Feng Shui ~ It’s all smoke and mirrors right?

object002It is of interest because it purports to be wisdom that relates architecture harmoniously to its environment but do a quick google of feng shui and you would easily come to the conclusion that it’s far removed from a scientific method. Really, it’s the vibe of the thing. A highly tuned sensitivity to man and his environment, that is far from science, even though there may be some debatable objective rules intact.

Broadly speaking, feng shui can be divided into “Form School” and “Ancestral Hall Method” yet it is not entirely clear to me that one can exist without the other. Form school seems to limit itself to practicalities. The physical configuration of geographical features applied to the built environment while the Compass School seems a more lofty determination of the metaphysical. Feng Shui as exposed by examination of ancient Chinese architecture reveals a concern for the philosophical, for astronomy and geography, of human behaviour design psychology and natural phenomina, of ritual and process, formality and relief, a meditation expressed in built form using all of the tools of an architect, and expressed in the language of an architect. Feng Shui is a calm reflection. It exposes a vision for man and appreciation of how he understands his place in the world. In many ways, the architecture shows that people are the same all over the world, and yet culturally and environmentally specific.

Doubtless, that there seems to be no proper subject of study, each feng shui school has its own methods of doing things and there are no basic standards even amongst the practitioners of the same business. Most of the time its determinates are highly questionable wherein apparently every evil thing can be solved by appropriate decorating according to advice received upon receipt of the fee for services rendered. It is an easy target for the cynical.

In ancient times wise men offered advice to fellow villagers on many aspects of his life and his environment. This wisdom was apprenticed generally within families so that succession was ensured. Villagers acted in reliance of the Master’s advice, successfully or otherwise. Clearly one ought source advice from the Master who’s experience and wisdom can specifically apply to one’s circumstances, thereby providing a general path along which one is urged to follow. But, obtain advice from two “masters” and the likely outcome can be two conflicting paths.

How this ancient practice can be applied today is perhaps worthy of serious study and no doubt is studied seriously. In the last 70 years the Chinese government has had a substantial influence, I think on the dis-use of feng shui practices and beliefs, and most especially under Mao, and indeed much ancient knowledge may have been obliterated during the cultural revolution. Knowledge of the practice of feng shui has obviously survived in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan for instance as well as the general knowledge of ex-patriot Taoists in the west, Australia and the USA for example. These practitioners however are not necessarily architects. Their language is not necessarily spoken in language of architecture, leading to poorly expressed spacial configurations. In my experience at Tsinhua University, Chinese schools of architecture do not teach “feng shui” and the words of one professor ring clearly in my head “we do not teach architects to believe in fairy tales”. Thus Chinese architectural education follows under toe of the communist party philosophy.

However, China is always changing and perhaps, hidden in foot lockers across China are the various notes of architect great grandfathers everywhere which will, in time, surface and educate us all. I doubt it. In any case, the lecture series I attended in 1984 did, in time, discuss the aesthetic relationship between building and surrounding hills, of surrounding trees for relief and protection from undesirable elements, deriving an association with water which might best be predominantly pooled quietly to the south (North in Australia), relationship with courtyards and open spaces, sense of protective enclosure, privacy and belonging, passive solar energy concerns, all of these being the pragmatic but important elements for the ancient chinese architecture, and indeed architecture generally, for which examples were examined, presented, visited and explored.

My first thoughts were that I do not believe in fairy tales, but fairy tales in western culture have always been a means of communicating life’s lessons verbally, so superstition should not be considered at face value, but by reference to its origins.

What then can be learnt from studying ancient chinese architecture if its highly esoteric and artistic origins are obscured, forgotten and expunged, its written records obliterated and its leading architects purged or re-educated?

Well, let’s forget about trying to work out if its all hocus pocus, because we can still look around at ancient chinese architecture, some of it still in its natural environment, and we can try to see what they could obviously see, by the vibe of it. The origins of fung shui are there written in the language of architects waiting to be recovered.

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