From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
The Confucius mansion was broadcast on the 14th May 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
Master Kong, or Confucius as most of us know him, died over two and a half thousand years ago but the venerable sage’s impact on Chinese life was immense and long-lasting. While we can’t view the actual rooms in which he lived and worked, it’s still possible to visit the home of his descendants in the pleasant town of Qufu in Shandong province. Standing next to the huge Confucius temple, one of the largest in China, the Confucius Mansion is as interesting for its design as its history. Like the temple, the original structure was built in the 400sBC but was replaced and extended over the centuries so that it came to cover seven hectares and include 170 separate buildings, many of which survive. It’s an historical artefact, no question, but walking through its quiet courtyards and moving from open space to closed chamber, it’s impossible not to sense how one is being manipulated by the building, how your pace slows in some areas and quickens in others, and you’re drawn to areas in which you want to linger. This is thoughtful architecture and that’s down to feng shui, the traditional Chinese way of assessing and arranging the home so that it supports those who live in it. As the most important family in China after the Emperor’s, the Confucius home was said to have the best feng shui in China. And even if you know nothing about this ancient art, it’s impossible not to notice certain quirks. Like the way the foundations of some buildings are placed on the ground rather than dug deep into it. This was key to the feng shui belief that disturbing the earth would arouse the earth dragon’s ire, causing bad luck, but it’s rather like the present-day notion of touching this earth lightly, so beautifully expressed in the work of architects like Glenn Murcutt. You’ll find this also in the nearby cemetery, which contains generations of the Confucius family, the tombs formed from mounded earth rather than covered pits. No dragons were hurt in the making of it.
There are other things at the Mansion, like the way gateways clearly lead from one space to another while not allowing you to see beyond them, making a more restful transition as you move about. There are more esoteric elements, like the way residents occupied certain sectors of the mansion according to compass directions. An easterly aspect, for example, ensured the head of the household received the strong energy of the morning. The privacy of the family was also very important, as seen in the way fresh water was delivered through a trough set in a wall that is screened so that the family would not be seen; for anyone other than family to enter this area was punishable by death.
Regardless of the archaic and patriarchal beliefs behind this fascinating complex of buildings, it still has relevance. How mindful are we today in the planning of our homes when we choose where we might sleep or study? Often we have no choice and make the best of what we get, but even when we have the chance to start afresh, we can overlook aspects of what is most important to us, such as privacy, sound and the quality of light. Architecture is always about context and the ability to adapt concepts. Despite its enormous size, the Confucius Mansion demonstrates design ideas that can be used in the home today, whatever its size. An age-old lesson imbued with truly sage advice.