HEALING OF PLACE WITH "CHI"
Conventional architecture today seeks primarily
visual excitement and impact, but rarely creates places that nurture our
bodies, minds, and spirits. This study demonstrates an alternative approach
to the making of place - creating meaningful and nurturing places through
design incorporating modern application of feng-shui or geomancy.
Rather than the conventional owner's demands of "I want..., I want...", it begins with the question, "What is the most we can give to users of the place, to its surroundings and community, to the future, and to all of life?" It suggests that a giving-centered design process can create places which more successfully contribute to the true goals of their creators and users than conventional and even "green" design. It recognizes that embodiment of positive and nurturing values can generate the greatest power of a place to affect us, to heal and enhance our lives and community.
Feng-shui (literally 'wind and water') is the Chinese name for their traditional approach to design of cities, homes, temples and tombs to align our actions harmoniously with the universe. It is a multi-dimensional collection of practices, principles, sciences and art - including what we would today call geophysics, ecology, psychology, spiritual practice, symbolism, chi (energy of life), astrology, and just good common sense. Feng-shui has shown that there are demonstrable geophysical energies in the earth which are modified by topographical features, and which influence our lives. It has shown also that our own vital life energy - embodying our love, fear, anger, or joy - impacts and alters the energy of the places we inhabit, and consequently affects others that use those places.
Traditional practice of "feng-shui" or geomancy often constituted a highly competitive search to obtain and flaunt the most geomantically favorable site or design, to give comparative advantage to one's life or success. Such sites had the most dominant views and positions, favorable breezes, exposures, terrain, neighbors, etc. In contrast, modern feng-shui practice often recognizes what is soon learned in a family relationship - that the happiness and well-being of each is dependent upon the health and well-being of all. It seeks improvement of the qualities of physical surroundings which can benefit an entire community, recognizing that the position of generator of that good brings the greatest benefits of all.
In this case, choice of site was not possible. The study was an entry in a competition for design of a new Museum of Korean Art and Culture to be built in Los Angeles, CA. The site was already determined, and its context and qualities were not encouraging. It was located in a commercial ghetto in a smog-ridden and automobile-dominated urban area of Los Angeles, filled with racial and class tensions and the aftermath of rioting and arson. The site was rubble-strewn and barren, with virtually no trace of the natural ecological community remaining. The site starkly reflected the results of a society based on greed, on self-centeredness and materialism, on taking rather than giving. This provided an appropriate challenge to find what could be given to a place and its community to nurture and improve its energy and life, and to tackle head-on the issue of healing and revitalizing the places most damaged by our actions.
Our energy connections with a place occur through
our bodies, our minds, and our hearts. If its neighborhood is too scary
to enter, noone will visit a museum, no matter how beautiful we make it.
If our surroundings reflect back to us only the values of greed, lack of
caring, and failure, we are unlikely to become caring, giving, successful
people. But if we initiate caring for a place, for its people, and honoring
a belief in a good future, it will come to reflect those values, too, and
become a support for the people who live within it. The most important change
any building on this site could demonstrate is a change in the values it
embodies and establishment of the precept of 'giving' rather than 'taking'
as a basis for interaction.
One basic strategy chosen was to take what is considered waste, and turn it into wealth which can enrich the community. We chose probably the least likely action possible - of taking the community sewer and rerouting it onto the site. The sewage of the neighborhood would be pumped onto the roof of the museum, given advanced biological treatment, and its nutrients used to support rooftop produce gardens to provide fresh produce to the neighborhood. The produce would be sold at a green grocer incorporated into the public areas of the site, which would provide incentive and opportunity for everyone in the neighborhood to drop in, linger, and relax, as well as obtain fresh, healthy produce.
The wastewater from the produce gardens would then be distributed along the surrounding streets to irrigate street tree plantings of native California live oaks. This would help restore greenery, shade, and some of the native ecology back into the area, as well as decreasing temperature swings. It would also provide groundwater aquifer recharge, while demonstrating that a community can take action to improve itself.
This may seem at first to be far removed from the mission of an art museum and culture center. It is a capability for "giving", however, which is inherent in any facility in a neighborhood with community consciousness and a large roof area. It also has a particular appropriateness in KOMA's case. KOMA does not have a traditional museum's goal of just storing old objects. Its goal is to honor its particular cultural heritage, transmit its skills and values, heal tensions in the community, and stimulate a positive new modern synthesis of culture. For that primary role of the center to even begin to succeed, however, it has to show leadership, to become a welcome and valued part of the community and to draw people into and contributing to its activities. Vitality is a goal of art, and any tool which helps achieve that vitality creates an appropriate art form. The resultant roof gardens, street landscaping, and facility gardens are a true form of art as well as wealth - created out of the once worthless waste of community sewage. In this context, sewage truly is art, and the neighborhood an appropriate canvas!
A vision put into action, of a community enriching and empowering itself through discovering its least likely source of wealth, can be an essential element of survival, leadership, and of synthesizing a new and vibrant culture in this time and place. It also provides several potential concrete benefits - recapture and savings of sewage treatment and disposal costs, avoiding use of chemical fertilizers, keeping nutrients and food production in the neighborhood and in control of the residents, and providing an attraction to bring more than just Korean neighborhood residents into the project. It turns unused roof areas that conventionally contribute only to climate extremes into green and productive areas. It provides areas of economic value on the project property beyond those otherwise limited by city zoning codes. Perhaps most importantly, it demonstrates a commitment to improving the quality of the community, and concern for the health and well-being of all members of the community - human and otherwise.
This first level of 'chi' design changed the energy of the neighborhood - replacing values that destroy, pave over, ignore, and take, and setting in motion ones that support and restore life, diversity, caring, and giving.
Feng-shui acknowledges the importance of our continuing awareness of our dependence upon and place in the web of life - both as a matter of survival and as a source of joy and happiness. The aptness of the natural community of life that evolves out of long interaction in a place is a visceral demonstration of 'fit-ness', and actions taken to initiate its restoration and our proper fit into it some of the most important actions we can take with a place, apart from the practical benefits of such actions.
A second level of 'chi' design for KOMA changed the ecology of the site itself. It constituted actions around and within the site itself to improve the microclimate and ecological aspects of the facility. In addition to the rooftop produce garden, four other separate garden or green elements were designed into the project - a powerful traditional Korean garden in the heart of the site, a community-use "forecourt" garden area; an outside neighborhood "pocket garden" along the sidewalk adjacent to the west entrance to the project, and the native street tree plantings surrounding the site. These quieted the site, freshened the air, exchanged carbon dioxide for oxygen, provided places for birds, insects, plants, and reestablished a natural ecological community on the site.
Other water features were part of the design - a gurgling and splashing "moat" surrounding the building, the waterfall and pond in the pocket garden, fountains at the building corner and at the "spirit wall" at the south entrance, and fountains and water features at the entrances. They were used to increase anions in the air to counter the "Santa Anna" winds, cool and refresh the air, and provide counterpoint to the street noise. The plantings were designed to improve the oxygen/carbon-dioxide balance in the air, and to provide food and home for birds, butterflies, bats and other forms of life.
The forecourt area, while people-intensive and necessarily hard-paved, was designed with overhead tree vegetation, moss-covered undersides of overhead structure, ivy-covered walls, and planters in guardrails and court areas. These were all designed to be provided water and nutrients by the same wastewater system.
The traditional Korean garden was located in the core of the building devoted to understanding and conveying the roots, values, and achievements of traditional Korean culture. It was ringed by a research library, museum galleries devoted to the traditional arts of Korea, and a performance hall for traditional art forms. While providing a serene "breakout" space for meetings and visitors to the center, the garden gave an intensive experience of traditional Korean garden and architectural arts. As well, through the principle of using community wastewater to nurture the garden's growth, and in the special place given to the location of the garden in the arrangement of the facilities, this garden also held a much more central role in the symbolic level of affecting the chi of the place.
Together, these gardens helped us to share the place with other life, to delight in the beauty, richness, and diversity of the life that makes up a natural community, and to rediscover the sense of fit and rightness of the natural community that had evolved in this place over the ages.
Feng-shui acknowledges that healthful surroundings and a healthful culture must be rooted in a sacred way of living. Holding something sacred is simply keeping the well-being of that thing inviolate. That impetus comes only from loving deeply enough that we know the well-being of all that surrounds us is vital to our own well being. 'Honoring' - of people, place, heritage, the future, and our selves - is the simplest and most direct expression of a sacred way of living, and therefore of our own survival and well-being.
The third, and perhaps most powerful level of 'chi' design involved the minds and hearts of the users and visitors. In doing so, it dealt with the internal arrangement, design, and symbolic meaning of elements of the facility. In traditional Korean city and home planning, the position of power is the north end of the central N-S axis. Here, the ruler or owner faced and received the power and warmth from the Sun in the South, and become the local source of power in the complex. In this project, that pattern of arrangement was honored, and that prime location was given to tradition, to nature, and to ancestors, in the form of a traditional garden.
Within the garden, in the position of greatest importance directly on this axis, was placed a physically non-imposing, but symbolically vital element - a shrine to the ancestors. This was to contain earth and icons brought from sacred places in Korea. Its role was to give central place and honor to the tradition, the land, and the ancestors which created the special Korean tradition and culture, and which brought it to this place. It formed a touchstone also for members of the community who had come from Korea or whose family still live there, and a place to place the ashes of those with deep ties to the "old country".
This is not of small importance. If a way can be found to show the continuing validity and value of the principles underlying a culture and tradition through its own design and function, the effectiveness of a museum and cultural center dedicated to honoring, understanding, communicating and synthesizing upon that tradition becomes an order of magnitude more successful than one which can only preserve a discredited and dishonored tradition.
Balanced around this shrine, representing the active and passive, yang and yin, powers of nature, were a mountain, waterfall, a traditionally-designed garden pavilion, and a central pool of water, representing the place and participation of people in the balance of life. From the roof, the sun-purified waters were conducted to the mountain and waterfall, to the still waters of the pond, and then flow outward, carrying the energy from this central and vital place to the rest of the project and on out into the surrounding community. Likewise, the facility honors and spreads the heritage it represents. At the core of the facility, the garden gives a place of silence, of emptiness - a place for things to begin, and a reflection of the primal source out of which all creation arises.
On this same north-south axis are located the main activity spaces of the center - a breakout space for the audience of the performance hall, opening into the garden; the performance hall itself, with a unique stage arrangement with openable walls allowing a variety of combinations of public and private use; and the community forecourt which permits a more public, community and people-oriented gathering space connected with the various parts of the facility.
The arrangement of the 'stage' area and the performance hall was planned to give unique opportunity for flexible and public community use, and to restore performances to the simplicity yet effectiveness of natural lighting, open air performance, and participatory audience arrangements. The foyer walls slide aside, merging the performance hall thrust stage and the public performance area in the forecourt into a single large circular stage for large community events which can play to both the hall, the forecourt, and the balconies around it.
Sustainability requires something be hold closely enough to our hearts that we value it enough to devote the resources needed to its continuance. It also requires that such maintenance be affordable. Feng-shui recognizes the importance and wisdom of letting the renewable energies of nature wisely channeled provide the heating, cooling and lighting of a building. All of the elements of this KOMA design were planned to be naturally lighted, heated and cooled, and except for the permanent exhibit areas, designed for open-air use tied to the garden areas during the majority of the year, reducing conventional energy needs an order of magnitude. They also were planned to use natural and traditional building materials of the area.
The design for the facility also was based on the feng-shui principle of durability, acknowledging that a building that lasts 200 years costs only one-tenth of a building that lasts only 20 years. The savings from durability permit a generosity of design that gives comfort, repose, and fullness to its elements and its users. The expression of that goal of durability also conveys a firm belief in the future and creates a gift of the facility to that future, acknowledging that our own lives are built upon the gifts of the heritage we have inherited.
This core - of permanent and temporary museum galleries, performance hall, gardens, library, greengrocer, bookstore and newsstand - was all contained within the traditional form of a walled enclosure - a dominant building form not only in the Korean tradition but in many of the Latin and African traditions which are the roots of other community residents. It was felt a particularly appropriate form for the safekeeping of cultural treasures, as a sanctuary from the noise, confusion, and wrongness of American urban streets, and for security in a tension-filled community. This "enclosure" was combined with curved roof forms which embodied the same sense of effortless, floating support of traditional Korean roof construction in modern materials and technologies.
The "moat" and "wall" distinguishes the facility from surrounding areas, defines it as an honored or "sacred" area, and makes special acknowledgment of this difference at points of public entry. At these points, the four elements of life - earth, air, fire, and water are given special acknowledgment or honor. A gong or a traditional drum is located in the central entry, acknowledging the power of air, of vibration and sound, in the organization of life from energy. Fire, in the form of sunlight, is honored in the form of plant life it makes possible. Earth is honored in the placement of special rocks, whose form reminds us of our kinship with the earth, the rocks themselves, and the stars - all ashes of earlier stars. Water is honored everywhere at entrances, for its central role in the creation and unfolding of life.
Incorporation of traditional principles of design acknowledges their value, and with that, the value of the culture of which they were part. Demonstrating their effective power in new materials, technologies, climate, culture and context not only gives greater meaning and effectiveness to the design itself, but as well further enhances the credibility and value of the traditions and our ability today to create with them a synthesis which opens new vistas and dimensions of effectiveness for our current environmental design
By asking the prime question, "What can we give?", we see what can be gained and created - free, if you wish - in the course of meeting the program of a facility. Here both space and impetus for community place and life were created, through careful arrangement of facilities and creation of ancillary services that allowed community use of facilities outside the needs of KOMA itself. We see how the impetus to neighborhood pride, fellowship, and betterment are initiated through something as unthinkable as turning sewage into gardens, trees, and the song of birds. We see the potency of rediscovering the effective design principles of a tradition and finding successful contemporary expression of them. And we see how that affects the respect and honor we come to give that tradition, and how it affects our own self-esteem and mutual respect. By asking the question, we are able to create a gift of opportunity for the community - to grow, to learn, to give, to share, and to enjoy. A community without joy is one without life.
A building, like a person, can have a soul, can affect our lives, and can be part of the life of a community. It can be rooted in and convey the spirit of a strong culture and tradition. It can help restore to our surroundings a sense of sacredness and honoring of people, place, and diverse traditions. In its organization, construction, and demands on the rest of our world, a building can demonstrate patterns which are sustainable and nurturing of the human spirit and of all life. Any less is not worth pursuing.
38755 Reed Rd.
Nehalem OR 97131 USA
© September 1995