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From “Cosmic Appraisal”

By Hillary Sheets
From: ID Magazine, “Cosmic Appraisal”, November 2000


Hillary Sheets: We know they are architectural masterpieces, but how do five great houses stack up to the eyes of feng shui master Alex Stark?

The Term Feng Shui might be more commonly associated today with wind chimes than good design, but this ancient Chines art of manipulating the energies in our homes and offices to achieve prosperity is, in fact, very much about design and placement. When Chinese farmers were first settling the land, their fortunes were inextricably linked to the forces of nature. Positioning their home in an advantageous site was the key to their survival; even today individuals and businesses in China don’t make a move without carefully considering the feng shui implications. If a feng shui master says a poorly positioned toilet is flushing away wealth, changes are made regardless of cost.

With feng shui ideology beginning to filter into Western culture, I.D. asked Alex Stark, a Yale-trained architect and feng shui consultant in New York City, to assess five iconic houses of 20th-century architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, and Frank Gehry. Did these architects, who have been so influential on the material world, also get it right on a cosmic level?

Stark explains that a feng shui analysis is a bit like an MRI: You slice it many different ways to get a clear picture. The first portent of a successful house is a firm balance between the earth as the foundation and the sky as the fundamental power source. How an architect gestures toward each is key. Feng shui also examines the implications of orientation-not only how to maximize sunlight and control dampness, but also how subtler forms of energy can be brought in from the eight points of the compass. The energy of thunder comes from the east, for instance, and is associated with ancestry, new beginnings and entrepreneurship.

Internally, eight areas of the house relate to the central aspects of life: fame, marriage, children, helpful people, career, knowledge, family, and wealth. These areas are determined by plotting the bagua, an octagonal shape, from the entryway of a structure. Feng shui masters also measure the balance of yin and yang in a space—yin being passive energy and yang being active. If you want long-term prosperity, Stark says, the optimal ratio is three parts yang to two parts yin. Here’s Stark’s analysis of how these houses measure up.

Fallingwater

by Frank Lloyd Wright.

In 1935, Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned by the Kaufman family to build a country house, which he cantilevered directly over Bear Run waterfall outside Pittsburgh. Fallingwater is now cared for by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Stark: Wright clearly had an intuitive sense of the energies of nature, which are integral to feng shui. He wasn’t exposed to it as a practice, but feng shui is inherent in all of oriental art and architecture, which he studied. This house belies a very deep understanding of the energies proper to the earth, sky and nature. For Fallingwater, Wright anchored the house to a boulder, making a very deep connection to the earth. Also, the house’s central structural element is a vertical one that aims toward the sky. He cantilevered these beautiful terraces, allowing the home’s inhabitants to experience nature.

Water is the fundamental metaphor of this structure. Water is amorphous, and Wright echoed the movement of water in the shifting planes of the house. In feng shui terms, water is one of the ways to attract prosperity–by having water at the front of the house, and, in addition, by making it approach the house from the left and then turn away from it and disappear underground. This is exactly what you perceive from the balconies of this house. In addition, the site faces south and is protected from the north by a rising slope. Taken together, these are basic criteria that support the success of a house on such a site. So Wright fulfilled a fundamental requirement for success.

Overall, the house has a very beautiful balance of yin and yang. Wright was a short man, so he intentionally brought the height of the ceilings down, creating a yin environment that is balanced by the brightness of the window openings. Everywhere in the house Wright worked yin-yang, both on the orthogonal axis and on the diagonal. On the ground floor, the vertical solid element of the hearth is positioned diagonally across the room from the open translucent element of the skylight and the staircase leading down to a wading pool below the house. On the other diagonal, Wright balanced the expansiveness of the back terrace with the enclosure of the entry.

In terms of the directions, as mentioned above, ideally you want a house to face south, which represents Heaven, the area of light in the sly, and you also want to have a slope behind you. Wright placed Fallingwater precisely the way I would have advised. If we plot the Bagua from the entrance, the Fire position, which controls Fame, is where the fire place is located. Joyfulness is to the right; that is where the dining area is. Wright positioned the kitchen in the Earth or relationships sector-the perfect place for it. He also has a flying terrace in the Wind or prosperity sector, which works well to enhance wealth. So it is clear that Fallingwater is brilliant from the feng shui perspective. I could not have done better. The quality of the design helps to explain why this house has remained as a favorite of the public and earned it the endowment it enjoys. As we shall see with the Savoy house by Le Corbusier, that has not always been the case with these architectural icons. The fortunes of a house, quite apart from the fortunes of its occupants, also depend on the quality of the feng shui design.

Villa Savoye

by Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier built Villa Savoye in 1930 as a weekend home outside Paris for the Savoye Family. Later used as a barn by the widowed and bankrupt Madame Savoye, the house was saved from demolition and recently restored by France’s Ministry of Culture.

Stark: First I would like to state that Le Corbusier is an architect that I admire. He was the very first architect I studied, and he has achieved remarkable heights, particularly at his chapel in Ronchamp. But here, Villa Savoye has big problems. First of all, Corbusier raised the house high off the ground on slender columns, disconnecting it from the earth. There is an overemphasis on the sky here and a denial of the earth, of the feminine aspect. This was appropriate to the cultural moment, and in line with his desire to turn the house into a sort of living machine, but it creates excess yang. Not only did Corbusier yank the house off the ground, but he placed the car port directly underneath it. The energies of cars are incompatible with life. It is a feng shui axiom that living areas located above garages lead to difficulty.

So from the feng shui perspective, this nixes the house right off. But Corbusier goes further. A ramp leading from the carport up to the living level perforated the house at its core. Vertical connectors like staircases need to be placed anywhere but the center, which corresponds to the tai chi, the soul, the most important position in the house. In addition, the ramp also aims straight at the main door on the ground level, which is a recipe for financial ruin. A house like this will have a very difficult time holding in to money.

On the other hand, the positive aspects of the house have to do with its orientation. Corbusier placed the kitchen on the west, which isn’t bad. He put the bedrooms on the north and northeast sides, which is fine. He opened up the living room to the light of the south.

Where he runs into trouble again is in the internal distribution of space. If you plot the bagua from the entrance of the house, the position of Fame is in a bedroom, which can put a lot of pressure on a person living there. But the real mistake is the indentation he designed at the entry, which is a feature associated in feng shui with problems in partnerships. Whomever this house attracts is going to have trouble connecting with their associates. This, in fact, is what happened: The prosperity of the family went down the tubes, and Madame Savoye eventually had to use the house as a haybarn.

This was the reason why it was in ruins for so many years, and why it took so long for the French Government (the house’s current “partner”) to come around to restoring it. This, despite the fact that Villa Savoye is one of the most important icons of modernism. In addition, he extends the area of the floor plan known as the Mountain, which is associated with dormancy and stagnation, The roof profile also corresponds to a shape that is associated with stagnation and danger, so the house, in fact, is not designed for a life of vitality and success. Quite the contrary.

Farnsworth House

by Mies van der Rohe

Commissioned by Edith Farnsworth to build a wooded retreat outside of Chicago, Mies van der Rohe completed this house of glass in 1951. It was later owned by Peter Palumbo, who restored the house after a flood destroyed its contents in 1996. The Farnsworth House is now open to the public.

Stark: The Farnsworth House is destined for chaos. In any society, the attitude of your house and your life as it connects to the ground is fundamental. Mies disconnected this house from the ground by raising it five feet above the earth on eight columns. The only connection the house has to the earth is its utility stack—sewage! He couldn’t be asking for more trouble, because he has put sewage in the tai chi, in the heart and soul of the home. Mies also made no formal gesture to the sky. There is a flat roof, but Mies hid the fact that he sloped the roof inward at its center—a denial of the sky—to allow for rain drainage.

The house, which is really more of an attempt at a nature shrine, suggest loneliness. Because Mies would not allow curtains in the Farnsworth House to enjoy the views unimpeded, the glass walls give total exposure to the outside. There is no enclosure—no yin—anywhere. Therefore you are not able to modulate the kind of energy coming in from the directions. If feng shui terms, you couldn’t possibly live here with a family or a loved one. There is no way to create different moods for different needs. In addition, the entry is at right angles to the approach. If you want to thrive, the approach should be sinuous. This house does not allow for any of this.

Mies also parked the bedroom in the east, which means that the moment the sun comes up you’re up too. There’s a view to the right side, in the area of Joyfulness, and the Kitchen is in Thunder, also facing east (the direction of the ancestors), which is fine, but because of the window wall you always have your back to the exposure, thereby denying your ancestry and making yourself vulnerable. In fact, vulnerability is everywhere in the house. Mies also placed the fireplace in the center of the house. Fire in the center betrays a need for purification. Of course, Mies was Germanic and that’s a part of the ethos of that culture at that time: purification through immolation. It’s perverse. This may be a great observation platform for nature, but it is not a home.

Another problem is the fact that the house was built on an alluvial plain. It leads to stagnation and illness. This is anathema to good feng shui, and the history of the house proves the point. The house flooded several times, and the relationship between Mrs. Farnsworth and Mies ended in disaster.

Glass House

by Philip Johnson

In 1949 Philip Johnson built the Glass House as a residence for himself in New Caanan, Conn. The rectangular structure’s walls are all glass. Although completed two years earlier, Johnson’s glass volume was influenced by Mies’ design for the Farnsworth House.

Stark: Although superficially akin to the Farnsworth house, the Glass House is very different, With the Farnsworth House there’s an attempt to command the view, but no real understanding of how to that works. In the Glass House, there’s a dialogue between the house, the landscape and other structures on the estate, such as the guest house and the sculpture pavilion. Feng shui-wise, it’s more of a statement about planning than just a house.

Johnson perched the Glass House on the edge of a slope, with water in the distance. It rests directly on the ground, which is good, as this gestures directly to the earth. The path that leads to the house is sinuous, which helps prosperity and gives the whole site a more ample, relaxed feeling. The cylindrical element inside the house is made of the same material as the flooring, so it translate earth into a gesture to the sky, which is a beautiful thing, as it creates a marriage of earth and sky. Also, there is more yin to begin with in the Glass House simply because of the materials Johnson chose, which include fired brick. Even though the house has full exposure to light, Johnson used curtaining systems to control light to a certain degree.

Johnson also positions furniture in a different way than Mies did in the Farnsworth House. While Mies cluttered all the furniture in the center, Johnson explodes it here

Johnson also did some very interesting things with in the bagua of this internal space: The living room, which is the place of activity, is in the are of Fame, which is wonderful. His writing desk is in the area of Heaven, so he can marshal the helpful energy of the Cosmos through his study. The bedroom shares in Earth (relationships) and Joyfulness. And the dining room, with a significant tree outside the area of Wind, is great for prosperity . On the down side, however, this house does not provide enough privacy for its occupants to lead a successful life in relationship, so basically this becomes a house for a single person. To be with someone intimately you need enclosure, and this is something this house cannot do. Marriage would be very difficult here.

Ghery Santa Monica House

by Frank Ghery

The Gehry House is a 1920s California bungalow in Santa Monica that Frank Ghery remodeled and sheathed in new materials—such as corrugated metal, plywood and chain-link fencing—in the late 1970s.

Stark: This is an intensely bourgeois house in the sense that it’s non-religious. The other houses we have looked at were attempting to deny conventional society and create transcendent statements, which Ghery isn’t interested in doing. He was inspired by the cacophony of urban reality.

The Ghery house has a conservative interior and a flamboyant exterior of collisions, fragmentations and weird angles. It’s been exploded here and punctured there, but the basic core is the old house, which has a tenuous connection to the earth, as do most late Victorian houses. The only gesture Ghery made to the earth is a whimsical children’s sandpit outside. The connection to the sky is also ambiguous. By opening the roof in some areas, Ghery enhanced the house’s prospects for prosperity, but by closing it away elsewhere, he cancels that potential and shoots himself in the foot. Odd angles, skewed staircases and funny cutouts incite the opportunity for unexpected events—often of a negative nature. This house creates serious instability for its occupants. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if their fortunes and relationships go up and down a lot.

The floor plan also has some problems. The main entrance runs smack into the back of the seating arrangement in the living room, so that your back is to the front door if you are sitting in the living room. This is a good way to loose personal power and put the entire family at risk. In addition, there’s a very unstable connection to spiritual life also because the Heaven area is taken over by garbage and a water closet. Clearly family wholeness is not the primary concern of this group of people.

However, in terms of yin and yang, the ratio isn’t too bad. A family could possibly live here, but they would have to be very eccentric individuals to survive. Children would certainly be at a disadvantage. In later years Ghery added a pond in front of the main entry. This would certainly help to soften the house’s otherwise hard—and very yang—gestures, making it somewhat more livable.