An enduring love affair with bamboo

Print edition : July 30, 2010

This house designed by Simon has a bamboo roof. It is in the middle of a ranch in Colombia where polo horses are bred.-

Simon Velez' creations in bamboo have been an eye-opener on the use of this giant grass as building material.

SIMON VELEZ has been designing and making bamboo buildings in Colombia for the past 30 years. He discovered that he could build major structures with the indigenous bamboo called guadua' at much lower costs than with concrete and steel. He was the first to introduce large-span bridges (especially over motorways for pedestrians and cyclists to get across) made in bamboo, and has made a number of other interesting structures as well with the material.

Simon belongs to a wealthy old family that owns vast tracts of land and cattle and traces its ancestry to the Spanish invaders. Interestingly, unlike Mexico, the armies that invaded South America did not bring their women. Once they settled, they formed alliances with the local women, which ultimately resulted in a very attractive race. Every Colombian has Spanish and Inca blood in him/her.

THE VIEW FROM the interior of the church near Cartegena that Simon designed.-

Simon's family was among those who preserved some of the Inca gold and helped create the now-famous gold museum in Bogota, where the remains of gold jewellery and artefacts of the Inca empires have been exhibited.

THE CHURCH SET on a barren piece of land on the edge of a lake. One is struck by the intense use of bamboo in this extraordinary work of architecture. During the rains, the water rises in the lake and the church appears to be floating on the water.-

Simon Velez is a third generation architect his grandfather was an architect and his father built some of the contemporary modern buildings of Colombia. Simon realised that his interest lay in alternative building materials and has worked with them for more than three decades. One of his most famous structures is an immense pavilion for a Mexican artist, which occupies almost half of one of Mexico City's large squares.

The Germans invited him to build a pavilion for the Hanover international fair in 2000. This building passed successfully the stringent structural tests designed to meet German safety standards. Apparently, the engineer who did the tests has since been in high praise of this type of construction.

THE HOUSE IS set in a valley near Cartegena and has a simple design.-

In December 2009, Simon Velez was honoured in the Netherlands with the Prince Claus Award that recognises contributions to communities and social change in the world. This was followed by the Colombian state conferring on him its highest civilian title for his outstanding work in that country.

SIMON VELEZ. HE has worked with bamboo for more than three decades and created structures that defy the imagination.-

In India, the government has created a National Mission on Bamboo Application to help revive interest in the use of bamboo and in growing it. Members of the mission visited Colombia and sought Simon's advice and also invited him to India. During his visit about four years ago, Simon toured many parts of northeastern India, which is rich in bamboo, and identified some varieties that could be used successfully to construct buildings on a large scale.

Indian pavilion

Its massive bamboo roof is covered with a thin layer of concrete on which terracotta tiles have been placed.-

Pradeep Sachdeva, an Indian architect and member of the bamboo mission, convinced him to help build the Indian pavilion for the Shanghai Expo 2010 (May 1-October 31). The design of the pavilion, which took about five months to complete, is the result of a successful collaboration between two international architects and an enthusiastic Chinese builder who rediscovered the use of bamboo in China. The bamboo dome held very well and measured up to the high safety standards set by the Chinese. The dome is 34 metres in diameter (the dome of the Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur is 38 metres and was the largest dome in India until the grand dome of the Vipassana centre completed recently in Mumbai eclipsed it). The Indian pavilion has followed the theme of greening of the planet and even has a garden on the roof of the dome the theme stresses the need to use natural materials for survival.

One has to just google Simon Velez to find many of the magnificent buildings he has built and understand his love affair with the guadua' variety of bamboo. With this type of bamboo and his experiments with using concrete at the joints, he was able to use the two materials to design and build huge spaces. His bridges are path-breaking and have stood the test of time.

A long verandah faces an equally long swimming pool. The rooms of the house are lined along the verandah.-

Among his recent buildings is a church that he has not only designed but also owns. He felt the need to build a place of worship that follows no religion and to give the place a sacred feel. His intention was to use the natural curve of the plant to achieve the structural concept in the design. The church is set on a barren piece of land close to the coastal city of Cartegena. During the rainy season the nearby lake rises almost to the edge of the church and, as the night view shows, it appears to be floating on water.

Visiting this extraordinary work of architecture, one is struck by the intense use of bamboo and the peace and quiet of the space. Simon had requested us to visit the place as dusk set in in order to experience what a building made entirely of one material can do to space. As darkeness sets in, the lights bring on a new kind of exhilaration, which the accompanying pictures illustrate very well.

THE GARDEN ON the bamboo dome of the India Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010.-

As an architect who has visited many sacred places, I was amazed to find that a contemporary building made of natural materials could achieve a quality of space designers yearn for. I was later invited to see one of Simon's more recent houses, which he had designed for an old friend.

In Colombia, the railroads have been made redundant by the long wars between drug lords, which have made the areas between cities unsafe. As a result, we had to fly and drive to many places. Cartegena is a one-hour flight from the capital Bogota, which is situated 2,600 metres above sea level. Set in line with the equator, it has constant weather cool during the day and chilly at night throughout the year. From this beautiful capital affluent residents have made retreats in the hot valleys on the way to the Pacific coast.

Rain and moon

The house designed by Simon is built on a ranch set in one of these valleys and is the centre of a place where high-quality polo horses are bred. The house is so designed that the horses live in almost as much comfort as the occupants of the house.

The design plan is very simple. There is a long verandah facing an equally long pool, and along the verandah are the living room, kitchen and bedrooms. The two bedrooms at the end are bigger and have very large bathrooms attached, which are partly open to the sky. (I woke up at night to find the rain pouring in and saw the moon dancing behind clouds.)

Views of the dome from the inside.-

At the rear are a set of stables, which run along the length of the house. Below the house is all the equipment that is required to look after the horses. While the house looks simple from the outside, it is equipped with filtration plants, silent generators and pressure pumps for water supply, making for comfortable living. The massive bamboo roof is the main feature of the house and is covered with a thin layer of concrete on which traditional terracotta tiles are placed.

The interiors are elegantly decorated largely with colourful fabrics from India and furniture from Bali. The surrounding countryside is rather stark but is able to provide a dramatic backdrop to the ranch house. The polo field in front adds to the spacious nature of the house. There are a couple of small but equally elegant staff houses for the attendant staff, who made the stay extremely pleasurable.

It would be useful to add a few notes on the guadua' bamboo. Colombia has an abundance of this variety, which has been used extensively for construction of buildings there. It looks elegant and is very strong and can achieve a rapid growth. The plant grows at the rate of 12 cm a day and grows to its full strength in five years. This prompted Simon to write the book Grow Your Own House. The guadua bamboo has many uses, including making furniture. In theory, a new house can be built using entirely this material, including walls, floors and windows.

AT NIGHT, THE reflection of the church on the lake.-

Bamboo can last a long time if it is protected from water falling on it. Simon Velez' buildings have large overhangs that do not allow rainwater to fall on the building.

Simon Velez is a legendary figure in the world of bamboo a world that recognises a material that is sustainable and as strong as steel. Among his recent works, the most impressive is the headquarters of the foundation for an eco-friendly environment. This building is made almost entirely of bamboo and when lit up at night looks like a huge cathedral. The sheer size of this structure will convince many architects that bamboo can be used extensively.

The popularity of bamboo is growing in Colombia. The Mayor of the town of Manizales, which is Simon's home town, has commissioned him to design a new airport building, which is a fitting tribute to a lifetime of work for this extraordinary architect.

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