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Hull is soul-searching as part of a project to find its cultural identity, says James Pallister

[THIS WEEK] The genius loci, as all good phenomenologists will know, was the Ancient Romans’ notion of a presiding deity or spirit particular to a place

Christian Norberg-Schulz revived the term with his 1980 book Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture. In it he provided a contextual framework for many architects and disciples of notoriously difficult philosopher Martin Heidegger, the man behind the 1970 essay ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’.

Hull’s branch of the Architecture Centre Network, the Arc, uses the term as the starting point for its latest project. Adapting Heidegger’s pursuit of a thing’s ‘thingness’, the Arc’s quest is to uncover what ‘Hullness’ is. In a thoughtful piece, David Atkinson from Hull University’s geography department edges toward a definition – based on a post-industrial northern city – by first establishing that Hull is definitely not what French anthropologist Marc Augé describes as a ‘non-place’.

As well as its scholarly aspirations, the project has a role in providing a feel-good unguent to the medieval city’s self-image, one bruised by bad publicity and unwanted cameos in publications like The Idler magazine’s Crap Towns book. According to the project’s leader, Jon Wood, the research has already fed into the local development framework for the city’s Fruitmarket area. The city of the 21st century needs a positive mental attitude and a good narrative, after
all, if it wants to attract investment.

Reassuringly, self-deprecation is one of Hull’s charms. One survey asked, ‘If Hull was a colour, what would it be?’, to which the resident replied: ‘Infrared. It’s there but you can’t always see it.’

  • The official Hullness blog is at
  • Heidegger for Architects (Thinkers for Architects), by Adam Sharr, Routledge, 2007

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