Joe Fletcher for The New York Times
By JOYCE WADLER
THERE was a time when Liu Ming, a teacher of Chinese traditional medicine and feng shui in Oakland, Calif., did a few hundred prostrations a day as part of his practice of Tibetan Buddhism — full prostrations, that is, in which you begin standing and end with your head on the floor. That wouldn’t work these days, as Mr. Liu’s meditation area is on top of an eight-foot cube in his loft. Were he to stand up, Mr. Liu would hit his head on the ceiling.
Mr. Liu works, sleeps, meditates and drinks tea in his cube. A thick red cord connects the cube to an electrical outlet, which enables him to brew tea in an electric kettle for a traditional tea ceremony. (Modern concessions must be made.)
To move about the meditation area, which also serves as a tearoom, Mr. Liu has to slouch or crawl. That’s fine with him: In a traditional Japanese tearoom, the ceilings are so low you have to crawl in, he says; you were meant to feel humble. Also, says Mr. Liu, who routinely goes into teaching mode, the doors of a Japanese tearoom were designed to be small, to prevent samurai warriors from entering with their swords, or at least to prevent them from drawing their swords.
All very interesting, but in a large, open loft, why would anyone want to build a cube that contains a sleeping area and a study as well as a meditation room?
“Having lived in a loft for five or six years,” Mr. Liu says, “I absolutely love it.”
A shoji screen between the bedroom and office and plexiglass walls on two sides of the roof allow light to pass through the cube.
When he visits friends who live in large apartments, he says, “I get back pain, I think, ‘Why do you have such low ceilings?’ ”
But roomier spaces have one drawback, he continues: “There is no cozy.”
Since when is “cozy” a feng shui concept?
Wheels enable Mr. Liu, who teaches in his home, to move the cube when he needs to create more space.
“In feng shui, we talk about the harmony in the place that you live in,” Mr. Liu says. “The cube evolved out of wanting cozy with the option of keeping a big, open space at the same time. And we added wheels for feng shui purposes. Now that it is portable, I can spin it on an axis, I can point my head and point my desk in different compass directions for different projects. If I am writing something and feel blocked, I can get up and move the room.”
Now he’s got the writer’s attention. Does it help?
“Yeah, it does,” Mr. Liu says. “And it’s playful.”
Do not underestimate the importance of playful when talking to Mr. Liu, who is not of the deadly earnest school of Eastern teacher.
Can you really make a living by teaching Chinese medicine and feng shui? he is asked.
“Yeah,” he says, “Of course, you have to live in Berkeley.”
Mr. Liu is 63 and has studied Tibetan Buddhism and other Eastern religions since he was an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (which he dropped out of, in keeping with the spirit of the ’60s).
When you see him, it is immediately evident that, despite his name, he is not Chinese. His given name is Charles Belyea, and he was born in Boston, of French-Canadian parents. His father was a businessman, and his parents spent so much time competing as ballroom dancers that Mr. Liu tells people he was raised by Fred and Ginger. The name Liu Ming was given to him by a Daoist teacher who “adopted” him when he was 31. (In keeping with the Chinese custom, his last name, Liu, comes first.)
The architect's plan shows hidden storage spaces, including a drawer in the stairs where Mr. Liu can store his shoes before going upstairs to meditate
But back to the cube: Mr. Liu and his architect, Toshi Kasai, have come to regard it as a living thing and, indeed, it has an umbilical cord: a broad, red cable connecting it to an electrical source.
“The extension is the cube’s lifeline,” Mr. Kasai says. “We wanted that cable to look like a little tail. We wanted to make sure the cube looked alive, charged by something.”
MR. LIU first became interested in the idea of using a cube to organize his living space a number of years ago, when he saw an article about a couple in Europe who had bought a barn because they needed space for a workshop, but who wanted a separate area for themselves and their children.
“They’d built a plywood cube,” he said. “There were touch doors you could open up, and a kitchen and a staircase that went to a second level, where the kids had their space. I thought it was brilliant, and it was so flexible, I tore it out and stuck it in a notebook.”
Mr. Liu moved into his apartment, an 1,100-square-foot loft in a former factory, for which he pays around $1,650 a month, about seven years ago.
Since the loft is used for living and teaching, he put up a shoji screen to separate his bedroom and private meditation space from his teaching area. But visitors, he says, were always poking their heads in, and he wanted something that would give him more privacy. Also, when classes were large, there was no way to increase the floor space.
“And there was that thing about being flexible,” says Mr. Liu, who also does translation work. “I couldn’t move the meditation tearoom. I wanted to design the work space so that it could also turn — turn it toward the light on a sunny day, or in a different mood, turn it to the wall and meet a deadline.”
So Mr. Liu hired Mr. Kasai, who is 38 and owns Spaceflavor, an architecture and design firm, with his wife, Annette Jannotta. Mr. Kasai also happens to be one of Mr. Liu’s feng shui students.
Mr. Liu originally wanted to have shoji screens on the exterior walls of the cube, but Mr. Kasai told him that it would add nearly $10,000 to his $20,000 budget, and considerable bulk to the cube. Instead, he persuaded Mr. Liu to use simple roller shades, which cost only about $630. The open-wall design required a steel frame, which was the costliest element in the cube, at $12,000; the plywood and plexiglass for the walls and the woodwork, including the hidden cabinetry, cost $6,600, and the electrical work was $1,400.
For his design work, Mr. Kasai charged Mr. Liu only a token fee. “Ming is my feng shui teacher, and he retaught me how to design our physical environment,” he said. “And we loved the concept of the cube. How often does an architect get to design something so outrageous?” Lighting was important in the little cube. Mr. Kasai and Mr. Liu wanted a design that would allow light to shine through, so that the cube would not appear too opaque or solid. In addition to the roller shades, a small shoji screen was added in the wall between the sleeping area and the office.
“It’s like a little eye,” Mr. Kasai says. “Basically it’s the heart of the cube.”
There are electrical outlets for lamps in the sleeping compartment, an overhead light in the study area, and outlets for plugging in an electric teakettle in the meditation space and tearoom on top of the cube. When Mr. Liu ascends the staircase, he can stash his shoes in a hidden compartment in the stairs.
One aspect of the design that the pair consider particularly important is its portability: If Mr. Liu moves, the cube can be taken apart and reassembled. And when it is broken down, no part of the cube is wider than three feet, so it can fit through a standard door.
For now, however, Mr. Liu seems most taken with the cube’s ability to turn in response to his moods, as well as the way it creates opportunities to appreciate beauty.
Before he had the cube, he says, he couldn’t see anything but downtown Oakland from his loft windows.
Now, sitting on top, he can see the hills and the sunrise. And at night, when the lights in the cube are on and the shades are drawn, it becomes a lantern.
“I had a dinner party where it was glowing at the other end of the room,” Mr. Liu says. “Everybody was mesmerized.”