for Akron Beacon Journal (Ohio, USA) on March 9, 2008
Some architects and interior designers are finding themselves on the cutting edge of home design by relying on principles that are thousands of years old.
They're practitioners of vastu, an ancient Indian system for creating spaces that our bodies and minds are naturally programmed to find agreeable. Advocates say occupants of buildings that adhere to its principles reap benefits in terms of physical, emotional and even financial well-being.
If vastu sounds a bit like feng shui, that's no accident. Vastu was a precursor to the Chinese art of placement, which developed after ancient travelers took the basic ideas back home to China, said Kathleen Cox, a Shaker Heights interior designer whose practice is based on vastu.
Vastu sprang from a body of knowledge amassed by scholars in India as long as 6,000 years ago and written in texts called the Vedas. It's the same body of knowledge that produced yoga, Transcendental Meditation and ayurvedic medicine, all of which are grounded in the idea that our lives are improved if we live in harmony with the laws of nature.
Think of vastu as yoga for your living spaces, Cox said. ''What yoga does to the body, vastu does to the home.''
Cox lived in India for a number of years and has written four books on vastu, including Vastu Living and Space Matters. Her client base extends across the United States and beyond and includes celebrities such as model Christy Turlington, yet she said she's discovered little interest in vastu in her native Ohio.
Nevertheless, vastu proponents expect that to change as awareness grows. Plans are being formed for a housing development in Canton that would be built according to vastu principles, said James Cahaney, director of the Maharishi Enlightenment Center in Woodmere, although he declined to give details.
At the heart of vastu
Nationwide, homes and office buildings have been constructed over the last two decades using a specific form of vastu called Maharishi Vedic Architecture, said Steven Yellin, a spokesman for Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, where those architectural principles govern construction on campus. Most of that construction has been clustered largely on the East and West coasts and Iowa.
One vastu building that's getting attention is a 200,000-square-foot office building under construction in Rockville, Md. It is being developed by the Tower Cos. and Lerner Enterprises, two Washington-area real estate development companies, and is billed as the world's largest commercial application of green and Vedic design.
At the heart of vastu are discoveries the Vedic scholars made about people and the natural world around them. For example, they found that the proportions of the human body create a square — a concept illustrated thousands of years later by Leonardo da Vinci's drawing of the Vitruvian Man — and that we, therefore, naturally prefer square-based spaces. They discovered that human features are asymmetrical, so we are more comfortable with asymmetrical arrangements. They realized that the sun is more pleasant and healthful early in the day, so they advocated designing homes to draw in the morning light and avoid the harsh late-day sun.
Some of the specifics of vastu may seem a little mystical, but Yellin argues they're based on natural laws. He uses bees to illustrate his point: They build their hives in exactly the same way whether they're in Akron or Australia, because they're guided by what he called the intelligence of nature.
That intelligence maintains the orderliness of the whole universe, Yellin said. And when a human lives in accordance with that natural intelligence, ''he starts to get the support from his environment.''
Cox sees vastu as a holistic approach to home design, one that celebrates our connection to nature and nurtures both body and soul. Just as we feel better when we're outdoors enjoying the natural world, she explained, we get the same kind of soul satisfaction from celebrating our place in nature.
''I like to say vastu introduces the soul into green design,'' she said.
Indeed, vastu was millennia ahead of its time in promoting green living, Cox noted. One of the elements of vastu is the use of natural materials as much as possible, which we now recognize as a way to cut down on toxic substances in our homes, she said.
Cox and the adherents of Maharishi Vedic Architecture differ somewhat in the strictness of their approaches to vastu. Yellin said Maharishi Vedic Architecture, also called Maharishi Sthapatya Veda, is an outgrowth of research done in India about 20 years ago by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. (You may recognize him as the guru who introduced Transcendental Meditation.) His work included studying the ancient texts to get back to the root principles of vastu, which Yellin said had come to be somewhat misinterpreted over the years.
Maharishi Vedic Architecture is fairly unforgiving in its application. It starts with the choice of the lot, which should have specific characteristics such as land that slopes in a particular direction and an unblocked orientation to the rising sun, Cahaney said. The layout of the house is similarly specific, and tolerances are small. But Yellin said the house's style can be whatever the homeowner prefers.
Cox, on the other hand, often deals with clients who have existing homes, so creating a vastu house from the ground up isn't an option. So she uses the vastu principles as guidelines rather than strict rules. For example, the home might lack the north or east entrance prescribed by vastu to orient the building to the sunrise, so she'll create areas of focus in the northeast part of the house and position lighter-weight furnishings in the north to suggest the softer nature of the morning light.
''It doesn't say you have to do this or you can't do that,'' she said of vastu. ''It says, be mindful.''
Another important principle of vastu is honoring who you are and what you love, Cox said. So she helps her clients display things that are important to them in a way that makes a bold statement.
For instance, a collection of family photos might be displayed together on a table as a way of honoring the importance of kinship. Or plants might be grouped, in much the same way they grow in nature, instead of being scattered around the house.
Twinsburg residents Paul and Stephanie Gebby dabbled their toes into vastu when Cox helped them apply its principles to choosing paint colors for their home. Now they're looking forward to expanding their experience by using vastu principles as a guide to displaying the artwork and items they've collected in their travels but never quite knew what to do with, Paul Gebby said.
''I was clueless about vastu'' until their painter introduced them to Cox, he said. But he's since read one of her books, and both he and his wife have been struck by the way vastu supports their belief that a house can be a source of rejuvenation.
The couple particularly likes vastu's emphasis on making a home reflect the occupants' interests and personalities. ''It's not about showing off to anybody,'' Paul Gebby said.
Rather, it's about getting in tune with the whole universe.