AND THE BREATH OF LIFE
PLACEMAKING FOR A NEW MILLENNIUM
A new operative vision is emerging today in health and healing, in the sciences, and in the arts of relationships among people, place and things. Verifiable through our own senses, giving deeper and more fecund power to our awareness of self and touching of our outer world, this new vision is transforming all aspects of our perception, experience and living.
This vision is at once new and timelessly ancient. It is of the energy rather than material basis of all creation, of the intimate interconnectedness of all life, and of the rhythmic iteration of sound, of song, of complex vibration, harmonics and overtones, that give rise to and maintain all the complex interfolding structure of the universe1.
Virtually every culture other than our own has experienced and incorporated an understanding of this breath of life into all aspects of their culture. Ours alone seems to have lost this understanding. Chi, prana, kundalini, ki, vis medicatrix naturae, mana....the names are many, but the consistency and accuracy of the description and understanding awesome. The personal experience of this breath of life through yoga, tai chi, qi-gong, martial arts, meditation, or spontaneous occurrences is acknowledged by increasing numbers in our own culture, with the same consistency and replicability.2
The moment in time has now come when the effects of our culture's values of greed, growth, and violence are becoming impossible to sustain and must be let go of.3 It is wonderfully apt that at this very moment a new, clear, and powerfully appropriate vision is emerging upon which to base the transformation of our lives to ones of sustainability, giving, and love.4 Our values have forced us to build walls around our hearts to isolate ourselves from the bitter pain and anguish resulting from what our culture dreams into being around us. That isolation, in turn, has created its own inner pain, as well as surroundings of inconceivable emptiness and meaninglessness.5
This new vision gives a guidance for transforming our placemaking arts - what we call today architecture and the allied arts of landscape, interior, urban and regional design - as our society moves from a period of growth into a period of mature sustainability. It gives an inner kernel of power to these arts out of which a deeper, richer, more meaningful, and more unified yet varied expression can unfold in harmony with both our inner vision and our connection with all of creation.
These design arts are constantly redefined in our minds and hearts in every era, as they and we both evolve. In one age these arts were the means of "expressing heavenly harmony and radiance." In another, "expression of the power of reason and order of mathematics." In yet another, a "celebration of the ability of an industrial culture to transform and tame nature." In our lifetimes alone, architecture has been redefined from decade to decade as a "visual art", a means of "self-expression", the "business of design", the "packaging of development", and now as a plethora of intellectually incoherent "neo-'s" and "post-'s" that can't even find a self-referencing basis for self-definition.
In the process, dimension after dimension of meaning and power have been stripped from these arts so that today, truthfully, there is little inner basis for self-definition. I remember even now my own bewilderment as a beginning design student thirty-five years ago, being asked to make an "abstract composition". There were rules, of course, even for this, but even the most hallowed examples never moved my heart, held meaning, nor seemed an adequate basis for design.
The result of systematic removal of meaning from the practice of shaping our surroundings has resulted in undue emphasis being given to what little remains. Esthetics, for example, is given great weight in current design work. Sources as ancient as the I-Ching, however, specifically warn against emphasis on esthetics:
"Grace - beauty of form - is necessary in any union if it is to be well ordered and pleasing rather than disordered and chaotic. Grace brings success. However, it is not the essential or fundamental thing; it is only the ornament and must therefore be used sparingly and only in little things.
In human affairs, aesthetic form comes into being when traditions exist that, strong and abiding like mountains, are made pleasing by a lucid beauty.
"...beautiful form suffices to brighten and throw light upon matters of lesser moment, but important questions cannot be decided in this way. They require greater earnestness.
Esthetics is copying or measuring something against
the past. It is not part of any living art, which requires forging
afresh a sense of wholeness in each act of creation.6 Similarly, over-fascination with expression of structure
and concern with space rather than place reflect this same imbalance in
Lack of deeper dimensions has meant that landscape design, for example, has ended up being merely a cover-up for bad architectural design, or to provide a pleasing setting for a building. It is extremely rare today that interior and exterior places are designed congruently to intensify experience of nature, or gardens designed specifically as places of nurture for our souls.7
* * *
What are the dimensions missing from our design work? What have we lost? How is "chi" involved in restoring wholeness to our surroundings and our interaction with them?
Perhaps a good way to get a feel for what we are lacking is to take a look at the art of place-making of another and ancient culture which clearly acknowledged the central spiritual role of our actions and the core role of the "breath of life", yet maintained the place of distinct human habitation as an integral part of the power of nature.
I fortuitously became involved in the Chinese art of "feng-shui" in 1971 while developing new architectural programs in design history, ecological and energy design. Preparing a course on Asian architectural history, I had been reading what little was available on feng-shui in English - Ernest Eitel and Joseph Needham - sensing a value there I and my culture didn't grasp. At the same time, I was reviewing the early research on solar design done in the 1940's, which had been abandoned as we turned to pillaging the earth for inexpensively obtained fossil fuels.
Feng-shui (literally "wind and water") is the traditional basis of Chinese placemaking arts. "Chi" is central to its practices. It speaks of locating favorable sites for buildings, cities, and tombs based on the flows of "chi" in the earth.8 This sounded at first like rather esoteric hocus-pocus. Then one day I stumbled on a (pre space age) map in Farrington Daniel's book on solar energy, showing the variation and fluctuation of electromagnetic fields induced in the earth's atmosphere and crust. These electromagnetic fields resulted from interaction between the earth's iron core and magnetic field and the solar wind of powerful radiations from the sun.
From that moment, I knew there was a verifiable geophysical basis to at least some parts of the feng-shui practices, and strong suspicion that comprehension would come together concerning other and even more alien aspects of its theory and practices. And, piece by piece, through twenty-five years of incorporating feng-shui principles into architectural practice, it has.
What does a feng-shui basis of design contain that our present concept of the design arts lacks? And why is inclusion into our own lives and design practices important today?
The basic principles of a system such as feng-shui are found partially in the details of principles and practices recorded in their books and manuals. Perhaps more important to us, though, are the frequently unstated assumptions that underlie a range of specific rules and practices, which are so integral a part of the culture that no one thinks of the need for stating them.
There are perhaps 10 principles that systems such as feng-shui or sthapatya ved suggest underlie the practice of design in any sustainable society. For a person brought up in the beliefs of our society, some of these may initially seem incomprehensible, or their design significance difficult to grasp. Those principles are:
1. Energy, not matter, is the basis of all creation.
Matter is congealed energy, and our bodies and the physical world around us are the congealed patterns of matter that have formed around a matrix of energy. In a sense, our energy bodies are more primary than our physical ones, and the processes and relationships there more basic than in our physical bodies. And they are profoundly interconnected.
Experience of this aspect of existence profoundly changes our view of our lives and our world. Nurturing energy flows that course through our bodies except when we block them off; existence as nodes in a continuous interconnecting field of energy rather than discrete, separate objects; spiritual healing; being so coherently interlinked with others that our thoughts and memories are one; walking in the fields of incipient form where things and events take shape - strange and unexpected new worlds open before us. The role of our familiar material world in all of this is very different from our former universe where it was all that existed. And design which acknowledges, responds to, and incorporates both of these worlds in their complex interaction is very different from merely creating pleasing spatial designs.
2. The energy fields in the Earth's crust and atmosphere are a source of energy and information to all living matter.
Far more energy than that of the visible light that fuels photosynthesis is induced into the earth's mantle and atmosphere. Like any available energy source it has been seized upon by the multitude of life forms that have emerged on this planet to fuel and inform their life.
3. The breath of life, or "chi" exists in all people, places, and things, and is vital to their interaction.
"Chi" is not just something in our bodies. It permeates our surroundings as well - intensely in what are called sacred places, in good and bad concentrations elsewhere. Our "chi" alters the "chi" of places we use, and their "chi" alters our own. The good or bad energy of users of a place linger to affect subsequent users. Our interaction with place is additive and cumulative. We need to both design and act aware of this dialog.
4. The astrology of people, of places, and the timing, location, and nature of their interaction plays an active role in the outcome of those interactions.
The energy fields of the earth are influenced by other heavenly bodies than the sun, as well as by all life on earth. In turn, they convey those influences onto our lives. (This is one area of feng-shui I am yet far from understanding, but which holds a central role in several branches of traditional feng-shui practice.)
5. The health of all creation is essential to our well-being.
Our skins are not a meaningful line of distinction between what is and is not "us". What is inside our skins depends on food, air, and nurture from outside our skin. What lies outside our skins depends on us as a source for CO2 and for food. The health and well-being of what lies on either side of our skins cannot be separated from that of the other side. The ecological interconnectedness of all life means that the well-being of all life must be part of our designing in addition to factors in our surroundings that influence our specific health and well-being.
6. Our minds, hearts, dreams, emotions, and beliefs are an integral and powerful part of our interaction with the world on both sides of our skins.
The psychology of human and cultural nature - our values, our beliefs, our fears, our memories - all direct our actions or block them from certain paths, and determine much of the satisfaction or unhappiness that results from our interaction with places. The surroundings we create are like mirrors - inescapably reflecting and making manifest our deepest and most hidden values.
How we feel about a place or a pattern of people interaction with place is important. Yet we're never encouraged to trust our tummies and the consideration of the psychological dimension of people and place is virtually non-existent today. It is telling that Christopher Alexander's Pattern Language, the strongest proponent and example of the value of following our noses and tummies, is shunned by mainstream design professionals.
7. Our attitudes towards the past and the future - towards our ancestors and our descendants, what preceded us and what evolves out of our existence - are important to the outcome of interactions with our surroundings.
Many cultures ask themselves to consider the impacts of their actions for as much as seven generations into the future, so as to not diminish the potentials of the future. One culture speaks of those seven generations as three past, the present, and three future ones.
Why consider the past? Consideration of the gifts from past generations generates humility, acknowledgment of the size of the shoulders upon which we stand, and gratitude for those gifts as a basis for our actions. It provides us a realization that our achievements do not belong to us alone, and requires acknowledgment of our responsibility to pass equivalent gifts on to our descendants. Sustainability requires both of these perspectives on duration and relationship over time.
8. Harmony with the cosmology perceived by our society needs to be expressed in the design of our surroundings and in our actions.
The hierarchical order of a Chinese city, the sacred geometries of Islamic ornament, or the bold power of a 20th century skyscraper all reflect a special view of the universe, consistent with the beliefs and the world their builders dreamed into being. In doing so, such creations renew and strengthen the universe within which they are founded, and those who inhabit that universe.
9. The functional dimension of design includes emotional, ecological, spiritual, psychological and cosmological function as well as merely the physical accommodation of human activities.
Function needs to accommodate rituals, inner needs,
and a fitting topology of uses as well as our physical needs. In the feng-shui
process of locating a city, the view of the cosmos upon which city location
was based spoke symbolically in terms of four Gods - one dwelling in a
stream to the east, one in a plain to the south, one in a highway to the
west and the fourth in a mountain to the north. A site with these surroundings
was felt suitable. A rectangular plan was made in the symbol of the cosmos,
reflecting the rhythms of the sun and the seasons which most strongly affected
The Emperor was placed in the north, as he always faced the holy south in alignment with the growth-granting forces of the earth and sun. Temples were built in the northeast to a guardian deity, as that direction was felt to be unlucky - devils dwell in the mountains (as well as enemy troops). Buddhist temples often were placed in the west, as it was felt that Buddhism had a tendency to proceed eastward. The entire geometry and detailed layout of the city symbolically reflected and reinforced their understanding of the cosmos.
Thus sites were selected with mountains to protect the city from winter winds, and monasteries were founded in the mountains so the city could be warned of attack. Southern orientation brought sunlight, warmth, cheer, and sanitation. Fresh water and air were provided for, and the commerce and food supply of the city assured. At the same time, every activity in the making of the city, of living within it, and participating in its life reminded a person of the forces they felt in the world. They became aligned with those forces, and gained nourishment from them.
10. Sacredness is the central basis of meaningful lives and an enduring and sustainable society, and the act of designing our surroundings is, like any work, a spiritual path.
Ours is a legalistic society - of limited commitments easy to break, and with great incentives for those finding new ways to take from others, to harm and destroy the rest of creation. The only true alternative is a basis for our lives which makes harmful action inconceivable rather than the rule. Nothing less than our holding sacred the health of our surroundings and the well-being of others will ensure that we act strongly enough or soon enough to ensure that health and well-being.
Anyone or anything we spend time with and come
to understand, we come to love - warts, wrinkles and all. When we love something,
we cannot be happy ourselves unless the health and well-being of what we
love is ensured. Loving thus results in making the well-being of what is
loved inviolate. That is the essence of holding something sacred, and the
glue of life - not laws and government regulations.
The traditions of feng-shui practice demonstrate
how any kind of work can be pursued as a process of spiritual growth of
the practitioners as well as being an integral part of a sacred society.9 We can only design as we are,
and a sacred society requires work processes that nurture our own spiritual
health and growth.
Over time, feng-shui practice became separated
from the active shaping and altering of place, accreted layers of superstition,
and became limited to largely symbolic actions to improve the energy and
power of place (not to belittle the effect of symbolic actions.) Yet its
scope and content match the needs of reconceiving our design arts today.
Reintegration of its principles to active design, and applying them freshly
in a new cultural context promises to generate a much needed new wholeness,
power, and rightness to our surroundings.
* * *
What would we find visiting a community based on sustainability and the design principles of feng-shui a few decades from now? Would we find a familiar place or something strikingly different?
The transformation to sustainability required of us in the coming decades will both necessitate and bring into being major changes. Part of these needed changes call into practice the design principles equivalent to those of feng-shui. It is up to us to integrate them as a touchstone and core to our design arts to give them the wholeness and depth needed to express and manifest these new visions and values.
What we would see changed in a couple of decades depends in part on what we "see" of what surrounds us today. Many things will be as striking in their absence as in their presence.
Mobility, and its attendant freeways, ubiquitous automobiles, and ceaseless aircraft takeoffs and landings will be a thing of the past. This is in part because of the depletion of cheap fossil fuels which underlie current mobility. But more importantly, it will be a response to a realization that to function, mobility has to make all places substantially alike. The high cost of mobility actually turns out to generate few substantive benefits. We will find comfortable and convenient public transit, high-speed trains, and a great variety of neighborhood-based rental vehicles to meet what mobility needs remain.
Instead of being segregated as today, we will find an intimate interweaving of work place, living place, leisure and learning - eliminating much of today's demand for daily mobility. Restoration of the beauty and power of communities and natural places will be actively sought, as people work to "make where they are paradise" rather than needing to escape to "recreate" in better places. We will still find people moving, living, and traveling around the world - but on fewer and slower pilgrimages more deeply involved in learning from and sharing with others instead of numerous wrenchingly short vacation trips.
Urban skylines of towering office buildings will similarly become rare as sedentary and unrewarding secondary office work is replaced by more active involvement with local production of needed goods and services. Billboards and advertising will virtually vanish as goads to increased consumption become seen as the expensive and counterproductive waste they are. We will experience an interest in quality and meaning, instead of quantity and "appearances".
The twenty-first century community will likely be small, with long-time residents, as the importance of intimacy in interaction with people and place becomes felt and as the higher effectiveness of local production for local needs becomes vital. There will be a quiet, unhurried air to the patterns of life, as the walls between work and leisure are removed and the immense costs in time and production needed for today's growth are eliminated. We will find people on the street connecting with us, interested in us, and interesting to us in turn. We will find few large-scale institutions such as the prisons, schools, hospitals, shopping centers, power stations, and airports that have today replaced direct dealing with our needs.
Radio, TV, sports, music, and other cultural media will be transformed, as we rediscover that doing is far more rewarding than passively watching experts perform. Paradoxically, the interest in and attention to professional performances will be more intense and involved as more people are observing out of their own competence rather than as just couch potatoes.
What we may most surprisingly find, if we do successfully make this transition to sustainability, is that these apparently isolated communities are even more deeply and intensively interconnected in global and interest communities as well. We would be pleased to find that the level of well-being, satisfaction, security, physical, spiritual and emotional health far exceed those of today.
These profound changes in the what and where and nature of our activities will likely be equaled by the changes in architecture, landscape, interior, and urban design. While new building activity will dramatically lessen as populations are stabilized, the modification, replacement, and upgrading of existing facilities will result in an architecture with distinct regional character. Local materials, local climate responses, daylighting, solar heating, night cooling, and native landscaping will produce distinctive character changes from one region to another.
Today's cities (communities seem not to exist) rarely reflect passions.10 They don't reflect a love of festival and ceremony. They don't reflect joy, love, or giving. They are not filled with the spires of churches, temples or mosques celebrating the glory of creation. They are not filled with gardens, forests, other life, or the growing of food. The values and emotions most reflected in their surroundings are fear, exhibitionism, and envy.
The reworking of our existing urban fabric from a new value base will transform this, and imbue our communities with positive characteristics virtually absent in today's cities. They will be focused on improving the "chi" already existing in natural and human altered places and creating places with healing and healthy "chi" for all people and all life.11 They will create places that evoke community intimacy. They will contain the powerful in breath of silence. They will provide places to nurture the soul as well as shelter the body.12 They will both accommodate and represent in their making real work that enhances our skills and produces the goods and services needed for a healthy existence. They will reflect the values of giving, caring, equity, durability, and respect for all creation, and will hold all of that creation sacred. And most of all they will express the gift of love going into their making, and the passion of that uninhibited giving of love.
We don't need an esoteric Chinese label to realize how much we currently ignore ecology, psychology, sacredness, culture, health and sustainability in our design, or to acknowledge the need to reincorporate these dimensions in our work and seek the wholeness they can help impart. "Feng-shui" can, however, help us grasp and deepen our understanding of these missing dimensions and how they can actually impact our design.
What we have discovered already is that these new visions, values, and principles do produce a new architecture, a new landscape, and new communities. They do produce places with souls, ones that can move our hearts, and ones that honor and accommodate all of creation. And they do this while enriching rather than destroying our planet and our souls in the process.
1 For an astrophysical perspective on this kind of a universe, see Paul LaViolette's BEYOND THE BIG BANG, 1995.
2 See, for example Barbara Brennan's HANDS OF LIGHT, 1988. A variety of new body work practices now make elimination of inner blocks preventing experience and flow of "chi" much more readily accomplished.
3 My "It's Oil Right, Folks! There's Good Times Ahead", Solar '96 Solar Energy Association of Oregon Conference, October, 1996, and "Eco-Building II", May 1996, reprinted in Environmental Building News, July 1996 and In Context, Issue 44, July. 1996 (www.context.org), give some of the reasons this is happening and the immense economic benefits of stabilizing growth.
4 See my "Unexpected Gifts - The Real Rewards of Sustainable Communities", Solar '96 Solar Energy Association of Oregon Conference, October, 1996 for a discussion of the even more significant non-economic benefits inherent in sustainability.
5 See, for example, my "Shedding A Skin That No Longer Fits" Mar. 1996. reprinted in IN CONTEXT #44, July '96.
6 Different aspects of this can be seen dramatically in Inuit "art", where the process of making is all and the product tossed aside on completion; in certain temple traditions in India, where once an offering of sculpture or architecture was completed, it was left to return to dust unrepaired; and in the Shinto temples in Japan, such as at Ise, where the ongoing total replacement of temple structures every twenty years kept the work of the temple builders as a spiritual practice intact and alive. (See the work section of THE HEART OF PLACE)
A tour through a series of the ancient Zen temple gardens in Kyoto can also clearly reveal which ones have died and are merely maintained, and in which there is still a living spiritual tradition in the current gardeners.
7 See my GARDENS OF THE SPIRIT.
8 See sections and references on feng-shui in my THE HEART OF PLACE, 1993; or my ENVIRONMENTAL DESIGN PRIMER, Schocken Books, 1973.
9 E.F. Schumacher's "Buddhist Economics", in SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL or my ENVIRONMENTAL DESIGN PRIMER discusses this for work in general. My THE HEART OF PLACE discusses it in terms of the process of design and building.
10 See my "The Spiritual Heart of Sustainable Communities", May 1994, or "Cities of Passion, Cities of Life, in THE HEART OF PLACE for ones that do.
11 For a case study of how this is manifested, see my "Sewage is Art: A Study of the Healing of Place with "Chi", June, 1995.
12 See my GARDENS OF THE SPIRIT and THE HEART OF PLACE, or my "Building with a Soul", in DIALOGS WITH THE LIVING EARTH, James & Roberta Swan, 1996.
Many of the articles cited can be found on the web in the IN CONTEXT Magazine issue #44 (www.context.org). Copies of others can be obtained for nominal cost from the author. THE HEART OF PLACE can be obtained for $15 US from the same source.
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© November 1996