Bamboo is an extremely fast-growing species of giant grass that grows abundantly, quickly and cheaply across East Asia, Northern Australia and west to India and the Himalayas, but also occur in the Americas and the sub-Saharan Africa. It’s high strength-to-weight ratio, comparable to the ratio of steel, makes it adapt for construction uses. While in Japan, bamboo was used primarily as a supplemental or decorative element, throughout China’s building tradition, bamboo was a dominant material in architecture, especially in southern China. It was used for all the elements in architecture: structure, wall, floor, furniture, or ladders and stairs. A bamboo house offered the needs for a family in the south: it provided an enclosed space, which protected them from insects or snakes and, at the same time, it was well ventilated. Architecture aside, many of the daily used objects were, and are still, made of bamboo: baskets, smoking pipes, containers for cooking rice or chopsticks. Bamboo was even used to hold suspension bridges, either by making cables of split bamboo or twisting whole culms of sufficiently pliable bamboo together. One such 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, due largely to continuous maintenance. Bamboo was strongly involved in China’s daily life.
During the last century, the modern and industrial approach to architecture put bamboo more and more out of the spotlight. Its use was downgraded to bamboo flooring or scaffolding on construction sites. Today it is still in use for scaffolding in the construction of up to six stories buildings and even for skyscrapers in Hong Kong. Anyway, although its price has started to rise, in most East and Southeast Asia regions one bamboo stalk costs roughly just 1USD. The strength and hardness of bamboo makes it a great material of modular structural systems, while keeping a natural appearance. It is also a very fast-growing natural resource and it can be harvested without harming the plant, making it a very eco-friendly construction material. For these reasons, international architecture offices like Kengo Kuma, Shigeru Ban or Vo Trong Nghia has started turning the public focus back on bamboo.
Technology always influences our overall aesthetics criteria. Digital photography tends to eliminate the beauty of some mistakes: when shooting digital images, many technically imperfect images are deleted right away without noticing the inner beauty of these out-of-focus or under/overexposed pictures. Thus, the dogma in digital photography is that your photos must be sharp, in-focus, and not blurry. But if you put digital images on print you will notice they tend to look very cold and artificial, while film images look much more natural and smooth. Architecture went through a similar transition. In times of great technological progress, with the heavy usage of the computer and the perfection it offers as an output, we all surrounded ourselves with steel and glass constructions. The dogma of every modern construction is its computer-generated perfection of its shape. The focus shifted away from craftsmanship and materials. Some designers are starting to try different approaches and choose bamboo as a material which has a sense of history and purpose, as a reaction against so many contemporary materials which lack a connection to place or environment. This does not imply they abandoned digital tools, it simply means they’re trying to avoid the easy outcomes of the digital era: to work with bamboo asks for modular thinking, the focus lies much more on the joints and how to add the same element to create one coherent system, and computers are essential to control the complexity of the projects. Backed up by these trends, Chinese architecture and design practices and rediscovering this sustainable tradition of theirs. Bamboo is becoming increasingly popular as a building material in architecture, interior, and industrial design in China.
For the 2009 Shenzhen & Hong Kong bi-city Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture collective WEAK! [Marco Casagrande, Hsieh Ying-chun and Roan Ching-yueh] created a bamboo shelter in Shenzhen, China, called Bus Dome. The structure was realized on a wasteland of a ruined building site in-between the Shenzhen City Hall and an illegal workers camp, and made of flexible bamboo. The bamboo construction methods were based on local knowledge from rural Guanxi province brought into the city by the migrating construction workers.
In 2010 Yung Ho Chang’s FCJZ designed and completed a woven net of bamboo for a curved suspended ceiling inside the Tang Palace restaurant in Hangzhou. The waved ceiling creates a dramatic visual expression within the hall and also goes down to wrap the core column with light-transmitting bamboo boards to form a light-box, which transforms the previously heavy concrete block into a light object.
In 2012 HWCD Associates completed a floating tea house on a lake in Shiqiao Garden in Yangzhou. Tall rows of bamboo create corridors along the outdoor walkway. The bamboo is arranged vertically and horizontally to produce visual effects as you walk around.
For the 2013 Shenzhen and Hong Kong Biennale, Hong Kong studio Affect-T has come up with a proposed solution for the city’s housing crisis – a series of bamboo micro-homes that could be installed inside abandoned factory buildings. Residents would live in these houses for six months to seven years, which is the waiting time for public housing in the city. Constructed from bamboo, the three-meter wide structure was held together using a custom-designed system of bolts and fasteners. By using bamboo numerous homes could be constructed safely and quickly by future residents at very little cost.
Recently Beijing-based architecture practice Penda came out with two concept design projects involving bamboo. Blossom Gate is a project for a gateway to the largest myrtle flower garden in the city of Xiangyang, Hubei Province. Overlapping lengths of bamboo would create the outlines of the two large petal shapes, concealing a zigzagging internal framework. This year the AIM Legend of the Tent competition in China, challenged architects to develop low-impact tent-themed hotels offering a closer connection with the outdoors. Penda developed a concept for a flexible, portable hotel made from rods of bamboo. Penda took inspiration from Native American tipis for the structure, which would be built with X-shaped bamboo joints that hold horizontal bamboo rods in place. The horizontal rods support the flooring, and the joints could be multiplied horizontally and vertically to increase the width and height of the structure.
I personally got to deal with bamboo when I took part to “Bamboo City” in 2012. Bamboo city is a workshop, part of Porosity Studio, by prof. Richard Goodwin, a collaboration between Tsinghua University and UNSW; exhibited in Beijing Design Week that year. I can’t wait to work with Bamboo again!