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Vaastu: The Ancient Practice of Space Planning

by Peter Carey

9.27.10 | Today’s interior designer has a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips that can inform and inspire them. Within the context of contemporary design and culture, many of us look to approach our clients’ problems with unique solutions, custom fit to their specific needs. Many of the solutions we find may appear to be new at first glance, but as the famous quote by poet George Santayana goes, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Last week at the Milliken Carpet showroom in New York, Sharad Mathur, VP of Marketing for Inscape and author of the book Space, Life and Planning, presented a fascinating seminar on Vaastu, the ancient Indian practice of space planning. For many attending, it was a history lesson from a far away culture and an enticing glimpse at a different way to infuse design value into future projects. Unlike Feng Shui, which is an Eastern system of aesthetics for architecture, Vaastu is a physical science based on the Earth’s magnetism, the sun’s radiation and cosmic energy throughout the universe. “The key thing about Vaastu,” said Mr. Mathur, “is that it is not about spirituality. It’s the oldest living science of architecture in the world.”

The Vaastu Shastra, which translates into “Book of Architecture” in English, first emerged in the Indian subcontinent over 5,000 years ago. This book, according to Mr. Mathur, “has details that illustrate the proper size of a door frame, the thickness of a wall, the placement of items within buildings and their directional orientation. It’s scope encompasses the design of every part of the built environment, from a town to a palace to a temple to a residence.”

Using five essential elements — ether, air, fire, water and earth — the Vaastu system also integrates concepts from indigenous religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Giving an example of an Indian funeral rite, Mr. Mathur explained, “There is a belief that all five elements are used when a Hindu dies and cremation is used. When we burn the dead, we connect with fire and air; the ashes go into the earth or are put into a river. The soul then transitions from one world to the other through ether.”

Each of these elements corresponds to a direction or orientation within a Vaastu space plan. Northeast corresponds to water, southeast to fire, southwest to earth and northwest to air. The center of a Vaastu plan corresponds to ether. “When I put something that emits heat in my space, I put it in the southeast. If I put water in my site, it goes in the northeast only,” he explained.

pic of a Vaastu-compliant floor planVaastu-compliant floorplan of a residence

The Earth’s connection to our sun is an important factor in Vaastu and provides essential guidance for architecture placement and orientation. “When the sun comes out in the morning, it starts emitting infrared rays,” said Mr. Mathur. “These rays are warm and healing.” He began to explain that spaces facing northeast are oriented with high energy and creativity; according to Vaastu, water is needed to balance the temperature fluctuation.

“As the sun starts getting hotter and moves toward midday, it begins to emit ultraviolet rays. These ultraviolet rays can change the chemical composition of a compound or material. They hit an object and literally knock off electrons that change its nature.” As the sun travels across the sky, gaining solar energy as the day progresses, it fades the colors of materials like wood, marble and textiles when rays reach the south and the west sides of buildings.

“In LEED, they tell you to protect the south side of your building. Why do they do that? Because of solar heat,” he said. The sun also provides guidance for visitors entering a building. “The entrances may look like they are on the wrong side, but in Vaastu, you always have the entrance facing either north or east. A building visitor will walk in from the east and walk towards west, like the sun does. Or they may walk in from the north and go towards the south. Building entrants will never walk in from the south or the west.”

Proper alignment of the structure also requires the building or interior space to be arranged according to the Earth’s magnetic poles. “In architecture school, we learned all about topography and site conditions, but nothing about magnetism. The Earth is the largest magnet around us. If you go to the pyramids or any ancient structure, you will find that they are all positioned with this proper orientation. If you align a building to north and south orientation, that building will stay there for a longer time. If you do not align it to that magnetic force, over time, nature is going to try to correct it.” In time, nature’s version of “correction” makes that building’s structure unstable.

Sharing a story about the Konark Temple on the coast of Orissa, India, Mr. Mathur said, “The roof of one of the structures contained a massive 52-ton magnet. In the old days, ships could never find this place. Their compasses would go crazy. For hundreds of years, nobody had ever invaded the temple by sea. The British eventually discovered the magnet and took it away. Slowly the entire structure started crumbling. In ancient times, builders did not use cement or mortar. Here, every stone in the temple had a little metal dowel. They were all attracted to this central magnet to keep the structure together.”

Stability and balance are major principles of Vaastu. With the proper orientation and planning, a building or interior space provides harmony and prosperity for its inhabitants. “There is no bad direction, but every direction has a quality,” said Mr. Mathur. “For example, northeast is not a bad direction, but it is a direction where I think and create, so it is not a good direction for stability. Southwest is ideal for stability. If an executive’s office is in the northeast, a creative person will have difficulty running a business, because what they are doing is thinking too much.

The principles of Vaastu are based on what gives people stability versus what gives them creativity.” In Vaastu, it is critical for the center of the space to be empty. “In the old days it would be a courtyard,” said Mr. Mathur. “Today it could be a circulation lobby.”

2010.0927.Vaastu.Mandala.VitruvianMan.Top2.jpgMandala and Vitruvian Man

Connecting Vaastu to numerology, another ancient art of proportion, Mr. Mathur said, “Every element has a balance, and in numerology, it is all about getting to the number eight; that is the most stable of all numbers.” Numerology focuses on single digits from one to nine; long numbers get reduced to single digits by adding them together. Mr. Mathur gave an example of integrating numerology with the human body. “The human body has 206 bones. 206 is 2+0+6, which equals eight. How many bones does a human baby have? 350, which again comes to eight. Babies have extra bones in order to be more flexible.” Displaying an image of vitruvian man, the famous drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, side by side with an Indian mandala, Mr. Mathur said, “Vitruvian man is also measured eight heads down by eight across. It is the ideal proportion.”

For Mr. Mathur, this is just the beginning of the significance of the number eight. “The most stable of all shapes is considered to be an octagon, because it takes into account all eight cardinal directions. When you create a geodesic dome with an octagon, it may be tougher to do, but it will end up being much stronger than making it with a hexagon,” he said.

Returning to the theme of mandalas in his presentation, Mr. Mathur explained that traditionally mandalas are used for meditation, but they can also correlate with buildings through the practice of Vaastu. “The literal meaning of mandala is ‘plan.’ Mandalas all depict a round Earth with a square structure inside it. This helps people focus on the center. Both mandalas and Vaastu openings do not occur on corners. What are they both making you do? Focus on the center.” Showing the Prithvi mandala, literally meaning “earth plan.”

2010.0927.Vaastu.prithvi mandala.jpgThe Prithvi mandala, a guide for architects who practice Vaastu

Mr. Mathur decoded the grid consisting of an outer ring made of twenty-eight squares. “Those squares represent the 27.3 days that the moon takes to go around the Earth. The inner ring has twelve squares which represent the twelve constellations as the sun passes through them. That is how they built all their structures,” he said. “It is based on the lunar and solar calendar.”

If all of the rules of Vaastu sound rigid, that is because they are. “The principles of Vaastu are more like the principles of LEED,” said Mr. Mathur. “You have a certain amount of points, and you need to aim for as many as you can get. You cannot get 100 points.” Attaining perfection in Vaastu is not the goal; it is really about achieving balance and proper energy flow for a space. “If your entrance is facing the wrong direction, it is not the end of the world. Where Vaastu is concerned, it is where occupants are spending the maximum amount of time. If your office or bedroom is in the wrong place, you have an issue; if you don’t spend a lot of time in that area, it doesn’t have a major of effect on you.”

Mr. Mathur’s exciting and informative presentation opened the eyes of designers to a world of new possibilities. The next steps in researching Vaastu principles were their own to choose. “Unless you experience this yourself,” he said, “you won’t really believe it.”

Peter Carey is President of Streamline Material Resourcing, a strategic partner for design firms regarding their resource library and information management within their practice. He can be reached at pcarey@streamlinemr.com or 347-351-1000.

Categories: Arch & Design, Events