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Colombia architect leads bamboo building crusade

Eco-sustainable bamboo is strong and beautiful and can take the place of wood and concrete in many building projects, architect Simon Velez says.

November 29, 2011|By Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times
  • Bamboo is the main material in a Cali bus station to be built next year. An artist's rendering shows Colombian architect Simon Velez's design.
Bamboo is the main material in a Cali bus station to be built next year. An… (unknown )

Reporting from Bogota, Colombia — When it comes to uses of bamboo, many think of chopsticks, panda food or patio furniture. Simon Velez, on the other hand, envisions bus stations, churches or bridges.

The Bogota, Colombia-based architect is leading a global crusade for new uses of the plant, a giant member of the grass family, as a strong, eco-sustainable, aesthetically pleasing material that can substitute for wood and concrete in many projects.

Velez was long a lonely advocate, with most of his colleagues viewing bamboo as fit only for use as a finishing material in matting or plywood. But the ideas espoused by the 62-year-old architect are slowly taking root.

Velez's dramatic bamboo structures won the 2009 Principal Prince Claus Award in the Netherlands, which cited his "progressive approach to culture and development." His designs have materialized in projects as far-flung as Chinese resorts, the Expo 2000 Hanover trade fair and in Mexico City's Zocalo, or historic central square.

Construction on his most ambitious project yet, a bus terminal the length of three football fields, begins early next year in the Aguablanca barrio of Cali in southwestern Colombia. The design features an enormous tile roof that takes advantage of bamboo's sturdiness.

Swiss architectural historian Pierre Frey describes Velez as a leader in the "vernacular" movement in architecture, a school of design using local materials and anchored firmly in a designer's surrounding "context." His tile-roofed, bamboo-supported structures, often with monumental overhangs, are a trademark, reflecting the sheltering function in a country with an equatorial sun and monsoon rains.

After waging a 20-year battle, Velez achieved a milestone: getting bamboo on the list of approved construction materials in Colombia's building code. That victory, two years ago, came in the face of stiff opposition from fellow architects and structural engineers, motivated, he said, partly by "class prejudice."

"In Colombia, there is a stigma attached to bamboo as being the 'wood of the poor,' and many architects turn their noses up at it," said Velez, adding that bamboo traditionally has been used in housing and communal structures built by indigenous and impoverished communities. "But I've discovered it has a lot of advantages."

Those advantages include its beauty and inherent strength, which, when figured as a weight-to-resistance ratio, is twice as strong as steel, according to Velez. Unlike most woods, bamboo is easily and rapidly replaceable; it grows like a weed in Colombia and many other tropical countries, as fast as 30 yards in six months.

"You can almost watch it grow," said Ximena Londono, a Cali-based consulting agronomist who is president of the Colombian Bamboo Assn.

Given the world's environmental imperatives, including climate change, deforestation and endangered aquifers, Velez said it is only a matter of time before bamboo makes its own case as a logical replacement for traditional woods in construction projects.

Velez advanced that process by inventing a kind of tension joint with steel bolts set in concrete that enables builders to fuse bamboo beams end-to-end, expanding the material's design possibilities.

"I've improved my technique ever since, with bigger and bigger overhangs every year," Velez said. "But still we don't understand bamboo's full potential."

Promoters who invited Velez to build an enormous bamboo pavilion for the Expo 2000 trade fair were incredulous at the size of his design, and lacking any independent data on bamboo's physical properties, came to Colombia to conduct their own load-bearing tests to be sure the bamboo could withstand the strain. The tests bore out Velez's assertions.

"The German experts came, saw and were conquered," architectural historian Frey wrote in his book on vernacular architecture that dedicated a chapter to Velez.

Velez's stunning designs for the Crosswaters Ecolodge in Huizhou, China, and a music stage in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, for reggae music producer Chris Blackwell have earned him worldwide prominence and speaking engagements at numerous U.S. and European universities, including the Rhode Island School of Design and Cooper Union in New York.

Hearing Velez speak at a conference at the University of Hawaii in 1996 was a pivotal experience for architect Darrel DeBoer of El Sobrante, Calif., author of "Bamboo Building Essentials" and a specialist in bio-sustainable construction. He has built structures with soybeans, recycled newspaper and bales of hay.

The lecture introduced DeBoer to the possibilities of using a living material that regenerates itself yearly and can produce between four and 18 times the biomass of different types of trees over a comparable period. The bonus, he said, is that bamboo has much stronger fiber, "giving you the ability to span longer distances."

"Simon has helped people see that we can't keep going the way we're going, and that there is this palette of things that work better than the conventional solutions," DeBoer said.

Kraul is a special correspondent.

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