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What makes a building come alive
  • Posted 15th Jun 2018

What makes a building come alive

We want our homes to be comfortable, harmonious and alive, right?

According to the Tao*, life is created by the dynamic interplay of Yin and Yang. In Feng Shui, that means the right balance of dark and light, enclosure and spaciousness, as well as the harmonious movement of energy. 

In essence, Feng Shui principles are designed to enhance life. There are guidelines for harmonious forms and avoiding features that reduce life. And there are the classical Feng Shui formulas that inform us of a building’s DNA and energetic blueprint. This  allows us to specify where an individual building should be open to receive healthy universal energy, and where to create more cosy spaces for personal recuperation and support.

You will find a lot written about this in other places on this site. I would like to wander further afield here and l introduce a western architect’s work that has long inspired me. This is Christopher Alexander, whose life’s work has been to explore what it is that makes a building alive. 

 

What makes a living building?

We often admire the simplicity of traditional dwellings such as a simple farm house. It is generally not their architectural ingenuity that inspires us, but their ease and naturalness. 

In his early work in the 1970s, Christopher Alexander developed a ‘Pattern Language’ - over 200 building principles that work and make a building feel good. They range from town planning patterns to small building details. His work is based on how people naturally live and function, socially and individually. Incidentally, many of his patterns coincide with the harmonious forms in Feng Shui. 

Some examples of his patterns include: an entrance room, a window seat, a children’s cave, down to details such as a comfortable thickness of window frames. If you immerse yourself in his patterns, it is easy to get a warm sense when imagining a place containing these. You might want to explore his work and see for yourself how successful he has been in coming up with universal building principles. 

Paradoxically, what he ran into while developing living building principles, was that it was actually impossible to delineate universally applicable patterns - let alone include them in commercial design, without loosing their very essence - the life which he tried to capture in the first place. 

In a subsequent book, ‘The Timeless Way of Building’, Alexander picks up on this dilemma and describes that living buildings are created through a dynamic involvement of the building’s occupants, not (just) by patterns. The principle of life is not something that can be planned out on paper by someone else. 

He describes the creation of a living building as an ongoing process, in rhythm with the people who live there. It involves assessing individual and social needs and dreams, taking into account the potentials and limitations of the site, budget and abilities, and coming up with design features that meet these and that sit naturally within that context. 

It is a holistic process that moves both ways, from the overall design idea to the minutest detail, and from detailed patterns to the macrocosm of whole building. Designing in such a way is a living process, not unlike breathing - going in and out, always assessing, feeling, putting things in place. It continues on, imagining, building, and adjusting as life changes. A living building is always created by the people who live in them, not on the drawing board.

 

The building needs You

In order to create a living building, YOU need to engage with it and make it come to life. While we are much less free today in the process of building than a farmer 100 years ago, we can still engage in this living design process, at least on some level. If we are disengaged, a red cushion may look fine and resemble an image from a home magazine, but it may feel stiff and out of place. If we engage with the design, the same red cushion may be naturally at home, integrated, lived with and feel right. 

Feng Shui can give us a great framework within which to create a place. Through recent training I have reconnected with Alexander’s holistic design process, and am thrilled to bring that to my work. I am happy to assist you with this where required.