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.

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