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Buildings suited to bamboo
by Chemaitis Egon | 3/12/2012
Exemplary also for Western designers: simple and intelligent everyday solutions with bamboo, photo © Egon Chemaitis

"After taking a walk over [a] bamboo bridge... a man can sit in a bamboo house on a bamboo chair at a bamboo table, with a bamboo hat on his head and bamboo sandals on his feet .... and eat bamboo sprouts [with bamboo chopsticks]." This was written in 1904 by William Edgar Geil in his travel novel "A Yankee on the Yangtze". And indeed, the people in China have been using bamboo for millennia as a material for houses and objects; at the same time, it serves as a foodstuff that can be prepared in tasty ways. It is characteristic of Chinese landscapes, for example, the hills around Anji in the province of Zhejiang.

Anybody who is familiar with Chinese landscape painting, even only superficially, knows that this, too, is unimaginable without bamboo. Bamboo is rooted in Chinese tradition right up to the present day. I will never forget the scaffolding constructions, breathtaking to European eyes, that I saw 20 years ago in Hong Kong, in use on every building site. Incidentally, this kind of scaffolding is the best advertisement for bamboo, showing as it does, just what characteristics bamboo possesses: it is tough, hard, firm and high-tensile and yet light and pliant and it grows, so to speak, in our own gardens. Or only consider Ang Lee's multiple award-winning movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". Bamboo is, as we Europeans not incorrectly assume, a fundamental element of Chinese identity.

But how is bamboo perceived in Europe? What role does bamboo play there? The general perception of bamboo is determined by what people see of it in their everyday lives and by what context and what guise they experienced bamboo in. General knowledge of bamboo in Europe and in Germany in particular tends to be scant and superficial. What people there associate with bamboo is flooring and furniture, these are probably the commonest and most usual forms that bamboo takes; presumably, most people do not even know the difference between bamboo and rattan. In Europe, bamboo furniture is, to use economic terms, a niche product and there are reasons for this.

Considering the matter seriously and rationally, bamboo has a host of qualities, a number of which are currently very much in demand. Bamboo is not only hard, tough and pliant as mentioned above, it can also be disposed of without harming the environment and it grows back very quickly. In other words, qualities that should make it a beacon of ecological hope – on one hand. But, on the other, we have the morphology of bamboo. Its striking, characteristic shape is highly iconic, which means that it is recognizable and easy to identify in any state, in any context and in any place. And if the symbolic character of bamboo, its unmistakable quality is a dream for any brand developer or brand consultant, it is nonetheless a major handicap for the product bamboo. The reason: what is crucial to a strong symbol is its connotations and, in the case of bamboo, these are not positive; there is even a phenomenologically correct but not very flattering term for this: people talk about "gnarled stick aesthetics".

And although, at the international furniture fairs in Milan, Cologne and New York, large quantities of new wooden furniture in countless different shapes, colors and material combinations are presented every year, bamboo furniture always looks like – furniture made of bamboo. Accordingly, bamboo furniture is only ever placed in the arts and crafts categories "folklore" and "exotica". A further European characteristic is hygiene. In Europe, the civilization process has engendered a historical need for hygiene, one that cannot be explained by reason alone. Accordingly, most furniture surfaces are closed and smooth, if not shiny. They need always to convey the impression of being spick and span, of being easy to clean, independent of whether they really are or not. This too is a handicap for bamboo products. And this image is by no means a problem limited to Europe. Devesh Mistry, a graduate of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, deflates any hopes of a bamboo revival: "It is true that we do have a massive tradition, ... but there are practically no designers in the young generation who want to carry this through to the present. Here in India, bamboo just looks old-fashioned." And this view is not limited to India, but is also to be heard in other countries in what is known as the "bamboo belt", for instance, in Brazil.

The situation in architecture has always differed from that in design if only in the fact that people hardly ever come across bamboo architecture in their everyday lives, at least not in the shape of tangible buildings. The appearance of such buildings is determined to a greater extent by technical aspects – supporting structures, statics, HVACR and so on. And with regard to supporting structures, one aspect in bamboo's favor is the fact that it represents a genuine construction material.

There are quite a number of scientific institutes, working parties and individual architects and construction engineers currently involved in researching the potential of bamboo. In an age when the demand for regenerative forms of energy and raw materials is becoming more urgent and is even being encouraged by the state to a greater extent, the focus is once again more strongly on bamboo. One example: the Chair in Supporting Construction at one of the largest technical universities in Germany, the RWTH in Aachen, has been looking closely at bamboo. Bamboo symposia, international exhibitions and bamboo workshops are being organized. Particularly good examples of how bamboo can be used practically in architecture are being supplied by a Colombian architect, Simón Vélez, who caused a stir at Expo 2000 in Hanover with a building made of bamboo and who received a prize for the latter. He has erected a number of congenial examples of bamboo architecture in Colombia. "The mistake that a number of architects make," reports Vélez, "is to treat bamboo like wood." He then explains that he himself attempts to plan "in a suitable way for bamboo" and to exhaust all the possibilities that the material has to offer. Because of this, his projects themselves often represent a kind of test model where the finished supporting structure is tested on site to see how great a load it can take.

An obvious example of the ground-breaking use of bamboo in architecture is the "German-Chinese House " erected at Expo 2010 in Shanghai. The building is a self-supporting, two-story construction made of bamboo with an accessible area of 330 m² over two floors. The building is environmentally friendly and mobile. It can be taken apart and reassembled somewhere else. The materials utilized can be used again or recycled. The interior of this building demonstrates that – for example, in combination with other materials – bamboo can cast off its image as a folklore-ish, arts and crafts-ish kind of material; also, "gnarled stick aesthetics" do not have to be an irreversible fate. And it shows as well that bamboo can play a major role in planning temporary buildings. The "German-Chinese House" was realized as a Chinese-German cooperation.

And the bottom line is: the value of bamboo as a material outside China is questionable. At any rate, there is no problem when it comes to quantities, in other words, to available amounts, as is the case in some other bamboo-growing countries. After all, within 20 years China has succeeded in increasing the area where bamboo is cultivated by more than 25 percent to 4.2 million hectares, whilst other countries have stood by and done almost nothing. Accordingly, China has secured itself a considerable advantage. But our skepticism has much more to do with the question of how this material can be made acceptable – to different societies with various systems of values. The chasm between the ecological potential of bamboo on one hand and the globally widespread aesthetic ideals, primarily of the younger generation raised on iPhones and Nike, on the other is vast – it really is a clash of cultures. If bamboo as a material wants to expand beyond the "bamboo belt", we need to face up to this question and to find answers. Considering how rapidly it is changing, China is the best example of the dynamics of these differing notions of aesthetic appeal.

Recently, the Deputy Lord Mayor of Anji, Mr. Jin Kai, mentioned that the town is planning a new specialist school, along the lines of a workshop. This means not only a place where things are talked and read about, but also a place where things can be made and experienced. To me, this seems to be a correct signal for the future in Anji. The reason: it is only in handling the material directly that we can become familiar with its boundaries and what it has to offer. In my opinion, this is the key to further developing and adapting the material bamboo to the dynamically changing ways of life and value systems throughout the world, not only in China.

It would be presumptuous of me to try to offer advice but if I had to make a to-do list two measures would have a high priority: firstly, setting up a lab for basic empirical research into bamboo and secondly, establishing a test lab to develop, test and manufacture prototypes. The purpose of the first lab would be to research into all the characteristics relevant to the material using international standards so as to create bamboo-specific material combinations and compounds and to engage in surface refinement. The second lab would then have to be tasked with transferring and using the results of the research, developing bamboo-specific products and with solving problems, some of these in cooperation with external designers and architects. Locations such as Anji are where the bamboo grows, this is where the know-how is to be found, it is here that bamboo is an integral part of people's lives. I am firmly convinced that, particularly because of its long-standing and impressive tradition, bamboo must be investigated once again and redeveloped for today's and tomorrow's changing standards. Not an easy task, but an extremely interesting and worthwhile challenge.

Egon Chemaitis was professor at the University of Arts Berlin until 2011 and directs his own design-studio in Berlin.

Exemplary also for Western designers: simple and intelligent everyday solutions with bamboo, photo © Egon Chemaitis
Bamboo as packaging material: eco-friendly, sustainable and aesthetic, photo © Egon Chemaitis
Detail of a hand-roll, Ming school, source © The Yorck Project
Bamboo is tender, hard, pressure-resistant and tensile, photo © Egon Chemaitis
The material grows quickly and can be disposed of ecologically, photo © Egon Chemaitis
In China present everywhere, photo © Egon Chemaitis
Bamboo raft, photo © Egon Chemaitis
Furniture out of bamboo: Will it overcome its folkloristic-handcrafted image?, photo © Egon Chemaitis
Bamboo-suitable application: The material is not only light, but extremely flexible, photo © Egon Chemaitis

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