Rethinking Aesthetics and Architecture: an exploration and analysis of everyday theories of architecture, by Ritu Bhatt

In this paper, I compare Christopher Alexander’s theories of architecture in The Pattern Language (1977), The Timeless Way of Building (1979), and The Oregon Experiment (1975) with Feng Shui – The Chinese Art of Placement. Christopher Alexander’s aim was to empower the everyday user to be an integral part of design process; doing so Alexander sought to blur the gap between the expert designer and user. Alexander proposed piece-by-piece construction based on patterns arguing that patterns of everyday life indicate the presence of unconscious relationships with space. In a similar vein, the theory and practice of Feng shui shares with pattern language an emphasis on deeply felt intuitions and needs as well as a fundamental critique of modern thought. Feng shui, however, defies any categorization using western epistemological constructs and in the words of Joseph Needham is described as a thought form in which “conceptions are not subsumed under one another, but placed side by side in a pattern.” Feng Shui in its contemporary form underscores an open-ended approach that combines mysticism with pragmatic thinking. At a basic level, contemporary practitioners of Feng shui focus on the energy systems inside and outside of the human body. Specialists manipulate lines of energy the same way acupuncturists manipulate energy meridians in the human body. While Feng shui emphasizes universally shared conditions such as the flow of chi (energy) through the human body, the manner of regulating the flow of energy in through different arrangements of space is based on trial, error and experimentation. The spatial configurations thus achieved are neither absolute nor arbitrary and the effectiveness of Feng Shui as a theory and practice increases with intuition and inventiveness that the user brings to it.

In this analysis, I will mainly focus on the conceptual tools that contemporary Feng shui practitioners use to understand the body’s intuitive and phenomenological interaction with space since they share intriguing parallels with Christopher Alexander’s arguments. Such a comparison opens up space to rethink aesthetics and to reexamine the cognitive aspects of architecture through a focus on the user’s intuitions and unconscious aspects of space making. Moreover, both Alexander’s pattern language and Feng shui have achieved success outside of academia, particularly amongst do-it yourself homeowners as popular practices of self-help. My aim in this presentation is to highlight striking parallels the two systems of thought share in their emphasis on unconscious relationships with space, day-to-day practices of cognition, and normative frameworks of knowledge that emerge from the body. Furthermore, I argue that the rich correlations that Christopher Alexander and Feng shui draw between qualitative aspects of spaces and human wellbeing are consistent with recent developments in somatic practices and in the cognitive sciences, and provide insights for the role of aesthetics and the
everyday in architectural theory.

Ritu Bhatt, University of Minnesota, USA

Harvard Citation Guide: Bhatt, R. (2012) Rethinking Aesthetics and Architecture: an exploration and analysis of everyday theories of architecture, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 06 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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