Known as as reliable building material for thousands of years, bamboo’s reputation diminshed with the arrival of steel and concrete. Considered tecnologically insufficient or simply unmodern, it was relegated to menial use, such as scaffolding or primitive housing. But in recent years, amid increasing environmental concerns and a quest for more sustainable building methods, bamboo has experienced a veritable renaissance: International architects such as SO-IL and Michael McDonough have used it for various building projects and installations. But few have dedicated themselves as thoroughly—and passionately—to the material as Simón Vélez.
Far from being a preachy environmentalist, Vélez is interested in bamboo’s structural advantages, as well as the material’s inherent beauty. Now at the age of 62, Vélez has become and in-demand fixture on the international lecture circuit and is overseeing a number of architectural commissions across the globe, including some in China, often considered the cradle of bamboo architecture.
On a recent stopover in New Yor City, Vélez sat down with Gregory Wessner, the director of New York’s Architectural League, for a conversation about his origins, his influences, and why the proverbial prophet sometimes has no honor in his own country.
I actually grew up with it. In the part of Colombia where I’m from, Manizales, bamboo is everywhere—it’s almost like a weed. the building tradition in Colombia is mainly adobe, houses made of rammed earth. When my ancestors moved to that area and founded the town of Manizales in the mid-1900s, at first they started to build in the old adobe tradition. But then a very strong earthquake happended and all the parts of the city that were built in the adobe style disappeared. Only the houses by the very poor that were built out of bamboo didn’t collapse. So because of that they started to rebuild the city out of bamboo and wood, but still in the style of Spanish urbanism, one house next to the other. Once electricity arrived in the early 20th century there was a big fire and the whole city was destroyed again, because houses made of wood and bamboo catch fire more easily than adobe houses. Bamboo is very good for earthquakes, but very bad for the fires...so you have to choose which tragedy you prefere. [Laughs.] Manizales was a wealthy community because of coffee and gold, so after the fire they decided to stop building with bamboo and the city started to import concrete from the U.S. and from Europe to build the new buildings out of concrete. Only the very poor kept working with bamboo.
Yes. But I actually started out working mainly with wood. But we don’t have a forestry culture and traditional Spanish building culture is more Roman that way; they build with stone, and wood is only used for the roof. Because of this lack of tradition it’s hard to get good pieces of wood in Colombia. Then a friend of mine forced me to work with bamboo. He commissioned a stable for his horses from me and he insisted that it had to be built out of bamboo. At first I was hesistant because I grew up with the stigma that bamboo was a poor material. I love bamboo in the landscape—it’s so beautiful! But wherever you saw a building in Colombia made of bamboo, it meant poverty. So when I started this project I had no prior experience with bamboo and I remember standing there with my workers trying to imagine how to do a bamboo structure. And then I discovered that if I pour cement mortar in the hollow bamboo, it works. Really works. And that gave me the opportunity to do bamboo structures of almost any size.
Well, from an aesthetic point of view bamboo is a very charismatic material. It’s a natural high-tech material. You don’t even need any heavy machinery, you just take a machete and cut the bamboo pole and you can carry it on your shoulders. The only thing you need to do is laminate it and treat it against bugs.
To me the only scientific method that exists is that of trial and error—and experience! I never had the training that an engineer had, which is why it’s so important to have engineers who do academic work and teach younger generations about these kinds of alternative materials. In some ways I also have to think as an engineer but I don’t know anything about numbers. It’s just my experience. So you always need to involve another point of view.
Yes, I try to. Especially now that I am starting to have big commissions. I don’t want to be responsible for killing people. You have a big responsibility. I always say it’s better to have the engineer in jail, than the architect. [Laughs.] It’s always better to have a more scientific approach to these materials. So for each project I develop the technique of building and the engineers test the strength of the joinery. But engineers can still be very conservative and some of them don’t like to work with wood or bamboo—they still prefer concrete and steel.
Yes, and it’s already happening, too. For example I once did a social housing project right next to a luxury golf club. I had already built a bamboo pavilion in that same club, which was actually more expensive than the regular buildings. So the residents of the poor neighborhood nearby already knew of the bamboo house in the posh golf club. As a result they also wanted to have a bamboo house.
I think architecture is not unlike cooking: You cannot be completely vegetarian or completely carnivorous. You need an equilibrium between minerals—like cement and steel—and the vegetal—like bamboo or wood. It’s that equilibrium that allows for maximum protection against the elements, or against earthquakes. The vegetal materials, like bamboo or wood, should hold the structural responsibility because they are more flexible. But the skin of the building, which protects against fire, should be made out of cement or brick. I prefer cement because you can do the plaster by hand and it doesn’t require any heavy equipment. I don’t like buildings that require too much heavy machinery, especially in countries like Colombia. It’s not that I’m an environmentalist freak—but Colombia is a poor country and we need to occupy labor.
I always try to make sure that every structure I do uses as much hand labor as possible, especially from the very poor people. The people have to live by their hands and they are extremely skillful. In Colombia I can build houses without electricity, just by hand, with a chisel and a hammer and a saw. I’m no Communist, but to me the intense use of labor is very important from a social point of view. You are spending money on workers, not on technology.
Yes. And the better the quality of the building. It’s only when a country becomes rich that labor loses their skills and they start to use only heavy machinery.
Well I grew up in a very architectural environment. My father was already an architect. But at the time he went to school there were no architectural facilities in Colombia so he first studied engineering at the National University in Bogotá. Then he moved to the U.S. to study architecture at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. When he came back to Colombia after graduating he was one of the very first practicing architects who was actually trained as such. But he still lived in the small town of Manizales, where I also grew up. We lived in a very modern house that was built in a kind of Bauhaus style. When I was little I used to play with the sons of my father’s workers and I was always hanging out at my father’s office, or accompanying him to construction sites. When it was time for me to go to university to study architecture myself, my father actually went bankrupt so he couldn’t send me outside of Colombia. Instead he sent me to Bogotá to a private university. I consider it the worst education you can get.
Because private universities in Colombia are more concerned with making money than giving a proper education. But in a way I think it’s thanks to the fact that I didn’t get a good education there that I looked for alternative methods of building. I was not interested in urban architecture in concrete and steel. I love concrete, I love steel—I’m not against that. But it was also the hippie era. That is why I think we started to look to natural materials. I don’t really consider myself a hippie; I love playing golf and I don’t smoke marijuana, but...my attitude to building is definitely a little hippie. [Laughs.] Not so much from an ecological point of view but rather from the point of view of communication with nature. For example I was really influenced by a book called Shelter, a kind of hippie architecture book from California by Bob Easton. It was a big, encyclopedic book about how people everywhere in the world build with alternative materials. That book really impressed me when I was a student. I said to myself, I want to go in that direction.
Yes, but only because computer drawings are now required by law. Look, this is my notebook. Just yesterday I was designing a house for a very rich young guy and these are my very first drawings. [Shows a notebook with gridded paper.] And here I am already understanding what to do: It’s going to be a house made out of steel pipes and bamboo, perfectly symmetrical. I always design symmetry, like a kid. You give a kid a pencil to design a house and it’s always symmetrical. [Laughs.] But my most important tool is actually the eraser, not the pencil.
Always. I cannot design without the grid. Once I finish my sketch I give it to one of my young architects and they produce computer drawings for me. But I actually don’t need them. I don’t need anything else but my own hand-drawings to start building. All the measurements are already here.
No. All the information I need is on this gridded paper.
I’ve been very inspired by the work of Greene & Greene, the famous American Arts & Crafts architects who built a lot in California. I have many books about their architecture and their furniture. But my biggest influence comes from Andrea Palladio. Old architecture in general, actually, no matter where in the world, whether it was built for the poor or the wealthy—it’s just beautiful to me. For some reason I feel that a lot of modern architecture has lost its human scale. Perhaps it has to do with the techniques of building with concrete and steel. I am no philosopher, but I think that because comcrete and steel have no real limits – you can make a 20-meter span with just a simple beam – the architect doesn’t need to think about how to make a span like that anymore. When a material has limits like stone or wood, those natural limits give you more human proportion.
It’s true, I’m actually not very well thought of as an architect in Colombia. Mostly because the academics still think that good architecture is made of brick and concrete. I am not against that, but I just don’t work with those materials. If you go to Bogotá you will see a lot of modern architecture made of brick—it’s of very good quality but I am not interested in that. Because of that a lot of my colleagues don’t really like me.
Like I said before, I am not really interested in that kind of architecture. It’s architectural globalization and you can see exactly the same kind of buildings in any architecture magazine all over the world. It’s as if we are trying to prove to the world that Colombia is now part of civilization; that we can do exactly the same building that you do in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world.
To give you an example: I recently went to visit the new Cooper Union building in New York, designed by Morphosis—and I really think that building is the end of an era. It is so baroque, so over-designed, so over-expressionistic. It’s too many things, too much form without any sense. If you look at the steel, you see too much steel. If you look at the concrete, it’s too much concrete. It’s doing a lot of fake work. It’s not doing structural work. It is very beautiful, no doubt. But the beauty just for the beauty makes no sense. It’s an important architectural lesson because every style in the history of architecture comes into the baroque at some point, and that is usually the end of it. I think overall we have reached a point where we need to recollect a sense for more classical things and find our equilibrium again.