Monday, August 29, 2016

FENG SHUI: Design Lessons For The West

Author's Note: In the People's Republic of China, the practice of feng shui is officially scorned by the socialist government. Yet privately, few Chinese would think of ignoring this ancient set of design principles—some of which are outlined herewith.

I once designed a very expensive home for a Chinese client in a swanky suburb of San Francisco.  In the finest Western tradition, I included a grand staircase that cascaded straight down into the entrance foyer. But when my client saw this feature, he was horrified.  
"No, no! Very bad feng shui!" The Chinese believe that
beneficial chi escapes straight out the front door
in this layout, which is of course
very common in Western architecture.
“No, no!” he protested.  “Very bad feng shui!”

Thus was my introduction to the ancient Chinese design philosophy of feng shui—literally, “wind and water”.  Dating back to at least 900 AD, it’s an intricate blend of pragmatism, aesthetics, and superstition meant to ensure that all things are in harmony with their surroundings.  

So-called modern thinking has been unable to shake the Chinese faith in feng shui.  Mao’s Cultural Revolution in mainland China and strong Western influence in Hong Kong have both attempted to quash belief in its philosophies.  Despite it all, feng shui has endured, and is very much alive today.  

It’s not uncommon for traditional Chinese—and today, even a few Westerners — to hire a feng shui diviner or “geomancer” to evaluate their homes, whether old or new.  The geomancer suggests changes in floor plan or furniture arrangement that will enhance the beneficial flow of the ch’i or positive influences, while blocking the malevolent sha or negative forces. 
After two thousand years of feng shui,
 runaway carts still crash into houses
located at the end of a street.

Despite its aura of symbolism and spirituality, much of the feng shui is rooted in common-sense ideas that we seem to have forgotten in the West. For centuries it has warned against building a home at the base of a sloping street where a runaway cart might crash into it. Westerners chuckle at the simplicity of such rules, yet time and again I read news stories about cars —today’s runaway carts—crashing into homes built at the foot of long grades.  

Other arrangements the feng shui warns against:  Locating a bed or work area beneath a heavy beam (China is plagued by earthquakes); having a window overlook a chimney (an ancient precaution against the mystery of carbon monoxide poisoning); sleeping with your feet toward the bedroom door (the traditional Chinese way of laying out the dead); and having stairs face the entrance door (which lets the beneficial ch’i escape to the outdoors).  Oh yeah—that one put the kibosh on my grand staircase.  

The feng shui also deals with solar orientation. Southern orientation is considered the most auspicious, and though the reason has become cloaked in symbolism over the centuries, it’s basically because south-facing homes are warmest, brightest, and hence most livable.  This obvious consideration seems to have escaped many Western architects until just a few decades ago.
In  China, this is not the view you want
from your bedroom window.
(Cough, cough).

Today, the decline of Modern architecture and increased interest in the traditional design of other cultures has spurred interest in feng shui. In my own practice, I've followed basic feng shui principles for many years, though I seldom mention them explicitly to clients for fear of sounding too touchy-feely. Lately, however, I've been pleased to hear clients themselves observe, "I see you got rid of that sharp corner—bad feng shui, eh?".  

Among my favorite feng shui anecdotes comes from the Hong Kong-based architect H.Y. Wong, for whom I interned many years ago. Wong, an avowed Modernist, told me that he—like many of his generation—had once scoffed at feng shui. Then he related the incident that changed his mind:    

His client, a powerful Hong Kong bank had fallen on hard times. Its president hired a geomancer to evaluate the feng shui of its highrise headquarters.  The geomancer detected the harmful sha to be emanating from the bank president’s office and recommended that he move his desk several feet.  This the bank president did, and sure enough the bank’s fortunes quickly improved.

The real surprise came several years later, when the bank president remodeled his office. When the false ceiling was removed, he discovered a massive beam—a real feng shui no-no—directly over the spot where his desk had originally stood.  How had the geomancer detected what he could not see?

File under “F” for feng shui. . .in the Twilight Zone.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


Dear Readers: Thanks to the Chinese government's feud with Google, I was unable to post my  Architext blogs during my two-month stay in China (Google is blocked there, and therefore so is Thank you all for your patience in awaiting my return. I'll be including a few observations on China, my second home, in the blog over the course of the next few weeks.

China is a nation that’s never less than fascinating. I first came here in 1994, and have spent my summers here more or less yearly since 2000, when my wife and I bought a house in Suzhou, the region where she grew up.

The view from my office window in Suzhou, China. The
city is crisscrossed with canals, which long ago
earned it the nickname "Venice of the East".
In the ensuing fourteen years, I’ve written many, many thousands of words about China, whether for newspapers, for my syndicated column, or for my blog. Yet each time I return to the People’s Republic, I find a whole new China to talk about.

If there’s one thing that’s stood out in my last few visits—since America’s Great Recession, perhaps not coincidentally—is that the Chinese no longer view the West as its smarter big brother. After a century of humiliation at the hands of the West, after enduring Second World War atrocities by the Japanese, China closed its doors and turned its back on the world. Communism salvaged the nation’s sense of sovereignty, but ironically, it also further afflicted China by unnaturally suppressing the nation’s ancient mercantile instincts for thirty years.

At 2073 feet tall, Shanghai Tower by Gensler Associates
is Asia's tallest building. It dwarfs SOM's Jin Mao Tower,
 formerly the world's tallest building, as well as
Kohn Pederson Fox's Shanghai World Financial Center
(a.k.a. "the bottle opener".)

Only after the Opening in 1978 was the genie once again released from the bottle. In the scant thirty-eight years since—a mere heartbeat in the long history of this culture—China has regained its confidence, and perhaps, its sense of innate cultural superiority. 
This wouldn’t trouble me in the least if China was not such a profoundly homogeneous nation, and also one that has not lost its equally ancient xenophobia, nor its incredible tenacity in holding a grudge. I’m speaking, of course, about China’s relationship with Japan—a nation that undeniably inflicted grievous and unjust suffering on the Chinese people. 

Yet China had no monopoly on suffering during the Second World War. The United States was not occupied by Imperial Japan as China was, but given the course of the war following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans certainly had reason to hold a grudge. Yet within five years of the war’s end, Japan was under reconstruction, and within ten the antagonism of the war years was largely behind us.

Not so China. Every Chinese grade school history book from the immediate postwar era to this very moment makes certain to instill in young Chinese students a hatred of the Japanese. This, not surprisingly, explains the instant indignation of young Chinese in the ongoing skirmish over a number of seemingly worthless islands in the South China Sea. As of this writing, that conflict has once again flared up, as a recent arbitration by the International Tribunal of The Hague has dealt China a humiliating repudiation of its sweeping claims to that area. 

Wang Shi Yuan ("Master of the Nets Garden"),
a World Heritage Site a few miles from my home.
This is the other China—the one we hardly
hear about anymore. The garden was
constructed in 1140, and restored in 1785.
As a frequent visitor to the People’s Republic, one thing that’s always in the back of my mind is the speed at which things can change here. While I’ve seldom met a Chinese person who has been less than generous and hospitable—it’s an innate cultural trait—it’s also true that it would only take a single edict from Beijing to change this benevolent attitude toward foreigners, much as Mao’s bizarre initiation of the Cultural Revolution sparked mayhem against China’s own most learned people.

In view of the near-certainty that China will draw abreast of the United States as a world superpower in the near future, one can only hope that the Buddhist cultural traits of kindness and generosity will continue to outweigh the fevers of nationalism that periodically wreak such destruction here, as they have everywhere else on earth.