Have you ever wondered why Chinese roofs sweep upward in gentle curves? Not only are pagoda-style roofs very pleasing to the senses, but they are believed to ward off evil spirits. Feng shui says that garden paths should meander like a gently flowing river, and feng shui fears sha qi, which is anything angular and straight directly aimed or pointed at you. These notions have been around for a few thousand years, always backed by superstitions or supernatural beliefs, yet deeply practical with mundane fundamentals.
Modern research and psychogeography now confirm that shapes matter, and that environmental stress can cause psychopathic reactions. Contemporary feng shui honors traditional rules and principles but tries to substantiate ancient wisdom with the latest discoveries in scientific disciplines.
Architects are concerned with designing spaces that fit the personalities and preferences of the future occupant. They now have access to virtual environments and physiological instruments whereby they can measure and gather information on how the client reacts to their models of design. Interesting experiments reveal that peoples’ stated preference are sometimes out of sync with the readouts from their bodies and movements. In other words, their body-based emotional reaction does not match their intellectual choices.
These observations confirm what we know in feng shui to be positive or negative environmental aspects. We distinguish between the yin of soft round shapes versus the yang of straight and jagged edges. We also follow the guiding principles of the five elements to determine which shapes might be auspicious in recommending environmental adjustments. Personal needs can be served by increasing or decreasing elemental features with color, line, shape and texture.
Colin Ellard, a cognitive neuro-scientist at the University of Waterloo, says that “we see curves as soft, inviting and beautiful whereas jagged edges are hard, repulsive and may signal risk.” Other neuroscientists show that exposure to curved or jagged contours in architectural interiors can change our pattern of brain activity. “The presentation of curves produces strong activation in brain areas like the orbitofrontal cortex and cingulated cortex – areas of our brain that are associated with reward and pleasure. Jagged edges can cause increases in activity of the amygdala, an important part of our fear-detecting response systems.”
University studies and experiments have revealed that participants were more likely to behave aggressively when they were surrounded by art with sharp angled shapes than when they were in a room where more rounded contoured art was hung. These findings suggest that shapes and contours can make us feel either happy and comfortable or anxious and fearful.
Armed with the latest facts from scientific research, we are ready to embrace the wisdom of traditional Chinese gardens and structures. We might come upon the round opening of a moon gate gazing through its framed view along a meandering garden path trailing off into the distance. Pagoda-style roofs with swept up edges and corners are part of an intricate system indigenous to the architectural grammar of design that has been prescribed for thousands of years.
Form school practitioners from early agricultural societies would seek the soft undulating shapes in searching for “the dragon’s lair” they thought to be the ideal setting for a tomb site. A massive arch-shaped mountain, symbolizing the black tortoise of the north, provided protection from inclement weather and the threat of the approaching enemy. The rolling hills of a dragon shape in the east and a white tiger in the west would open up to the views of a lake or river with a central soft elevation representing the red phoenix in the south.
If these configurations are replicated in a virtual reality lab, biofeedback devices and electrodes can now measure and report how our brain activity and physiological responses are altered by the environment.