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Dick Clarke: On debunking feng shui

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:

  • science-based
  • 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.

Comments

12 Responses to “Dick Clarke: On debunking feng shui”

  • Hi Dick,
    I read your article with great interest as my views on a parallel area, Vaastu (from India and considered the “mother” of Feng Shui by some), are not too dissimilar to yours in terms of being universally applicable. I have seen changes made to designs as per Vaastu principles destroy a perfectly well functioning and harmonious space. It is a pet future research topic of mine to study the applicability of Vaastu in the Southern hemisphere. Lilian Too has also, I think, raised this issue similarly for the suitability of Feng Shui in the Southern hemisphere.

    Having said that, I think it is important not to throw the baby with the bathwater. Original masters (genuine) and their teachings/theories/knowledge are often timeless and hold great value but are invariably distorted, misinterpreted and misused by people both unintentionally and intentionally over time. So a proper investigation of the original texts and underlying principles on which Feng Shui is based as well as evidence of its benefits is worth undertaking before reaching any considered conclusion.

  • Nicholas Loder says:

    Having not studied the claims of feng shui as to a)[being] “more or less uniformly understood by those who claim to master it”, and b)
    “universally applicable” I am nevertheless not impressed by some ‘theories’ of urban design or urban planning, (and perhaps architecture and the second link’s author Stephen Marshall would posit), and I offer these two links for those interested to compare East and West philospohies/theories for coherencey and alignment to both a) & b):

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/urban-legend-can-city-planning-shed-its-pseudoscientific-stigma/

    http://www.palgrave-journals.com/udi/journal/v17/n4/abs/udi201222a.html

    • Dick Clarke says:

      Indeed Nicholas, one could even argue that most of what we have built ion the last 50 years or so is crap! But then, science and psychology found little opportunity to influence most of that either.

      As ben’s experience demonstrates, what modern application of feng shui usually results in is a compromised confused design outcome.

  • Ben Talman says:

    To quote Michael Mak’s words “It is no doubt that there are many so called “Masters” acting superstitiously in the general public,” or would that be “suspiciously” I jest. Michael makes a number of interesting comments, for which in Asian cultures is quite accepted and has been for thousands of years, of which I accept and respect, having worked in offices with Asian colleagues. In Western eyes, in some ways it is just seen as hocus pocus, as this is based on a lack of understanding of that culture in comparison to the West and not necessarily that it works or not.

  • Kokhoo says:

    The built environment of whole Chinese cultures over 4000 years were developed based on the principles of Yi-Jing and Feng Shui, be it palaces,temples, residential houses and so on. Of course, over 4000 years, there must be a lot of “false theories” and “impurities” from various practices. It is time that we re-evaluate this ancient knowledge and investigate feng shui from a scientific basis. A basic logic – if feng shui is “illogical” and “bullshit”, then the whole Chinese culture is “illogical” and “bullshit”. Can this be so? Don’t link it to the “stark contrast to the stories told by Jesus”, they are totally different and need to look at it from a total different perspectives. This is the main problem of a lot of westerners and even scholars, only look at issue from one perspective, preconceived ideas then draw conclusions and take that as the “only truth, nothing but the truth”

    • Dick Clarke says:

      Let me assure you Kokhoo, I am not suggesting or implying that Chinese culture is bullshit. I am pointing to the problems applying part of an ancient culture to an entirely different modern one.

  • Michael Mak says:

    The ancient Chinese knowledge of Feng Shui that aims to creating harmony between heaven, earth and human, has created well-known historical architecture and built environment in China for thousands of years. Although not all phenomena can be explained by known theories in science yet, many genuine Feng Shui theories and applications are now proved using scientific approach. It is no doubt that there are many so called “Masters” acting superstitiously in the general public, as a built environment professional, the author should not act like a layman.

    Reference: Mak, M.Y. & So, A.T. (2015) Scientific Feng Shui for the Built Environment – Theories and Applications, Enhanced New Edition. Hong Kong: City University of Hong Kong Press.

    http://www.cityupress.edu.hk/Common/Reader/Products/ShowProduct.jsp?Pid=10&Version=0&Cid=58&Charset=iso-8859-1&page=0&idx=6&cat=30

    • Dick Clarke says:

      Thank you Michael for a couple of well put points. It is well worth exploring other design philosophies, and I for one am equally critical of ‘unthinking’ approaches to placement. As you point out, there is huge scope for a scientific investigation of ancient theories to discover what value may lie there, not merely setting out to disprove – which would be very unscientific!

      I also need to make a distinction between ancient roots (and recognising that feng shui probably had its roots in India) and current commercialised practices.

  • Ben Talman says:

    I am working on a project right as I type, that involves business offices and a test kitchen for their new products. The shadow of Feng Shui was cast over this at the last minute, move this entry, change that wall and then in the test kitchen, floor to ceiling partitions, in my mind, between Hot and Cold etc, the effective bench space now compromised but anyway, client wants and client gets. With regard to Front and back doors, hey, in this project it did not even have a back door. Now we have a fire exit and unless Qi can read Exit signs, there is no chance of escaping by accident. On the aspect of Hot and Cold (ie Fire), Qi being highly intelligent as we all know, would know to move away, from Hot to Cold and leave the building.

    It is interesting because the North American Indians and those of Central and South America have similar beliefs with regard to Hot and Cold, Wet and Dry etc, with a colour palette to suit, not that I have seen it applied to buildings as such, but maybe the Mayans and the Aztecs did this.

    This project has had about six different iterations and at this time my Feng Shui Qi sense tells me that there are more coming. Interestingly enough, the building as it is now is much the same as it was before having applied Feng Shui.It all got changed back, yet again, and this has been going on since 2013. On a previous revision, the drawings were sent overseas for the Feng Shui Master, the front entry changed, its position moved back 45 degrees to what was proposed, so the entry to the offices is flat to the face of the facade as compared to the proposed angled entry before, which would have provided a reception area and better circulation space. Qi must get confused by doors at an angle, hence the chance. Makes me think of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in Hong Kong, a beautiful building in my mind, the escalators had to be moved because they would go over the tail of the dragon, that resides in the bottom of the atrium, this coming to me from a former boss, Chinese, who was an engineer on the project. Can’t have an angry dragon in the bottom of your building now!!! Good Design and Common Sense – Yes, and this is established over time from those things that work as compared to those that don’t. Common sense tells us that if it works, do it again, if it does not, don”‘t!

  • Michael Paton says:

    This could have been written in the Song Dynasty in China, where the then new version of compass based fengshui was criticised as the ‘art of swindlers’, or it could easily be a nineteenth century British diatribe against the practice. Criticism of fengshui goes back a long way. However, its origin in the siting of human habitation in Northern China (see the geographer Hong Key-yoon’s ‘The Culture of Fengshui in Korea’) indicates a strong empirical basis. I can only suggest from his comments that, like the 19th century British commentators, the author possibly knows little of what he speaks, and has spent too much of his time with people who call themselves ‘Masters’.

    See http://www.brill.com/five-classics-fengshui

    • Dick Clarke says:

      Thank you Michael, your insightful comments prove my point. In the here and now of feng shui’s actual application to design, there is no agreed foundational theory or approach, a thousand different views, and a confused result.

  • Mike Faine says:

    Another good read from Dick, I like the way you have morphed from feng shui to bo’ol zheet. A classic understatement of the facts.

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