Meet the architects and designers championing bamboo
Sustainability is the new mantra of the architectural world, and bamboo is fast becoming a favourite of architects and designers around the world
Sustainability is the new mantra in the architectural world. And China is home to one of the greenest building materials around: bamboo. This giant woody grass is increasingly gaining importance as the choice of material for the designers. As the largest producer of bamboo, holder of vast traditional knowledge and the best bamboo artisans in the world, China has the earliest recorded use of bamboo: a bridge in the area of Qian-Xian is referenced in writings dating back to 960 AD and may have stood since as far back as the third century BC.
In architecture, bamboo is of notable environmental, economic and cultural significance
Bamboo is one of the fastest-growing species in the world; while trees can take as long as 50 years to regenerate after being harvested, a single bamboo pole can shoot back up in six months. It grows cheaply as little labour and infrastructure is needed for cultivation; it is highly sustainable as its groves produce 30 per cent more oxygen than trees and it can simply be composted after use thus producing no waste. Bamboo achieves its strength through its hollow, tubular structure, which gives it its robustness, and it has a strength-to-weight ratio that exceeds that of brick and timber; it outperforms most of other materials, even steel. Researchers have also confirmed that bamboo structures often survive in natural disasters as they have high endurance against storms and earthquakes.
It is now also regaining popularity with modern designers, who are drawn to its beauty and its sense of history, cultural and environmental implications in contrast to contemporary, soulless materials. Japanese architect Kengo Kuma and Vietnamese architect Vo Trong Nghia are two pioneers in bamboo architecture. Having an office in both Beijing and Shanghai, Kuma’s works reinterpret traditions for a contemporary way of living. One of his proudest achievements, a ‘multi-Asian’ structure as he describes it, is the Great Bamboo Wall, a mountain villa in the capital built 15 years ago. His first aim was to learn from the formality of the Great Wall, how architecture emerged and dissolved completely into the environment and nature.
Nghia develops sustainable architectural design by integrating inexpensive, local materials and traditional skills with contemporary aesthetics and modern methodologies. One of his acclaimed projects, bamboo domes rising on an islet on Saigon River in Ho Chi Minh City, comprises part of a multifunctional community centre for a project known as Diamond Island. The design reflects the bamboo baskets used by the nation’s farmers to keep their fowl and the site is an array of bamboo domes of different sizes. The two large pavilions were built by local workers and the rest were prefabricated and then assembled on site.
The industry and academic institutions in China are also tapping into global creativity for innovative and sustainable proposals. The inaugural International Bamboo Architecture Biennale, curated by local artist Ge Qiantao and Japanese architect George Kunihiro, took place in 2017 in the village of Baoxi in China’s Zhejiang province. Eighteen bamboo structures were designed by 12 architects (including Kengo Kuma, Vo Trong Nghia, Anna Heringer, Simon Velez, and Keisuke Maeda) and introduced as a resource for the local village, where the material is in abundance. The buildings were an exercise in contemporary and sustainable design and have provided a benefit to the village, not least in their new incarnation as a travel destination.
Tsinghua University, in collaboration with New York-based design firm Studio Link-Arc, conceived the China pavilion for the Milan Expo 2015. Achieved with modern construction technology, a timber frame that referenced a raised-beam system found in traditional Chinese architecture was used for the pavilion’s roof. The layer of shingled bamboo roof panels that mimicked terracotta tiles created evocative light and shadow effects on the building’s translucent, waterproofing surface.
Early in 2017, the French Mimesis Architecture Studio, which is based at Southeast University in Nanjing, designed a bamboo-lined Wuxi Harbour Bridge in China’s Jiangsu Province in celebration of the region’s traditional bamboo processing techniques. Built along the bank of Taihu Lake in Dingshu Town, the bridge stretches almost 100 metres across the water to make way for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. The steel bridge comprises triangular-shaped frames filled in with latticed bamboo poles to provide a durable structure. The undulating structure takes the form of an archway under which the traffic flows.
Working with students from Hong Kong University, Irish architect Donn Holohan created Sun Room, a bamboo pavilion in Fujian province, making use of the dying Chinese bamboo weaving techniques to create communal spaces for the local residents. Stressing the cultural aspect of the natural material, the team realised the design with the aid of modern technology, while building solely in the age-old tradition. The project aimed to revive these crafts in the community and offer the village an opportunity to improve their living with tourism.
The far-reaching influence of bamboo architecture
Meanwhile in Thailand, local bamboo-specialist Chiangmai Life Architects took on the challenge to create an activities space for schoolchildren using only bamboo to minimise the school’s carbon footprint. The resulting design, Panyaden School Bamboo Sports Hall, is able to accommodate 300 students, utilising prefabricated bamboo trusses to span more than 17 metres without steel reinforcements or connections while blending with the natural surroundings. The structure was designed to withstand high-speed winds, earthquakes, and other natural forces common to the region. Paris-based architect Monica Donati has completed the first stage of an office complex that sits between urban and rural areas near the Line d’Eau in France’s Lieusaint region. With the use of repetitive patterns, Immeuble Bambou (Bamboo Building) blends into its surroundings. The bamboo exterior fractures the light and form and multiplies views of the water and greenery; it shields the sun in the day, while at night the cladding transforms into an illuminated lantern.
The new wave of bamboo buildings may still be in its infancy, but the innovative interpretations of this centuries-old skill look set to provide exciting times ahead for this most natural of architecture. §