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Illustrating Feng Shui
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Illustrating Feng Shui



This column must be prefaced with the thought that, for a great many of our clients, perception is reality.

That’s something I hold onto whenever I get involved in trying to understand and use feng shui, the ancient Chinese method for arranging harmonious, balanced spaces. I am far from a devotee of the art (or science, as some would have it), but I’m aware that some of my clients know a thing or two about it – and that knowing something myself is essential to working with them successfully or at all.

There are literally hundreds of books about feng shui. Of the half dozen I’ve read, none is better suited to the needs of the watershaper than The Complete Illustrated Guide to Feng Shui for Gardens by Lillian Too (Element, 1999).

There are a couple of key points that make Too’s perspective on feng shui so useful: First, she deals exclusively with outdoor spaces, which means you don’t have to grind your way through long treatises on architecture or interiors. Second, she’s a gifted writer and makes the subject entirely accessible for those of us who are looking for an introduction. The topic is broken down in ways that make sense out of what can be a confusing and decidedly foreign way of looking at design.

There are chapters on using the feng shui “compass” and numerology as keys to organizing spaces for balance and harmony. There are concise discussions of how plantings, garden structures, patio spaces, lighting, fire and cooking areas fit into the picture. Best of all for those of us in the watershaping trades, there’s an extensive look at the use of water – a section in which Too does us all a huge favor by declaring that water should be used in every garden.

For the most part, her treatment of water sticks to fountains, streams and ponds. She discusses the angle at which water should flow in relation to structures and particularly to their doors and windows. She also considers vessel contours, stating a strong preference for curved and freeform shapes as opposed to rectangles and geometric designs. Water depth is another factor that comes into play, along with the importance of organizing points of view from which the watershape will be seen and of proper placement of the watershape in the context of the overall space.

She explains that, in a majority of settings, swimming pools do not present a favorable profile for gardens because water is extremely powerful in the world of feng shui and because their large size tends to throw settings out of balance. In most applications, she says, water should be used sparingly and on modest scales lest it reflect energy in potent and uncontrolled ways.

Through all of these discussions, she goes to great lengths to explain how water and other garden elements can and should be used to create positive “chi” or energy. As an example, she discourages combining water and fire: They are opposite elements and tend to cancel out each other.

The beautifully illustrated 220-page text puts truly refined spaces on display and is at times quite inspiring. For those of us who might see feng shui as exotic and incomprehensible, Too uses these projects to break everything down in ways that really do impart a basic working knowledge of the subject, even though, as she points out, truly mastering feng shui takes years – a useful caution to those who might be inclined to get ahead of themselves after reading a book or two or six.

You certainly won’t come away from Too’s great little book as an expert, but you can step away as a novice with a working knowledge of feng shui principles that will stand you in good stead with clients who care deeply about the values and ideas embodied in this ancient discipline.

Mike Farley is a landscape designer with more than 20 years of experience and is currently a designer/project manager for Claffey Pools in Southlake, Texas. A graduate of Genesis 3’s Level I Design School, he holds a degree in landscape architecture from Texas Tech University and has worked as a watershaper in both California and Texas.

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