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‘Bamboo has a fragile form of beauty, but in reality, in terms of tensile capacity, culms are stronger than steel’

An exploration of bamboo and adobe to support an ecological lifestyle at the Longquan International Biennale

Bamboo and adobe are among mankind’s oldest building materials. Both have an intuitive and subtle nature, can take almost any shape, and can be manufactured with zero energy consumption. Being part of the grass family, bamboo has a somewhat fragile form of beauty, but in reality, in terms of tensile capacity, culms are stronger than steel, and have been used for building and scaffolding for centuries. 

Yet, bamboo has often been considered as the material of the poor, despite its strength and potential. Furthermore, it has not been standardised as a construction material around the world: the Zeri Pavilion by Simón Veléz had to be built and tested first in Manizales, Colombia to receive a construction permit for the Expo 2000 in Hanover. Why do we distrust bamboo? The contemporary conception of modernisation is based on proliferation – to move faster, work faster, build faster and to add ‘value’ to everything, which in architecture results in trading one dysfunctional environment for another. Bamboo and mud constructions do not have a long lifespan, compared with concrete structures, and using such indigenous materials requires specific knowledge, craftsmanship and maintenance. 

In the understandable urgency for change, the Longquan International Biennale (LIB) aims to raise awareness of the use of bamboo and adobe. Over the past 20 years, China’s economic growth has had a significant impact on its social and architectural topography, and the country has recently expanded into developing  rural areas. The biennale, in Baoxi in the south-western  Zhejiang Province, is conceived as an exploration of bamboo and adobe. Surrounded by mountains up to 1,930m high in an area known for its prolific ceramics production and bamboo forests, the new buildings interpret the spirit of the place. The goal is to foster a sense of belonging and purpose in sustainable architecture, based on culture-making and educational empowerment. Projects that engage the people are also a major theme of this biennale.

‘The goal is to foster a sense of belonging and purpose in sustainable architecture, based on culture-making and educational empowerment’

The exhibition comprises diverse bamboo and mud constructions. Twelve international architects were invited to complete projects – Li Xiaodong, Simón Veléz, Anna Heringer, Vo Trong Nghia, Kengo Kuma, George Kunihiro, Madhura Prematilleke, Keisuke Maeda, Mauricio Cárdenas Laverde, Young Jang and Sook Hee Chun, and Yang Xu – working together with locals. Completed in September 2016, the emphasis at the biennale is on bamboo craft supporting an ecological lifestyle. A self-supporting bamboo bridge, designed by artist and co-curator Ge Qiantao, connects the village with a new cultural centre, which opens to a set of new buildings, including a museum, several workshops, a restaurant and accommodation facilities. 

Each structure uses different techniques and methods. The gracefully interwoven Wellcome Center by Vo Trong Nghia embraces the flexibility of bamboo, inviting visitors to discover the site. Adjacent to the river, the ceramics workshop by Keisuke Maeda sits on a 2-metre-tall stone platform and is characterised by a cantilevered bamboo facade. ‘We divided the essential facilities into seven caverns, creating a sense of expansiveness by overlapping the shared spaces’, he explains. ‘Like the forests that cover the site’s premises, bamboo materials were placed horizontally and vertically over these caverns in a rhythmical pattern. The project offers a safe and secure place, while also echoing the physical experience of walking inside the bamboo forest – listening to the sound of rustling leaves, the shifting light shining through the trees, cropped scenery framed between bamboo trunks.’ 

In contrast, Mauricio Cárdenas Laverde designed an eco energy experimental house with unpretentious industrial detailing.  He applied techniques of combining  bamboo and steel joints to create modular elements for an innovative bamboo construction system. 

‘Bamboo is humble yet strong, and most importantly, it’s natural’

Among the other exhibits is the  bamboo research centre by Li Xiaodong  – a cubic volume with a supporting steel structure, enhanced by soft, diffused light, penetrating through a facade of vertically arranged bamboo culms. The design,  which incorporates a forest surrounding  the building, was conceived to disappear within its bamboo grove: ‘The building is not designed to be looked at from the outside, but rather to be lived and appreciated from within’, Li explains. ‘Bamboo is humble yet strong, and most importantly, it’s natural.’

Delicate, yet expressive, Anna Heringer’s three youth hostels are composed of rammed earth cores of different thicknesses and heights wrapped around with bamboo mesh. The design, resembling a woven ceramic vase, allows hot air to exit through the top, creating a cool microclimate. The building envelope is crafted from bamboo strips and the supporting columns are placed in foundations of stones collected from the adjacent river. The ground floor of the biggest pavilion is a 600mm stone wall, gradually changing into rammed earth, and becoming thinner to finish with a bamboo structure on the third floor. The sleeping areas of the biggest pavilion are supported by steel wires and wrapped in membranes. 

Protecting bamboo from the sun and humidity with a membrane is a common technique. Young Jang and Sook Hee Chun from Wise Architecture have embraced this method and developed an exhibition pavilion composed of an overall steel structure with split bamboo, entwined between the steel frames to create fluid spaces, completely enclosed by a membrane.

‘These designs reappropriate the cultural influences that have shaped our world, and use this knowledge to bring something new to it’

Adjacent is Kengo Kuma’s ceramic museum which interprets the material as a development of modular parts. The 221m2 pavilion without columns uses wooden sticks piled in a zigzag pattern. Originally designed with bamboo, but due to financial limitations produced with wood, this structural system is easily assembled with the help of 12mm bolts, fixing the position of the sticks. Talking about his project, Kuma mentions the tale of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. As traditionally depicted, the story tells of seven historical intellectuals in the third century CE who retreated into the countryside during times of political upheaval. They gathered in a bamboo grove near the country house of Xi Kang, where they worked and created in freedom, in contrast to the rigid environment. ‘The story depicts a contemporary phenomenon and can give us a lot of hints about how to live our lives and create architecture’, Kuma says.

The concept of environmental architecture in China is not dead; these buildings exploit their location and structure in such an admirable manner that the next biennale is eagerly anticipated. Hopefully, next time it will take place closer to the public. Far from going back to basics, these designs reappropriate the cultural influences that have shaped our world, and use this knowledge to bring something new to it. The biennale highlights the importance and creative potential of harnessing these resources. As Ge Qiantao writes of the biennale architecture, which was under construction for four years, ‘We believe that only through the re-understanding of our own culture, through sorting, summing up and redevelopment, can we build a path suitable for local development. For larger cities, in addition to sustainable development, the most important task is to rebuild the local people’s self-awareness and confidence in the future.’