I listened recently to an address by a well-reputed feng shui master. I was reminded of two things: first, that when receiving any information, we need to filter, test, critique and evaluate; and second, that – and I am struggling to find an inoffensive way to express this – feng shui is a fundamentally flawed philosophy.
Yes, I am prepared for the barbs and abuse, but may I invite you to explore my reasoning before firing off that acerbic email.
My basic proposition or test for any philosophy to be robust, it must be:
- more or less uniformly understood by those who claim to master it, and
- universally applicable.
Feng shui fails on both counts. Furthermore, any design philosophy (being a particular subset of broader life philosophies) must be:
- evidentially beneficial
- able to be theorised so that it can be uniformly understood, and universally adapted and applied.
Once again, feng shui fails on all counts, with a few specific application (design feature) exceptions.
On the question of uniform understanding, there are almost as many interpretations of feng shui as there are “masters” or practitioners in the world. It is founded upon an ancient superstitious understanding of the movement of stars and constellations, which arose in a culture rich in deep thought and experiment. But the scientific method as we now understand it was unknown to the ancient Chinese, as it was unknown to the ancient Greeks, Romans, and early Christians (and some later ones too!). So the astrological understanding was good at plotting and predicting the movement of heavenly bodies as they appeared in the sky 4000 years ago in parts of the northern hemisphere. How this (or modern western astrology) has any influence on personal characteristics or actual events defies any logical or evidential explanation.
From the many “masters”, practitioners and writers, I have heard just as many versions of how feng shui’s principles should be applied to the design process. Many of these are in total contradiction to the basic principles of passive design, which is a proven and science-based design theory. So-called auspicious placement of living areas to the south in a floor plan (in the southern hemisphere) are entirely destructive of both real human amenity and the fundamentals of passive design. One master recently had the wisdom to admit that site response and passive design come before feng shui in the “layered approach” to design.
But if the wise masters of the art cannot agree on how its foundational tenets are to be manifest in the contemporary world, then it fails the test of being uniformly understood or understandable.
This undermines any real chance of it being universally applicable. There are many cultures in the world, each with its strengths and weaknesses, none universally superior to any other. There are also many different climate types around the planet – some extremely cold, some extremely hot, some swinging wildly between seasons, some utterly benign. What logical expectation can there be for one design philosophy that focuses so heavily on placement, layout and geometry to be universally beneficial?
As it happens, I believe there is a design approach that is applicable to all humans and all cultures, but it is an approach of enquiry and response, not arbitrary or constructed placement. It seeks to discover the human cultural context with regard to expectations and sensitivities; to uncover what the topography and climate tell us about building and spatial placement; and seek the natural cues that inform decisions around form, materials, texture and colour. I do not see any scientific or evidential basis for “natal discovery” (where and when a person was born) as a tool for spatial placement. Therefore, feng shui fails the test of being universally applicable.
Feng shui has no scientific basis. Shawn Carlson’s famous double blind test published in the science journal Nature (Californian Personality Index test, 1985) demonstrated that astrological predictive success rates are the same as random success rates. Carlson’s peer reviewed paper has recently been the subject of renewed criticism by the astrological industry, and one professor of psychology; however several other academic critiques of these attacks have reiterated its scientific rigour. There is to my knowledge no peer reviewed paper using a recognised scientific method that validates any astrological predictive process, whether it be Chinese (as in feng shui), Babylonian, Persian, Greek (as in the daily junk rags), or any other. The Mayan astrological calendar has equally failed in its prediction of the end of human history.
Many practitioners start their design consultancy by applying the ancient Chinese astrological chart for each occupant of the proposed building. Each person’s chart indicates the most beneficial location for different activities within a particular building, although many masters say there are universal patterns with individual variations. These are overlaid to find a kind of “placement of best fit” for all concerned. Sometimes these conflict, which places the designer in an invidious position in attempting to create a layout that will please everybody. But it’s worse; when additional occupants arrive – such as children, boarders or parents – it all changes. Buildings do not change so easily – thus we have an insoluble problem that defies logical analysis. It’s all up in the air yet again when the building changes hands.
An outworking of illogical feng shui principles as espoused by virtually all practitioners is seen in not aligning the front and back doors. The qi (positive life force or energy) will apparently get a bit confused when it enters the house, and not know when to stop, simply sliding out the back door and vanishing. Qi must be a bit silly – I would have assumed that the energy that created Life, the Universe and Everything was a bit smarter than that. But be that as it may, my test of universality trips this idea up at the door: what about a small one room pavilion with no walls, such as Chris Renehan or Troppo Architects have so beautifully designed may times in the tropics? It would be churlish to add floor area to allow for a wall where no wall is needed. In fact, the whole notion of “front door” and “back door” is only applicable in conventional and dense urban situations – elsewhere it is an unhelpful construct.
Another example is the feng shui instruction to never have the stairs directly facing the front door, for fear of scaring off the qi before it’s had a chance to settle on your rug. Oops – there goes every terrace house ever built, including Chris Knieirm’s new multi-multi-award winning Forest Lodge Eco House. There seems to be plenty of good fortune residing in the thousands of terraces in inner Sydney and Melbourne, judging by the prices they are fetching! And Knierim’s stairs haven’t scared much qi away, judging by the swag of bling he’s gathered in 2014!
But, a word in feng shui’s defence! Some of the rules or indicators make good sense. Things like being very careful when having bedrooms open to en suite bathrooms: no one wants to lie on the bed and look at the dunny, much less smell or listen to the efforts of their otherwise attractive partner while engaged thereon. Simple fixes around visual privacy, acoustic separation and exhaust fans are called for – but this is simple good design.
I know of a very expensive facility in a retirement village (located on Collaroy Plateau in NSW, but which shall remain nameless) that has the men’s urinals clearly visible from a public hallway. This is really bad feng shui. If an old bloke turns away from the urinal before fully completing the task in hand it is a very unpleasant ocular experience for the passer-by – but common sense tells any competent designer not to do that.
It is interesting to note that many feng shui consultants have a lot more non-Chinese clients than Chinese. This may be because most people of Chinese origin already know it all, and do not require such advice. It may also be because while they pay notional lip service to the old traditions, they are actually far too practical and science-based to take them too seriously (which is consistent with my own experience). Like Christmas – every Westerner celebrates it but few believe the foundational story. Which leads me to another musing…
Some of feng shui’s principles of placement find common ground with Sun Tzu’s literary classic The Art of War. Arrangement of doors into bedrooms for instance, is principally about defence against an intruder. Defence and protection of wealth is a common theme in feng shui. This is in stark contrast to the stories told by Jesus (the historical figure, who wandered around ancient Israel) about his vision of the Kingdom of Heaven. One interesting image, that contrasts abundance and generosity with defence and protection, is found in the book of Mark (generally recognised by scholars as the oldest of the gospels). In it Jesus paints a picture of how the universe really is, through the image of a farmer sowing seed by just chucking it willy-nilly all over the ground – on the path, on the rocky ground, and on the fertile soil. Sounds very ad hoc and wasteful!
But it’s scarier than that. This was told to a farming community who were having any meager wealth taxed out of them by both the Romans and their own corrupt pseudo-king, Herod. Taxes were paid in grain from every harvest. Grain was therefore so scarce it would never be squandered, but sown very carefully and only on the fertile ground where it had the best chance of reproducing. This nomadic unshaven unqualified rabbi’s teachings that the universe actually gave life in abundance, and that people should do likewise, was a radical idea indeed! No wonder the powers that be had him killed. It’s a pity the Christian church’s own history doesn’t always reflect those truths and ideals – but that’s another story.
The notion of abundance and generosity of spirit is in stark contrast to the “me me me” generation of superannuation nest eggs and gated communities – defence and protection. Can it have a manifestation in building design? Yes indeed, and it is not all flying in the face of feng shui either.
However dubious feng shui’s theoretical basis may be, it does not necessarily fail the practical test of usefulness: but does it produce better buildings? Does it aid liveability, amenity or prosperity? In short – does it actually do anything useful? In pursuit of answers to these questions I am slightly less dismissive, although I just call the features of the design common sense, or just plain old good design.
A lot of “auspicious” design features can be reasoned as good design through simple psychological analysis. Some features may be vestiges of our evolutionary history, while others are only applicable to certain cultures, and would be highly inappropriate or even offensive in others.
In short, feng shui probably does more harm than good, as its illogical and unscientific basis is reflected in varied interpretations and sometimes ridiculous and unsustainable design outcomes. I don’t even like the term any more – I have found a more appropriate alternative: bo’ol zheet.
Dick Clarke is director of Envirotecture.
This article previously appeared in Design+Build Australasia, which has now ceased publication.