The Chinese practice of feng shui has been knocking around the Western world for quite a while now, so much so that this ancient method of harmonizing physical space with spiritual forces has become a verb on HGTV, as in “Feng shui your home with simple decorating fixes.”
Overexposure is not an issue for vastu shastra, a Hindu design system with similarly deep roots. At least not yet. If a beautiful light-filled house recently built in Milton, Massachusetts, is any indication, vastu’s days of obscurity in this country may be numbered.
The 5,375-square-foot house belongs to Bharat and Sweta Agrawal. Both born and raised in India, the couple were determined to incorporate vastu’s principles into their new home. The pair, who had admired several projects designed by LDa Architecture & Interiors in Cambridge, Massachusetts, contacted firm cofounder Douglas Dick about the prospect of a vastu-inspired house, and his curiosity was piqued.
“We brought about 10 vastu-based priorities to the project,” remembers Sweta. “When Doug showed up at the second meeting with a well-thumbed book about vastu design, we thought we might be putting too much pressure on him. He told us not to worry, that he wanted to go deep because it gave the design team discipline.” Partly because of the learning curve involved and partly because it’s LDa’s preferred approach to projects, other members of the team were brought in early: landscape architect Michelle Crowley and her associate Naomi Cottrell of Boston’s Michelle Crowley Landscape Architecture; general contractor Jim DePaolo of Denali Construction in Wellesley, Massachusetts; and LDa project manger Julieta Ohri and in-house interior designer Dean Sawyer.
Outside, their creation has the crisp, simple New England lines for which LDa is known. A pair of clapboarded two-story gabled elements are linked by a center atrium, with a low-slung three-bay garage clad in vertical board-and-batten siding. The house sits at the bottom of a curving drive, on a flat site carved out of what Crowley describes as “former pasture gone completely wild” that was cleared to fashion the home’s surroundings to vastu specifications.
“Vastu shastra” translates to “science of architecture.” Its tenets, dating from at least the sixth century, center on the cardinal directions, with each quadrant assigned an element — fire, water, air, and earth — and the house and grounds aligned accordingly. The Milton home’s driveway enters at the southeast, or fire, quadrant, where Cottrell planted vibrant red winterberry bushes and red twig dogwood. Each quadrant also has a shape associated with it — fire is a triangle and a pointed piece of the landscape frames the parking area. The east-west axis is considered auspicious, and the house’s main entrance is situated on the east, catching the rising sun and opening to the water quadrant on the northeast. Here lies the swimming pool, familiar as a suburban icon yet exotic in its front-yard placement. The quadrant’s circle shape is expressed in the koi pond, a “peaceful spot” where Bharat keeps a couple dozen fish.
In the northwest is the air quadrant, a grassy area holding playground equipment, where the couple’s young daughter can swing and climb toward the open sky. A crescent planting bed fulfills the vastu shape requirement here. Finally, to the southwest, rectangularly scored pavers mark the earth quadrant, where the lawn is sculpted into a set of small berms designed by Crowley, modeled after the nearby Blue Hills.
When Bharat moved to the States 20 years ago, he was struck by how little light penetrated traditional New England houses, at least compared with the sunny homes he knew from his birthplace in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. “In my first home here, a Colonial, I asked the builder to replace the windows on each side of the front door with one big window. He thought I was crazy, but he did it.” This new house, he told the team at LDa, had to be all about light.
Vastu design is based on the mandala, a concentric diagram, in this case a grid of nine squares. In India, the central square, or brahmasthana, would typically be an open courtyard. In chilly New England, the architects cast it as a glass-roofed living room. Light-filled, with colorful furniture and art and a two-sided gas fireplace, it is the heart of the house. Arranged around it are the kitchen, entry, temple, stair, guest bedroom, dining room, playroom, and family room. It’s an open plan made more open by slatted wooden screens instead of solid walls and a glass panel that reveals the dramatic custom steel-and-oak stairway that DePaolo and his crew fabricated on-site. “What I love about the first floor,” says Sweta, “is that I can sit anywhere and still feel connected to all the other rooms.”
The kitchen is ringed with handsome walnut cabinetry designed by LDa and built by Michael Humphries Woodworking of Northfield, Massachusetts. An entire wall is tiled in an arresting marble-and-mirror mosaic. Across the peninsula, the family room opens to a single-story atrium with a striking hanging fireplace.
Throughout the house, details add to the sense of light and lightness. Nearly every vertical element, including trim, kitchen cabinets, built-in furniture, and the wooden screen walls, stands a bit clear of the horizontal planes of floor and ceiling, thereby seeming to float, an effect accentuated in places by LED backlighting. The drive toward light and air continued even “as the blueboard went in,” recalls Bharat. “We kept coming back to ‘open it up,’ so we replaced walls with wooden screens and glass on the first floor and with glass in the master bath.” They even swapped conventional doors and a wall in the dressing room with glass, “just so things wouldn’t feel shut down.”
The camaraderie among the team is palpable, with folks finishing one another’s sentences and a general sense of excitement about a job well done. “We all learned so much,” says Dick. “I know I’ll be incorporating vastu in my work going forward, like the use of natural light as an organizing principle of how we occupy and move through our homes. And I’m a believer in the brahmasthana — a room that is visually, functionally, and spatially the space that defines the essence of home.”
Judging from how beautifully this project came out, expect to start hearing “I want to vastu my house!”
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