After the Colombian earthquake of 1999, architect Simón Vélez quickly built a temporary cathedral in Pereira that offered grounding to a community that had just lost its place of worship, in a country that had lost more than a thousand citizens. The bamboo church seemed to grow from the earth itself. And the material, with its light weight, strength, and flexibility, carried an added assurance: Bamboo structures, typically associated with the poor, had fared far better in the quake than concrete structures like the church Vélez replaced. According to Darrel DeBoer, a California architect who has closely studied Vélez's work, when the cathedral was destroyed a few years later to make way for a concrete one, it couldn't be knocked down; it had to be blown up.
Bamboo has emerged in recent years as a kind of wundermaterial. The hearty grass has the same tensile strength-to-weight ratio as steel and is stronger than concrete, without all the weight. It grows much faster than trees, allowing harvests in about four to six years, and doesn't need to be replanted. Bamboo even helps in the fight against climate change: The plant is highly efficient at sucking carbon from the atmosphere.
An estimated 1 billion people worldwide live in homes that incorporate bamboo, and though it's been gaining a foothold in North America as a trendy, 'green' alternative for flooring, bamboo has yet to be adopted as a structural building material. DeBoer hopes that innovations by Vélez, featured in Américas (Feb. 2006), and his close friend and collaborator, Marcelo Villegas, will change that. The two have strengthened joints by bolting and filling them with concrete and used a nontoxic treatment to keep bugs from lunching on the poles. The results of their work are on grand display in Colombia, especially among the society's upper echelons, and in 2000 Vélez made an international splash at the World Expo in Hanover, Germany, where he built the sprawling ZERI Pavilion (the interior of the Colombian test run is shown on this page).
Back in the United States, where myriad codes and market forces can slow the adoption of new materials, builders have been reticent to experiment with bamboo. As one of them told DeBoer, 'I don't do new.' Plus, according to Environmental Building News (March 2006), some kinks must still be worked out before bamboo merits a full-fledged 'sustainable' stamp of approval. Most bamboo used here is shipped from China, burning fossil fuels; pollution from pesticides and fertilizers can be a problem, as can toxic preservatives; and scientists are concerned that some forests-typically more biologically diverse than bamboo groves-are being cleared or invaded to plant the more profitable bamboo crops.
Nevertheless, DeBoer and others say the bamboo gospel is worth spreading, for the material's sustainability, structural capacity, and-perhaps most importantly for designers-beauty. 'You have a carved, ornamented, interesting, character-filled, finished piece without having to do anything,' DeBoer tells Utne. 'You've already started with something you want to end up with.' -Hannah Lobel