What is Feng Shui? How Does Feng Shui Relate to Architecture?

Architects and Designers Find Inspiration in Ancient Eastern Ideas

Sydney Opera House complex juts out into the Australian waters of Sydney Harbour
The Energy of the Wind and the Water is Part of the Feng Shui of the Sydney Opera House. Photo by George Rose/Getty Images News/Getty Images (cropped)

Feng shui (pronounced fung shway) is a learned and intuitive art of understanding the energy of elements. The goal of this Chinese philosophy is harmony and balance, which some people have compared with the Western Classical ideals of symmetry and proportion.

Feng is wind and shui is water. Danish architect Jørn Utzon combined these two forces of wind (feng) and water (shui) in his Australian masterpiece, the Sydney Opera House.

"Seen from this angle," says Feng Shui Master Lam Kam Chuen, "the whole structure has the quality of a craft with full sails: when the energy of the Wind and Water move together in certain directions, this ingenious structure draws that power to itself and to the city that surrounds it."

Designers and decorators claim that they can "feel" the surrounding, universal energy called ch'i. But architects who incorporate the Eastern philosophy are not guided by intuition alone. The ancient art prescribes lengthy and complex rules that may strike modern homeowners as quirky. For example, your home should not be built at the end of a dead-end road. Round pillars are better than square. Ceilings should be high and well-lit.

To further confuse the uninitiated, there are several different ways to practice feng shui:

  • Use a compass or Lo-Pan to establish the most beneficial placement of rooms
  • Draw on information from the Chinese horoscope
  • Examine the surrounding land forms, streets, streams and buildings
  • Use high-tech equipment to examine environmental health hazards, such as electromagnetic radiation and toxic materials
  • Use feng shui principles to help sell your house
  • Use some variation of a tool called the Ba-Gua -- an octagonal chart outlining the most favorable placement for rooms
  • Manipulate surrounding ch'i with appropriate colors or objects like a spherical sculpture

Yet even the most baffling practices have a basis in common sense. For example, feng shui principles warn that a kitchen door should not face the stove. The reason? A person working at the stove may instinctively want to glance back at the door. This creates a feeling of unease, which can lead to accidents.

Feng Shui and Architecture:

"Feng Shui teaches us how to create healthy harmonious environments," says Stanley Bartlett, who has used the centuries-old art to design homes and businesses. The ideas date back at least 3,000 years, yet a growing number of architects and decorators are integrating feng shui ideas with contemporary building design.

For new construction, feng shui can be integrated into the design, but what about remodeling? The solution is the creative placement of objects, colors, and reflective materials. When the Trump International Hotel in New York City was remodeled in 1997, feng shui masters Pun-Yin and her father Tin-Sun installed a giant globe sculpture to divert the roundabout traffic energy from Columbus Circle away from the building. In fact, many architects and developers have enlisted the expertise of feng shui masters to add value to their properties.

"Everything in nature expresses its own energetic force," says Master Lam Kam Chuen. "Recognizing this is essential to creating a living environment in which Yin and Yang are balanced."

Despite the numerous complicated rules, feng shui adapts to many architectural styles. Indeed, the clean, uncluttered appearance may be your only clue that a home or office building was designed according to feng shui principles.

Think of the shape of your house. If it's square, a feng shui master may call it Earth, child of Fire and controller of Water. "The shape itself expresses the supportive, secure, and stable quality of Earth," says Lam Kam Chuen. "Warm tones of yellow and brown are ideal."

Fire Shapes

Master Lam Kam Chuen describes the famous triangular design of the Sydney Opera House in Australia as a Fire Shape.

"The irregular triangles of the Sydney Opera House lick the sky like flames," observes Maser Lam.

Master Lam also calls St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow a Fire building, filled with an energy that could be as protective as "your mother" or as fierce as "a mighty enemy."

Another Fire structure is The Louvre Pyramid designed by Chinese-born architect I.M. Pei. "It is a superb Fire structure," writes Master Lam, "drawing down intense energy from the heavens—and making this site a prodigious attraction for visitors. It is perfectly balanced with the Water structure of the Louvre." Fire buildings are generally triangular in shape, like flames, while Water buildings are horizontal, like flowing water.

Metal and Wood Shapes

The architect shapes space with materials. Feng shui integrates and balances both shapes and materials. Round structures, like geodesic domes, have "the energetic quality of Metal" moving consistently and safely inward—the ideal design for shelters, according to Feng Shui Master Lam Kam Chuen.

Rectangular buildings, like most skyscrapers, "express growth, expansiveness, and power" typical of Wood. Wood energy expands in all directions. In the vocabulary of feng shui, the word wood refers to the shape of the structure, not the building material. The tall, linear Washington Monument may be described as a wood structure, with energy moving every which way.  Master Lam offers this assessment of the monument:

"Its spear-like power emanates in all direction, affecting the Capitol building of the Congress, the Supreme Court, and the White house. Like a mighty sword raised in the air, it is a constant, silent presence: those who live and work within its reach will often find themselves subject to internal disturbance and their ability to make decisions blocked."

Earth Shapes and the Smudgers

The American Southwest is an exciting juxtaposition of historic pueblo architecture and what many people consider "tree-hugging" modern ideas about ecology. A vibrant, local community of ecothinkers—people whose environmental thoughts direct their behaviors—have been associated with the area for decades.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Experiment in Desert Living is perhaps the most famous example.

It seems that this region has an unusual number of architects, builders, and designers committed to "ecoversity"—energy-efficient, earth-friendly, organic, sustainable design. What we call "Southwest Desert Design" today is known to combine futuristic thinking with a profound respect for ancient Native American concepts—not only building materials, like adobe, but also feng shui-like Native American activities such as smudging being incorporated into everyday life.

Bottom Line on Feng Shui:

So, if you are stuck in your career or have trouble in your love life, the root of your problems may be in the design of your home and the misguided energy that surrounds you. Professional feng shui design suggestions can only help, say practitioners of this ancient Chinese philosophy. One way to get your life in balance is to get your architecture in balance.

Learn More:

  • Feng Shui Handbook: How to Create a Healthier Living and Working Environment by Master Lam Kam Chuen, Holt, 1996
    Buy on Amazon
  • The Architecture of Happiness by Alain De Botton, 2006
    Buy on Amazon
  • Understanding Architcture by Robert McCarter and Juhani Pallasmaa, Phaidon, 2012
    Buy on Amazon

Sources: Feng Shui Handbook by Master Lam Kam Chuen, Holt, 1996, pp. 70-71, 33-37, 79, 90; Meet Donald Trump's feng shui master by Sasha von Oldershausen, The Guardian, September 13, 2016 [accessed January 14, 2017]