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Feng Shui and the Built Environment
Ben Sussman, AICP
With the exception of a few survivalists and nomadic herders, most of us spend the vast majority of our lives in environments that are influenced by human activity or designed and built by humans. Cities and towns, houses, office buildings, and factories are all part of the daily experience of our lives. So too are the individual rooms in our homes and places of business. Each of these places has a distinct set of characteristics, and each of these places can exert a profound influence on the quality of our lives. More important, each of us knows and feels the influence of our built environment.
Although we cannot always articulate why, certain places make us uncomfortable, while others are simply “just right.”
Of course, understanding the “why” of our built environment is important, since we all want to re-create the places and environments that make us feel most at ease and contribute to our growth, as individuals and as entire communities. This need exists at all scales, from individual rooms to entire metropolitan areas.
For example, we know that the layout and design of our cities can strongly influence public health, fiscal and economic vitality, and the quality of the natural environment within and around those cities. In some cases, a town or county can start from a clean slate, and can comprehensively envision and plan its future with these goals in mind. In other cases, improved quality of life involves a delicate negotiation of the fixed and fungible elements of the city’s layout and infrastructure. For urban planners, successfully executing this balancing act can translate the community’s loftiest goals into reality.
Feng Shui seeks to achieve many of the same goals within the smaller-scale environment of individual homes, offices, and rooms. Indeed, the successful application of Feng Shui is much akin to urban planning. It involves balance in the visual and physical characteristics of the room and the home in question.
The tools, of course, are different. For the planner and designer, it may be zoning codes or building design guidelines, streetscape plans or the design of a park or recreational trail. For the Feng Shui practitioner, it may be furniture, paint, plants, or artwork. (In both cases, a little bit of cleanup can also go a long way!) Nonetheless, in many cases, the fundamental concepts at work in planning and Feng Shui are remarkably similar.
For example, in Feng Shui the square is the symbol of stability, balance, and well-being, while the rectangle is the symbol of growth and is often associated with improved health. It should come as no surprise that some of the most enduring towns throughout the world are built around a central square or rectangular plaza, piazza, or place. In fact, in the case of cities built by Spanish explorers, the shape of the central plaza was actually mandated by the Laws of the Indies, which date to the 16th century.
Variety is also important in our built environment. Feng Shui promotes success through a balance in colors and shapes. Some of the most economically and socially energetic places in our cities occur where one development pattern meets another: New York City’s Times Square occurs where the city’s rectangular grid pattern is energized by the dramatic diagonal line of Broadway. Feng Shui similarly seeks to balance energy by the addition of contrasting shapes.
Water is also critical in both Feng Shui and urban planning. In the home, Feng Shui (which translates literally to “wind water”) sees water as a symbol of wealth. When you waste water, for example by ignoring a leaky faucet, you give away wealth. Most of the world’s most successful cities were founded on or near major bodies of water. Maintaining—as in the case of Washington, D.C., and its long-dormant Anacostia River waterfront—or re-establishing the population’s connection to that water is often seen as the way to assure future municipal prosperity.
The noted author and urban commentator Jane Jacobs once remarked that “design is people.” Our built environments do not occur by accident, but are instead the product of design and execution. At their best, our homes and workplaces are designed and built in a way that keeps us healthy, happy, and prosperous. Feng Shui deals with our most personal connections to the built environment -- the homes, offices, and interior spaces where we spend most of our lives.
Like good urban planning, Feng Shui blends existing elements with new components, brings life to the neglected places in our lives, and accentuates the places that contribute to our well-being.