Using Tarot Cards to Understand the Spirit of Place

Fairy Hills of Scotland / Elizabeth Boults

“The idea that big data will be the generator of design in the future is very depressing,” said Elizabeth Boults, ASLA, a landscape architect and educator, at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego. She instead called for “alternative methods that incorporate a more spiritual perspective.”

With her husband Chip Sullivan, FASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, who is a passionate proponent for honoring and designing with the unseen forces that shape landscapes, Boults outlined how one method that sounds a bit woolly at first — tarot cards — can actually be a thoughtful design tool for understanding the genus loci (spirit of place), which is so central to landscape architecture.

Boults believes that landscape architecture is a mix of art and science. Art relates to the “mysterious, non-linear, subjective” process of design, while science is about “rational structures, categories, and typologies.”

Beyond art and science though, there is also the spiritual aspect of landscapes. “Across cultures, people shape landscapes based on their beliefs.” Many cultures have had “gods and goddesses who are guardians of the spirit of places.” For example, Romans believed each home had a genius, who were honored through a shrine.

Roman shrine to the genius of the home / Household Gods by Alexandra Sofroniew

Prehistoric peoples were attuned to the “atmosphere, the flora, animal life, and geological formations; they listened to the trees, wind, and moon.” Boults wondered: “Are we still listening today?”

Enduring ancient beliefs are still alive and well in modern practices such as Feng Shui in China, Vastu Shastra in India, and landscape cosmologies among Native people and across many cultures. Within these cultural approaches to the landscape, it’s always important to “consult the genus loci of a place before starting a design process.”

Sullivan then steered the lecture towards the use of tarot cards, which he had previously “never paid attention to.” But then one day he began to wonder, “what are they about? When we have our cards read, what are we putting our value in?”

Examining historical and contemporary decks, he discovered they are “all about the landscape,” with their “Pre-Raphaelite imagery that compresses natural information.”

Antique Italian tarot card deck / Elizabeth Boults

During a studio project with his students to define core landscape design principles, he discovered what they were creating were essentially tarot cards, depicting sacred archetypal elements like the tree of life, the enchanted forest, the well. His students then began using the tarot decks in order to actively divine new designs; the result were “amazing.”

Like conventional decks, the genus loci tarot laid out core elements such as “the journey of the hero, the call to adventure, facing trials and tribulations, finding resolution, crossing the threshold, and achieving enlightenment.” Sullivan believes people are attracted to tarot cards because they depict life as a journey.

He also believes it’s no coincidence that tarot cards and mysticism are so popular in highly creative Silicon Valley, which is home to companies like Oracle (another sacred symbol).

In the last third of what was one of the most unusual and fun ASLA conference sessions ever, Sullivan and Boults offered glue, collage materials, watercolors, pens, and index cards so that attendees could create tarot cards depicting their own conception of genus loci.

Genus loci tarot card / Edith Drcar
Genus loci tarot card / Fred Ogram
Genus loci tarot card / Jessamyn Lett

Two attendees from different parts of the room realized they drew the nearly-exact figure of a wellspring, the source of life, showing that natural archetypes remain real in our disconnected digital world.

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