Perhaps you are familiar with the type of round coin or charm with a square hole in the center that has been used in China for over two thousand years. It represents the rounded heaven circumscribing the square earth and, more importantly, a set of rational and moral principles that helped the ancient Chinese interpret their lives.
Every culture orients its society and living spaces according to certain generally accepted norms and beliefs. Today, capitalism guides our lives, as does, increasingly, a reaction to many of the effects of capitalism which we call sustainability. But perhaps the ancient Chinese can help us understand how capitalism and sustainability shape the spaces which surround us, especially cities and buildings.
Unless you’re talking about an underground nuclear bunker or storage vault for wine, money, or missiles, a building rises from the ground to the sky. The ancient Chinese believed that buildings linked earth with heaven and, therefore, the natural world with the supernatural. A building was a mystical if not sacred space, and it had to be designed properly to ensure good fortune for its inhabitants.
The building should be rectilinear and symmetrical, neither too big nor too small for the number of occupants. The main entrance should face south, the direction from which good luck arrived as well as the healthy sunshine. The sun was represented by the number nine, which was also the symbol of growth, positive action, and fulfillment. The ideal building was patterned after a 3×3 square. Buildings often had arches, doors, windows, rooms, and columns in multiples of nine.
The ancient Chinese theory of spatial order spread throughout Asia, especially Japan and Korea, and was utilized to determine the proper height, width, and depth of structures. A building’s size and orientation were based not on its function or use, but the calculations of a geomancer, or master of aesthetics. The calculations became both the site plan and architectural blueprint for a builder to follow. The same relationships governed the design of almost everything spatial – dinner plates, homes, temples, tombs, public spaces, farm fields, and even government administrative districts, of which there were nine in ancient China.
The rules for the siting and layout of structures still left plenty of room for distinctive adornments and embellishments according to the owners’ preferences and resources. A building’s spiritual energy, in fact, derived from the interplay of the individual, decorative qualities and the communal, organizational principles, that is, the interplay of the particular and the universal.
If one building brought fortune (or not) to a family, many buildings could determine the fate of a community, and so a city must also be designed properly: symmetrical and rectilinear, with city walls, gates, and streets oriented to mountains, rivers, and, especially, the points of a compass.
The problem for the ancient Chinese was that their cities were already long-established. And they were asymmetrical and irregularly shaped. Their cosmography guided their lives, but could be applied to the built environment only selectively: when a new building was built or an old one remodeled, when city walls had to be expanded, or when existing homes could be razed without protest to build a temple or a palace for the emperor. It simply was not possible to make an entire city conform to the dominant ideals, standards, and beliefs about geography, architecture, and life in general.
Ancient Chinese city builders faced the dilemma that arises whenever the prevailing worldview does not coincide with a particular environment and there is no practical way to reconcile the differences.
Today, we prefer to use words like science instead of cosmology and planner instead of geomancer, but our image of space is increasingly animated by the concept of sustainability. The idea is to be kinder to the earth, water, and sky, especially through the things we make. Our buildings and behaviors should minimize waste and pollution, maximize health and well being, and optimize the use of natural resources, especially energy. We should consider the future as well as the present.
However, it is not possible to re-build all of the buildings and neighborhoods that are inefficient, replace many roadways with rail lines, or require people not to aspire to increasing levels of material satisfaction – actions which could meaningfully and dramatically align our world with the wisdom of sustainability. And so, like the ancient Chinese, we must be content with individual projects and efforts that leave a smaller ecological footprint – housing with solar panels and beefed-up insulation, an energy-efficient office building, a new light rail line, recycling cans and bottles, turning out the lights when we leave a room – and hope they will proliferate and scale-up and make a difference before their benefits are cancelled by the impacts of more driving, more airplane travel, and the more overall consumption that has been a characteristic of human life for the past four hundred years.
No worldviews have managed to survive capitalism. All, like the ancient Chinese, have succumbed to material consumption. Capitalism is fueled by steady, increasing consumption, and we can conceive of no alternative to capitalism. Sustainability, in fact, makes no sense outside the context of capitalism, because the natural environment we hope to sustain for ourselves and future generations is threatened by the necessity of capitalism to expand.