The hotel operator’s existing brand, the client’s cultural influence, and even nearby competitors all can play a role in the ideas extracted and translated in establishing a sense of place. Like detectives searching for clues, hotel designers extract ideas from the myriad sources of information to incorporate into the hotel’s theme or story driving the design.
History, Local Culture and Art Translated Through Interior Design
A prime example of genius loci as inspiration for hotel design is the Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The inn, which was recently renovated on the occasion of the hotel’s 25th anniversary, offers guests an authentic Southwest experience that celebrates the city’s artistic spirit and Native American heritage. When the luxury hotel was first constructed in 1991 in a historic building, architects of Aspen Design Group and interior designers of Wilson Associates sought to preserve the Pueblo exterior and celebrate the history and rich cultural heritage of Santa Fe in the building’s design. The hotel is named for the Anasazi Indians, a cliff-dwelling tribe the Navajo called “the ancient ones” who inhabited the region nearly 2,000 years ago.
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In an effort to honor their spirit and culture, the design team visited several Anasazi sites and extensively researched the culture and craftsmen before designing the space. The authenticity of the design is evident in the incorporation of Navajo symbols and patterns into ironwork and woven rugs, historical pigments used in the color palette, and stonework crafted in traditional methods. At every stage the design team “invoked the spirits” with ceremonies and blessings. Utilizing desert earth tones, handcrafted millwork and furniture, and authentic art from the area, each space in the hotel-from the cozy lobby lounge and restaurant to the guest rooms and suites-exhibits the soul of Santa Fe. Canvases by prominent New Mexican painters, Navajo weavings, and custom-crafted objects by local artists line the walls, while hand-loomed antique-patterned rugs cover plank pine floors.
Unlike many interpretations of Southwest décor, which can appear unauthentic, the Inn of the Anasazi is a contemporary sophisticated interpretation of the traditions and history of the Santa Fe region. In its recent renovation by Principal Designer Jim Rimelspach and the same interior design team that created the initial space 25 years ago, the hotel is a refreshed and modernized authentic Santa Fe experience.
Social Customs Can Inspire Unique Hotel Space Planning
Tapping into the genius loci as inspiration for interior design not only produces cultural and historical references for design, but many social customs in a region can be translated as genius loci as well, and inspire some truly innovative space planning in hotels.
The Hilton Chengdu is an elegant and sophisticated urban hotel located in the new financial district of Chengdu, capital of the Sichuan Province in China. A predominately business hotel, the Hilton Chengdu is part of a modern mixed-use development interconnected by an outdoor landscaped roof terrace that overlooks the lobby entrance atrium of the hotel. When creating the hotel, interior designers from Wilson Associates’ Singapore studio wished to make guests, most of whom are weary business travelers, feel as comfortable as possible, especially upon arrival to the hotel’s lobby.
The Hilton Chengdu lobby welcomes guests, much like being invited into a friend’s home for a gathering, in that the check-in counter isn’t what greets guests first. Unlike typical hotels where the check-in counter is the primary focal point in the lobby, the Hilton Chengdu lobby emulates the customary, more familiar gathering in a friend’s home. When invited to someone’s house, guests enter a welcoming living room with an open kitchen adjacent, where they can replenish with a refreshing beverage and sumptuous meal made by the host.
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This social custom defined the architectural layout of the lobby space: As guests enter the front doors of the Hilton Chengdu, they are welcomed into an expansive, comfortable gathering space with various seating arrangements for resting and relaxing after a long day of business. Adjacent to the “living room” space is an all-day dining area that invites guests to recharge and replenish. The intimate check-in area is tucked away and easy to find once guests are ready to retire to their rooms or require personal assistance.
Five Ways to Incorporate Genius loci into hotel interior Design:
Site Visit – Visit the site where the building is to be constructed, and take time to observe the surrounding area.
Historical Research – What is the history of the people and land in that area? Are there significant historical events that took place in the region? Any historical landmarks or personas from the region?
Environment – What natural elements exist in the area (a dense forest, a vast river known for trade, or maybe a mineral quarry)? What is the weather like (snow, delicate rain, bright sunshine)? Are there natural resources that have been integral to the region’s success?
Neighborhood and Vicinity – What other structures exist around the building site, and what is their purpose? Why do people visit that area?
Local Culture – What is the cuisine like? What makes the people of this locale unique? Is there local or regional art that defines the area culture?
Tapping into the Environment
In hospitality, we are in the business of creating genuine and often one-of-a-kind experiences for our guests and clients. We’re composing the spaces where people all over the world enjoy and celebrate life – places where they eat, sleep, laugh, share, and create memories.
Finding design inspiration in the local resources and building architecture, historical events, culture, color palettes and patterns, and even cuisine flavors can inspire a hotel’s design. All inhabit the genius loci, and this essence of the location surrounding the hotel help create a unique experience and sense of place for guests.


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