November 10, 2005

Fitting feng shui into Western architecture

  • New holistic design options involve the concepts of body, soul and spirit.
    Special to the Journal

    Photo by Michael Jensen
    The deck on this Whidbey Island Beach home faces east for morning sunlight and shelter from winds.

    In light of trends at the beginning of the 21st century, architectural clients are asking that environmental and spiritual elements be an integral part of the design. Feng shui is emerging as a leading influence in this search for how to design in tune with holistic and spiritual elements.

    Feng shui's origins

    Feng shui can be seen as the music of space that lends harmony to the environment in which we live in both an emotional and rational way. It draws from the mystical world to harmonize and balance human-made elements with nature while factoring in climatology, geophysics, culture, metaphysics and cosmology.

    Five principles govern the practice of feng shui: yin and yang, the five elements (fire, earth, metal, water and wood), east/west compass directions, the solar system, and the environment. However, nine schools of feng shui render different interpretations of these principles.

    The formal technique has been in practice in China since the selection of auspicious sites, or those associated with heavenly forces and the earth's energy, by the Tang Dynasty from 618 to 907. This practice of optimizing the benefits of the site is somewhat akin to what we call environmental design.

    Moving from east to west

    Modern architects are confronted with the need to intellectually integrate the principles of feng shui into the design process. In the end, the designers and their clients must see beyond the intangible aspects to an entry point for these new holistic design options.

    Just as a modern physician must be able to speak to the pros and cons of naturopathic principles of health care, the modern architect is responsible for consciously incorporating these nontraditional design considerations into new spaces.

    In placing the principles of feng shui into a Western view of architecture, two aspects emerge for the architect to balance:

    1. A measurable articulation of design within feng shui so that an architect can bridge all cultures.

    2. An unmeasurable aspect based on a cultural spiritual history, markedly different in Western culture and for each individual.

    In an ideal sense, an architect today must become a social and spiritual scientist in objectively observing and experiencing these unmeasurable practices. As such, an architect must strive to articulate these influences in a way that relates to Western culture as well as contributes to a more heightened use of design.

    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe cultivated this type of scientific research in the 1700s when he intertwined human and spirit nature, now realized as a universal archetype.

    In any design dialog, a spiritual or holistic respect for the elements of nature is critical. Whether that respect takes the form of protection from the elements of nature or collaboration with them, natural elements are an inherent measurable expression of all architectural forms.

    For instance, we know that:

    • The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, so that locating a breakfast area facing east can be a beautiful space for drinking coffee in the early morning sunshine.

    • A restaurant that serves breakfast on an outdoor terrace is more profitable when the terrace faces east — bathed in early morning sunlight.

    • A house can be designed so that for four or five months out of the year no artificial lights need to be turned on. Proper orientation and a hierarchy of windows and doors modulate the quality of light entering the house through the day and the seasons.

    • Water should never run back towards a house; and a house built with the utmost respect for water is a healthy house.

    • Air moves very much like water through a house and stagnated air becomes like unmoved pools of water, requiring integrating natural ventilation in the design.

    • Drafts are unhealthy: Placement of beds and seating areas under windows can be problematic.

    • Architectural forms and colors directly affect one's nervous system, and over time, one's personality.

    • A visual respect for gravity creates balance within a design.

    • The elimination of clutter within a design is one of the most critical components of good architecture.

    There are countless more design practices that architects use daily. Whether they are explained through feng shui principles or by Western scientific evaluation and intuition, they both speak to a respect for nature.

    The spirit within nature

    Feng shui begins to become a matter more of personal faith in those unmeasurable areas where an articulation of spirit within nature emerges.

    Western culture has struggled over the last 1,000 years in the development of a path to the spirit of nature through observable truths. Long ago the world of spirit was much more transparent to the everyday observer. When feng shui originated in ancient China, it could be explained in much more fluid forms of understanding than we permit ourselves today.

    Within today's Western culture, a cross-cultural digestion, expressed in more physical terms, is needed for an architect to fully accredit the principles of feng shui. Cross cultural archetypes serve as a useful reference between cultures. One of these archetypes is the tripartite expression of mankind and society as body, soul and spirit.

    Body. Turning to the physical world as a body, expressed in the unconscious realities in architecture, the research of Sigmund Freud seeks to explain the subconscious as it influences the physical world.

    Soul. From a Western perspective, looking to the world of soul, Carl Jung's research reveals a spiritual and physical nature to the signs and symbols within our daily lives that identifies common archetypes that all humanity have in common.

    Spirit. Considering the notion of spirit within architecture, architect and philosopher Rudolf Steiner addresses the nature of mankind as a universal symphony of the creative spirit.

    By observing feng shui in light of Western and Eastern concepts for the body, soul and spirit, a more truthful and consistent dialog emerges between the two cultures.

    And so feng shui takes its place as one of many tools to assist architects in the process of design to the extent that its use is understood. But the tool itself can never design or build a building, for that will always be left to the hand that holds the tool.

    Joseph Greif, AIA, is principal of Joseph Greif Architects in Seattle. Dyan Pfitzenmeier is a writer and consultant in Seattle.

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