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Columbia's bold bamboo builder: using a native variety of this strong, flexible plant, Simon Velez creates structures that defy traditional architectural codes.

And he reports no difficulty with customs when he brings his seedling specimens home, because it's for science after all, and once on Colombian soil he plants them and studies them. But, he says, "without being nationalistic," he hasn't found a stronger, straighter, and easier to harvest species than Guadua angustifolia, the one that grows in his own homeland.

Velez has spent the last twenty years designing and building houses, hotels, convention centers, bridges, and practically anything he can out of the plant he calls "nature's prodigy."

He's quick to point out that the plant is stronger than steel, more flexible, meaning it handles the sort of stress buildings face during earthquakes, and grows faster than any plant on earth, making it an ideal renewable resource--but during most of modern human history, bamboo has been overlooked as a building material, except by the very poor. That is, until Velez came along.

During the last two decades, his unorthodox designs, techniques, and materials have gained a following from Florida to Brazil, with stops in a half-dozen countries along the way, and as far afield as China, with footprints in Germany and France. His work is the subject of the book Grow Your Own House: Simon Velez and Bamboo Architecture, and is featured in several others.

He has been called "one of three architects in history who have a highly developed spiritual communication with their material"--together with Frank Lloyd Wright and Egypt's Hassan Fathy (according to Hitesh Mehta, architect with the internationally recognized Florida landscape architecture firm, Edward D. Stone & Associates).

Nonetheless, in order to get at what Mehta calls "the organic quality ... in the way his natural materials relate to you," Velez has often had to convince earthbound bureaucrats around the globe that he could build with bamboo instead of more widely accepted materials, such as bricks and mortar. In one case, Velez had to first build a version of a pavilion in Colombia before engineers from Germany would accept it in Expo 2000.

Along the way, perhaps equally as important as Velez's houses, bridges, roofs, and towers has been the global legion of converts to the bamboo cause he has left in his wake wherever he goes--and in many cases, even in places he hasn't been, through word of mouth or the books featuring his strong yet graceful, firm, and supple structures.

As Velez tells it, his long, strange trip began with a mafioso, one of the early Colombian families to traffic cocaine abroad.

The story is as bizarre as anything to come from the same country as the so-called magical realism of Colombian Nobel prizewinner Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But it is also a telling illustration of the class struggles and social rebellion that have informed Velez's work, a detail that is important to understanding his designs and technologies.

It began with a right-hand man for Jorge Luis Ochoa, one of the Ochoa brothers--from the same family as Fabio Ochoa, now serving thirty years in a Florida jail for cocaine trafficking.

Velez had just figured out how to inject cement into joints, a signature innovation that would make anything he built with bamboo hold together better. He had built a stable for horses out of bamboo, and Ochoa's assistant saw the unusual sight driving by on a road in Colombia's Antioquia Province--not too far from Medellin.

At the time--more than twenty years ago--Jorge Luis Ochoa was doing time in Spain, also for trafficking.

The assistant to Ochoa asked Velez if he could build a house with bamboo, and Velez, with a cheekiness that has marked his career, said he could.

The idea was to surprise Ochoa on his anticipated return to Colombia.

More than two decades later, the house is still standing. It has even survived several government drives to confiscate the property of traffickers, being covered by an amnesty Colombian president Cesar Gaviria declared during the early nineties.

And Velez still gets a laugh from the whole thing, not only because of the notoriety of having launched an internationally known career with an international criminal as a client--but because of the intricate social implications that contract still holds in Colombian society.

As the architect tells it, at the time, Colombian society saw drug traffickers as rebels of sorts, anti-imperialists who had figured out a way to beat Third World poverty on the backs of U.S. youth and their weaknesses. And the mafiosos saw themselves in the same light, as "marginal characters."

So the decision to build a house of bamboo--a material associated with poor people living in the countryside or the creeping shantytowns at the edges of Colombian cities--was "an act of rebelliousness for them" as well.

Not only that, Velez says, in the years immediately after it was built, the Ochoa clan delighted in having their mafia friends over, if only to see their shocked expressions at the lack of marble, gold, and other signs of fabulous wealth.

Finishing off his tale with a satisfied chuckle--and in the sing-song accent from Antioquia that has not left him despite years of living in the capital city of Bogota and traveling around the world--Velez says the police had the same reaction as the mafiosos when they showed up at the house years later.

"When they raided the house, they couldn't believe it belonged to the Ochoas!"

Velez sums up the importance of the story to his career thusly: "If it wasn't for the drug traffickers, I would never have built a thing," he says. "They assumed the risk [of working with an unknown material]--something the upper class would never have done."

Decades later, an obvious irony in a career filled with the unexpected is that his client roster is now full of the wealthy.

It includes Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, for whom Velez built a stage out of bamboo at Jamaica's reggae museum, New York art dealer and impresario Daniel Wolf, who commissioned a house in Panama, and a Chinese development company that has created a corporation to build what appears to be that country's largest ecological tourism lodge--in part from bamboo.

Though millions are at stake in these and other projects, Velez insists on what may be described as a sui-generis style of working, if not downright eccentric.

"He has a quirkiness in his work habits that is as enlightening as his work," says Darrel DeBoer, a California architect who Metropolitan Home magazine named one of the one hundred most influential designers in 2001.

Those quirks include an apparent allergy to technology.

"He has a computer, but I don't think he's bothered to use it," DeBoer says.

Velez says the same when leaving indications about how to get in touch with him as we finished the initial in-person interviews for this story, during a visit last year to the U.S. for one of his many slide shows and workshops on building with bamboo.

Forget about e-mail, he says, after a night talking over wine and coffee-table books featuring Colombia's breathtaking landscape. He wears his signature hat, the kind you'd see on a folksinger, clothes of cotton in earth tones, and the crow's feet at his eyes spread easily in laughter.

"Better to try the phone," he says before saying goodbye. DeBoer says Velez also designs in an unorthodox fashion.

"He doesn't even use a drawing board. He draws on eight-by-eleven sheets of graph paper, and always has a pencil in his hand--even when he's eating dinner.

"And his job sites are littered with original drawings. You get to the point where his only record [of a design] is about to become somebody's napkin.

"Most of us [architects] spend most of our time on bureaucratic stuff like 'show us the smoke detectors.' We spend 2 percent of our time on design. With him, it's the opposite."

Another thing notes DeBoer--who has incorporated bamboo into his own career, with twelve designs built in the U.S., a book titled Bamboo Building and Culture, and chapters featuring Velez's work in two other books--is that the Colombian architect exercises complete control over building his designs.

"He says, 'My guys are going to build it.' He has several generations of guys who move from one project to the next."

This style of work has sometimes created friction, DeBoer allows.

It also made for an amusing anecdote in what may be Velez's most ambitious project to date--an ecological tourism lodge in Nankun Shah Mountain Nature Reserve in Central Guangdong, China.

There, as Velez tells it, four members of his Colombian crew have taught one hundred Chinese workers how to build with bamboo.

With his mischievous laugh, he describes how his crew members learned to speak the dialect spoken on one side of a bridge being built for the project. The problem--some of the Chinese workers come from the other side, where another dialect is spoken.

"But they manage somehow," he says.

Representing Edward D. Stone & Associates, Hitesh Mehta landed the job for his firm, an initial stage of which should be completed in early 2006. He remembers going to see the proposed site for the lodge in early 2003. "The whole project is in a bamboo forest," Mehta says. "When I was standing there, I said, 'We have to get Simon on this.' And the Chinese have a strong philosophical connection to bamboo, but ... until now, it has only been used as a decorative material, or for scaffolding, but never for shelter."

The project, when finished, will be the "largest collection of Simon's work," Mehta says, with a bridge, observation tower, star-gazing tower, roofs, and a walkway, all built with bamboo.

Mehta had first run across Velez's work in Grow Your Own House about seven years ago in a Washington, D.C., bookstore. He researched the architect's projects and began including them in classes he taught at Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University. But finding the man himself in order to pull him into an international project proved harder than he thought.

"We called the Colombian institute of architects and they said they didn't know anybody by that name. Finally, after about a week I had some luck and found someone who knew him and had his phone number," Mehta recalls.

"I think his work is still looked down upon in some circles in Colombia.... They're so interested in postmodernism."

DeBoer says that Velez's career advances almost in spite of himself. He says people like Mehta, who run across photos and descriptions of Velez's work in books or at conferences, become a sort of "gigantic PR firm without compensation."

Architect Gale Beth Goldberg, a colleague of DeBoer's and fellow member of the American Bamboo Society, may well also be a member of that imaginary firm.

She met Velez a decade ago at the 4th World Congress on Bamboo in Bali. Inspired by photos--Velez didn't even have slides at the time--she spent part of the next two years applying for grants to visit Velez in Colombia and see his work up close.

Finally, in 1998, she got the grant and made the trip. There, she saw six structures, including some that hadn't been finished. She also understood better the culture Velez had come from, where the state isn't always present, and where, when it is, the bureaucracy isn't always clear in its rules and regulations.

"In Colombia, experimenting is the rule," Goldberg says.

Velez's work left such an impression on her that she wound up writing a book. Published in 2002, Bamboo Style is now available in paperback. Goldberg says she "wrote the book to learn myself and then teach capabilities of the material to others."

The sort of snowball effect achieved over the decades may be making a difference in breaking through what Goldberg says is the biggest obstacle to bringing more people to build with bamboo--building codes.

Several people recall the experience Velez faced when he built the pavilion for Hanover, Germany's Expo 2000.

At the end of the day, Velez had to build the whole thing first in Colombia and show officials from Germany that the structure wouldn't collapse--at a cost of $100,000. Six million people wound up visiting the pavilion in Hanover.

Goldberg says that the slow buildup of architects and others inspired by Velez who are working with or drumming up support for bamboo recently made a difference--a group of architects was able to get International Building Code reviewers to approve one species of bamboo for use as a building material after tests in Washington state. Still, the species, Bambusa stenostachya, is only one of what may be more than a thousand worldwide.

"But it [the approval] sets a precedent," Goldberg says.

At the same time, she says, in developed countries like her own United States, local building departments are not quite ready to accept bamboo as a material, and local lumber yards don't offer it for sale.

In any case, Velez himself says the type of innovation that has marked his career is practically impossible in the developed world for another reason: lawyers.

"In first world countries, nobody experiments with new materials because they're afraid of being sued," he says. "I've made new constructions that have fallen," he admits, hastening to add, "but so far, no one's ever gotten hurt."

In the same vein, Velez says he doesn't charge for bridges--he's made only two--because he's "still learning about them."

Unexpectedly, the weathered architect signed off one long-distance conversation by declaring, "Anyway, I'm not pushing bamboo on anyone. I don't want to be typecast, like Sean Connery with James Bond. Besides, I don't even know how to sell my own work, much less bamboo."

As for the future, he says, "I don't have clear objectives."

And then, repeating a saying typical of the region he's from, rich in expressions handed down from Spain--the same region where bamboo grows plentifully--he says, "In any case, you never know which way the rabbit's going to hop."

Timothy Pratt has previously written for Americas from Cali, Colombia, and Nicaragua. His work has also appeared in the Economist, New York Times, Miami Herald, and the Times of London, among others. He moved from Cali to Las Vegas, Nevada, in 2001 and is now a reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.
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Author:Pratt, Timothy
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:3COLO
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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