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The Chi of D.C.: A Feng Shui Expert Assesses the Capital

From Where Washington, August 2008
By Corinne Whiting

From the windows of her Watergate condo, the woman has a view of the gently flowing Potomac River. She’s a successful writer, wife of a high-profile man and a client of Carol Olmstead. The woman’s prosperity, according to Olmstead, comes as no surprise thanks to her home’s perfect “wind-water” location (the literal translation of feng shui). Another client, however, has been plagued by health problems and difficulties with her career and love life. Her living space? A converted loft in Georgetown where Whitehurst Freeway traffic aims directly at her condo and acts as a “poison arrow.”

Certified Feng Shui Practitioner Olmstead recently agreed to apply her analytical powers to the Washington landscape. In the process, she detected some “poison arrows” in this city, meaning bad qi or chi—loosely translated as “energy flow.” For 12 years Olmstead has consulted with owners of residences and stores, hospitals and even casino, using an updated version of the 5,000-year-old Chinese art of Feng Shui. Although Olmstead doesn’t use an ancient compass, she attributes one’s well-being to the placement of interior objects and architectural relationships. She describes this practice as “a natural sense we already have about our surroundings; we just don’t know the terms.”

An aerial map of D.C. reveals one of Carol Olmstead’s concerns—Pierre L'Enfant’s design for the National Mall, the city’s most prominent gathering space. While Feng Shui experts prefer elements that flow and curve, the Mall is one long, straight line (a “poison arrow”) aimed directly at the U.S. Capitol. Not only does the grassy rectangle itself lack curves, Olmstead says, but surrounding museums and government agencies occupy blocky, angular buildings. Fortunately, the drum-shaped Hirshhorn and undulating façade of the American Indian museums prove exceptions.

Considering the National Park Service’s recent bid to give “America’s front yard” a $350 million-facelift dubbed “deferred maintenance,” this might be an ideal time for input. So how to improve the Mall’s energy flow? Already in the works: the National Capital Framework Plan that envisions opening vistas, removing barriers and linking more land to water. Olmstead’s advice: Plant more trees, add curves to the landscape, and hang colorful banners from those angular buildings. She encourages planners to study Europe’s less “shrine-like” parks, which are conducive to crowds. She praises spaces here that come alive with movement and “positive noise” like the Smithsonian Castle’s plot with merry-go-round or the green expanse that bustles with activity during the Folklife Festival each summer.

But it’s not all bad news. Water, along with fire, earth, metal, and wood, factors in as one of the five environmental elements that feng shui followers compute. So Olmstead commends the founding fathers’ decision to site the capital close to the Potomac. She also applauds the addition of many man-made bodies of water, even if she finds the rectangular design of the Mall’s Reflecting Pool “off-putting.” From a feng shui perspective, some long-disputed elements of L’Enfant’s plan serve beneficial purposes. The traffic roundabouts call for circular movement and the more recent construction of the controversial WWII Memorial breaks the Mall axis, she says, diffusing some of its negative energy.

Olmstead also praises the Kennedy Center and its waterside terrace. “Despite the bad chi of this angular building, the location in such a positive space along the flowing river explains why this site continues to flourish.” The nearby Watergate complex, 30-plus years after the political scandal that made it notorious, also features a riverside location that ensures the successes of residents like Olmstead’s writer-client.

How does Olmstead interpret the placement of D.C.’s two most powerful buildings, the U.S. Capitol and the White House? Despite the Capitol’s being the target of a “poison arrow,” certain elements provide some “protection.” (Congress, rest assured.) A reflecting pool just west of the Capitol deflects harsh energy, while an incline slows the energy en rout up Capitol Hill. (Feng shui experts are wary of energy that flows too rapidly.)

L’Enfant called for a grand boulevard to connect the two seats of power, a direct line now disrupted by the Treasury Building. Olmstead also sees Pennsylvania Avenue as a symbol of communication flow, yet she would prefer that the White House and Capitol be sited at slight angles (directly facing would be too “confrontational”). The Capitol’s elevation asserts not just its dominant position in the cityscape but the very nature of democracy: the president must listen to the people. Could it be that the founding fathers did have "a natural sense" of the capital’s design after all?

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