Peer to Pier: Conversations with fellow travelers
Simón Vélez, 63, of Bogota Colombia is a prize-winning architect, and the most eminent proponent of bamboo as an essential building component. Simón has created joinery systems that utilize bamboo as a permanent structural element in both residential and commercial structures. To date, Simón has designed bamboo buildings in Germany, France, the United States, Brazil, Mexico, China, Jamaica, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, and India.
Simón participated in designing Crosswaters Ecolodge, the first ecotourism destination in China in the forests of Nankun Shan Mountain Reserve, in the Guangdong Province. The project received the American Society of Landscape Architects 2006 Analysis and Planning Award of Honor. In 2009 Simón received The Principal Prince Claus Award for his contribution to a positive interaction between culture and development.
I met with Simón at his home in Bogota’s La Candelaria district, a historic neighborhood of buildings in the Spanish Colonial and Baroque styles. Finding the address on a steep street lined ancient buildings covered in artistic graffiti, I was greeted at the door by his daughter and led into an sprawling, magical compound. In a spacious room with a fantastic view of Bogota’s skyline, I was charmed by Simón’s combination of passion, self-deprecation, outspokenness and humor. Our conversation was punctuated with a lot of laughter and it was a refreshing reminder that intensity and playfulness can co-exist. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Simón.
Meg: How did you happen to begin working with bamboo?
Simón: It was a client who forced me to build with bamboo, 25 years ago. I suppose the use of bamboo was a whim for him. I was never interested in that. But he told me, “You have to build me a house for the horses.”
Our sacred animal here in Colombia is the horse. It’s an old tradition that we have these very strange horses. They are very little, and they are so expensive. People pay millions for those little horses. I don’t like them, but this is our tradition. So, I have built many houses for horses, stables. I’m kind of an expert of doing the stables.
I had no idea on how to work with bamboo, because it’s hollow. I used nuts, and bolts, and straps. I suddenly realized that if I put cement mortar inside the hollow bamboo then it’s not hollow anymore. It makes a solid joint, and it works really well, so after I discovered that I can build as big a structure as any engineer can build out of wood or steel.
I work with brick, and concrete, and my prestige comes from the bamboo, but I’m not a bamboo architect. I’m so happy when a client asks me to do something without bamboo. I say, “Oh, thank you!” [Laughter]
Meg: How is working with bamboo different than other materials?
Simón: This year I was also invited again to the Pompidou Museum to do a workshop, which is two weeks doing physical work that I never do that. My only physical work is playing golf. [Laughter]
I was invited to show the people how to do my joinery, the joinery I developed to work with bamboo, which is a stupid joinery, but it works. I make a hole in the chamber. The bamboo has many chambers. It’s a material wood, but it is hard wood, so with a drill I open a hole the size of a bottle. I cut a piece upon it, so I pour cement mortar inside there after the bolts and the strap already in position, and it makes a very strong joinery, the best.
I am always trying to find the limits of the bamboo, but it’s a limited material. I cannot do crazy things. I really have to understand how the structure is going to work, because it doesn’t matter what I do with all the material, there is always a kind of human scale, even if they are big.
I think that natural materials give you scale, because they have big limitations, so when you work with the limitations, you start doing interesting things, but a material like concrete, or the steel the way we use that, there are no domestic limits. Well, of course they have limits, but it’s so easy to make a span with concrete that you don’t need to think on it.
Modern building materials don’t have limits, and when you don’t have limits you lose your scale, the human proportions. Before if you wanted to make a 20-meter span with stone, it is so difficult because stone has huge limits; it’s a very limited material, so you have to design an arch to support that span. If you wanted to make it in wood, wood also has big limits, so you have a scale embodied in what you want to do. But with concrete you can make a 20-meter beam, flat, and it works. So, when you don’t have that human scale, the natural scale of the materials, I think you lose proportions.
Meg: I gather there is a political element to working with bamboo?
Simón: I don’t understand why, but there is. [Laughter] Because the academic world here hates bamboo; It’s the poor people’s wood. They really hate that kind of alternative material. There is a big prejudice against those natural materials, because they have the meaning of poverty. Since we are a poor country, they decided we have to show the world that we are a civilized country, and that we use concrete; we use brick; we have steel; and we have glass. I’m not an enemy of those materials, but there are many other materials.
I am a conservative; I am from the right side, but I am an anarchista. In a country when there are not politicians, there is either a policeman in charge, like Venezuela, or there is a priest, like it is in Arabic countries. After Simon Bolivar, this country was ruled by the Catholic Church. It was really a nightmare for a country to be ruled by the priests. I was brought up Catholic, and I really hate them. Maybe five seconds before dying I will become Catholic again, just in case. [Laughter]
I am a democrat, and I prefer a politician, even a corrupted politician, to a corrupted policeman or a priest. So, it’s a big advance to have politicians. It doesn’t matter if they are thieves or not, at least every four years you can change them, and it happens. They don’t last forever, and sometimes they have to do nice, otherwise they will not survive. I am optimistic; it’s not easy, but we are improving.
So, because of my political activity, I was informed that there was a new law saying it is not allowed to build with bamboo. I was the winner of an award in Holland and the president called me to tell me congratulations. I told him I was awarded because of the bamboo work I do, and now a new law has just been signed saying it’s not allowed to build out of bamboo. He called me to his palace, and I explained the situation to him; he called the minister in charge of that, and in front of me the president asked the minister to write a chapter of the building code for bamboo.