Southeast Asia’s rapid economic growth is abundantly clear in the ever-changing skylines of its cities: gleaming skyscrapers, mushrooming housing and lifestyle developments and everything in between. Many of these projects deploy cutting-edge techniques and materials in their bid to be the biggest and best, often at the expense of sustainability and local history.
At the same time, however, there is also a growing number of regional design practices demonstrating a greater sensitivity to the land, environment and culture. These firms are embracing traditional construction methods and materials as they look to reshape the landscape of 21st-century Southeast Asia. Their secret weapon? Bamboo. Abundant and renewable, bamboo is said to be the fastest growing plant in the world. According to the Guinness Book of Records, some species have been measured shooting skyward at 35 inches a day – you can literally watch it grow.
We speak to four architecture firms helping define a new regional and local identity through a specific focus on bamboo projects. Not only are their buildings magnificent to look at, they also embody a real sense of place and perhaps offer a viable check and balance to the region’s rapid growth.
Elora Hardy – Founder and creative director, Ibuku
Ibuku is a pioneering team of local architects, engineers and designers specialising in bamboo as a primary material to build homes, hotels, schools and event spaces. It is helmed by founder and creative director Elora Hardy, whose father John built the famous Green School, a non-profit institution located in the Balinese jungle, and The Green Village, a community of luxury homes situated next door.
Hardy grew up in Bali before moving to the US for high school and university. After a stint in New York designing prints for Donna Karan, she returned home in 2010 to continue the evolution of bamboo design under the brand Ibuku. Hardy has no formal architectural training, but with her local team has now built over 50 new bamboo structures in Bali.
Ibuku’s buildings are arresting, organic forms that are designed in direct response to local land and culture. For example, the Sokasi Cooking School at the Four Seasons Sayan, completed in late 2017, is based on the shape of a curving dry leaf, but with an asymmetry that follows the natural contours of its setting.
Recent projects include new buildings for eco-resort Bambu Indah – the Copper House and Moon House, both rustic, luxury spaces nestled in nature. The concepts ensure connections to the natural surroundings but with luxurious features and facilities.
We design for the bamboo, inspired by its strengths and vulnerabilities. We also look to the forms we find in nature, and especially in the landscape of the site. The natural world around us is infinitely tactile and varied. In the tropics, bamboo is a natural choice, with groves of bamboo growing beside the very houses that were inspired by its form.
There are thousands of species [of bamboo] around the world, and we use the seven that are most plentiful locally and have the best characteristics. Some we choose for strength and size, others for curvature or their beautiful colour, others for delicacy and taper. We purchase our bamboo from hundreds of individual farmers.
I feel excited about the possibilities. Bamboo grows plentifully across the tropics. It’s as strong as steel by weight and has the compressive strength of concrete. Also, it’s beautiful.
Tropical style is about finding ease and comfort in nature. The tropics are dynamic – the beauty of bright sunshine, lush foliage, as well as a fierce heat and a bounty of jungle creatures. How do we create a safe space in this gorgeous wildness, without caging ourselves off from it? It’s so important to design for good weather, while planning for the bad. Why should a living room be glassed in if there’s a cooling breeze that could be enjoyed for much of the year? We want to be able to enjoy the beauty.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
David Cole – Principal architect, Atelier Cole
After time working on large-scale stadium complexes, UK-trained architect David Cole came to realise his passion was for designs where social impact, not profit, was the main marker of value.
As a result, Cole co-founded Building Trust International (BTI) in 2010, a non-profit that now operates in 26 countries, offering pro-bono design help to communities in need. In 2013, BTI was invited to Cambodia to provide flood-resistant housing solutions. That project made him realise engaging local talent was far better than using overseas architecture offices.
Inspired, Cole set up Atelier Cole in Phnom Penh. It now employs a primarily Cambodian team and champions local materials such as timber, bamboo and most recently rattan, alongside traditional forms of architecture that allow for shading, East-West orientation and natural ventilation.
The bamboo-focused projects grew organically after earlier projects – including Bamboo Trees, a retail pavilion for Free The Bears at their Luang Prabang Rescue Centre – attracted interest. Recent projects include a resort in Kampong Cham, and the Bamboo Star playground in Phnom Penh. Its six-pointed star design references the lotus flowers in the fields around the school, with a roof that offers a nod to temple architecture.
I feel bamboo remains a niche product. We continue to try and reduce the low impression people have of it. We also do it in a way that’s accessible to a wider market, meaning we deliver projects for a cheaper price than steel or concrete. With added investment and a more responsive market, it could be a viable, cheaper alternative to a large array of other building components.
There is a strong desire to explore natural alternatives. It is often said that 60% of greenhouse gases are a result of the construction industry. True or not, young architects and clients are more aware of these issues and are looking for more sustainable designs. Bamboo, along with a host of other materials, offer a solution.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Markus Roselieb – Co-founder, Chiangmai Life Construction and Chiangmai Life Architects
Markus Roselieb, a medical doctor specialising in trauma surgery, first came to Thailand on a medical exchange programme some 20 years ago. He liked the place, decided to stay and soon found himself engaged in building work on his own properties.
Now 54, the Austrian native no longer practises medicine but heads Chiangmai Life Architects and Chiangmai Life Construction, alongside a team of local junior architects and foremen. They specialise in modern bamboo and earth architecture that has been applied across eco-resorts, houses and schools, as well as office and factory spaces since 2009.
Some of their projects, most notably the 782m2 Panyaden Bamboo Sports Hall in the south of Chiang Mai, feature impressively large and expansive bamboo trusses. This year, the vaulted hall, which can house futsal, basketball and badminton courts, and claimed a zero-carbon footprint during building, has been shortlisted for prestigious architecture blog Dezeen’s “Civic and Cultural Building” award and the World Architecture Festival’s “Sport – Completed Building” award.
More recently, the firm has also worked on a wine tasting sala (pavilion) and the Zabb E Lee Cooking School, both situated close to Chiang Mai. The cooking school’s design looks to blend the natural surroundings and northern Thai culture, with its high slanting roofs and interior arches.
It started from having to regularly repair my beach house. I realised the fault was in the conventional materials, which were rotting in the salty sea air. Natural materials like earth and bamboo provide better insulation and the salt doesn’t harm them – on the contrary, it seems to conserve them.
Bamboo has an image problem. It is viewed as poor-quality, but the problem is human ignorance. How many millions went into research on building with steel and how much has gone into bamboo? We really don’t know how to work with this material yet.
Bamboo is stronger than steel if you know how to use it. Bamboo can be bent in any direction. If we have an earthquake in Chiang Mai, the sports hall will be the last building standing. When the earth liquefies, heavy things go in, but bamboo structures are lightweight.
The sports hall is the future of bamboo as a modern structural material. It featured a lot of firsts. And on top of that, the building is aesthetically memorable.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Eleena Jamil – Principal architect, Eleena Jamil Architects
The Penang-born, UK-trained Eleena Jamil first worked with bamboo as a building material way back in 2008. Her Malaysia-based firm used the plant as the central component when they won first prize in an international architectural competition to design a classroom that could withstand typhoons in the Philippines.
“We were elated when the classroom was actually built almost two years after we won the competition,” recalls the 47-year-old.
In 2015, Eleena’s team was commissioned by the Kuala Lumpur City Hall to create the Bamboo Playhouse at the Perdana Botanical Garden in the city. This open pavilion is positioned along the edge of a lake and is inspired by the traditional village wakaf (communal places of rest) with over 30 platforms set at varying heights. The firm was also approached by UN-Habitat to design and build a bamboo pavilion during the World Urban Forum (WUF) 2018. This project sits along KL’s Klang River and uses 7,000 rings cut from recycled bamboo left over from previous projects, as a demonstration of the sustainability of the material.
Eleena’s innovative use of form and material while considering the environmental, social and economic aspects of sustainability have led to her nomination for Dezeen’s “Architect of the Year” award.
I feel Kuala Lumpur is fascinating, full of contradictions and opposites. On the one hand, you get the sleek high-rise glass towers, and on the other, there are these wonderful micro interstitial spaces at ground level, full of people going about their daily lives. These are far more interesting, and these are where some of our projects, like the UN-Habitat bamboo pavilion, are located. It is these dynamic combinations of glass towers and the messy but vibrant groundscapes that provide us with inspiration for our designs.
Bamboo buildings are appreciated in the KL architecture scene, but their existence remains a novelty. In Malaysia, bamboo is generally used for temporary structures like fences or shelters and for handicrafts. Their use in construction of buildings is still rare, which is a shame, because Malaysia has an abundance of bamboo. The challenge with working with bamboo is that, being a “new” material, there are no local building codes and standards to work with. As such, there was a lot of experimentation during construction. For example, we had to do a lot of work exploring how to treat bamboo to make sure that it stays durable.
Bamboo is a viable building material as it is as strong as steel in tension, and it is much lighter, making it easy to handle and work with during construction. We only needed three people to put up the main beams of the playhouse. Its pliability makes it suitable to be used in earthquake- and wind-resilient structures. There is a fear that bamboo will not last and will be difficult and time-consuming in application. Both are not true. Bamboo – if treated properly – will last a lifetime.
Learn how to do it yourself
Started in 2015, Bamboo U offers an 11-day intensive course in the fundamentals of sustainable bamboo architecture and construction with lectures and practical workshops that cover botanics, traditional craftsmanship, design and engineering. bamboou.com
What is bamboo?
- Bamboo is a member of the grass family. There are more than 1,000 species across the world, 60% of which are native to Southeast Asia.
- Bamboo is strong, with the compressive force of concrete and the tensile strength of steel.
- A bamboo shoot can become a structural column within three years, compared to the other 10 to 20 years it takes to softwoods.
- Smaller bamboo species can be stripped to make weaving mats used as the substructure of bamboo roofs.
- Bamboo used for construction is treated with borax, a natural insect repellent and preservative.
This article was originally published in the November 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine.