Perhaps the most surprising thing about bamboo - besides being an entirely natural, sustainable material with the tensile strength of steel that can grow up to 900 millimeters (3 feet) in just 24 hours - is that it's not more widely recognized as a fantastic construction material. Like many traditional building materials, bamboo no longer has the architectural currency that it once did across Asia and the pacific, but the efforts of Elora Hardy may help put it back into the vernacular. Heading up Ibuku, a design firm that uses bamboo almost exclusively, Hardy's recent TED Talk is an excellent run through of bamboo's graces and virtues in construction, showing off sinuous private homes and handbuilt school buildings.
Hardy, daughter of Southeast Asian-inspired jewelry manufacturer John Hardy, was inspired to explore advanced uses of bamboo after working with her father on the construction of the Green School and surrounding Green Village in Bali, built according to principles of traditional design and passive climate regulation to produce sustainable, easily maintainable buildings that fit into the cultural context of Bali.
Hardy is, of course, far from the first person to recognize bamboo's use. Even the west has picked up on it through laminated bamboo flooring since the 1990s, but the first record of the use of bamboo construction in Asian and pacific cultures dates to the 10th century, and they were almost certainly using it long before. Untreated, bamboo can only be so useful: the high sugar content and that fact that one is, in effect, building with a very large and sturdy wild grass means that bamboo structures are vulnerable to pest infestations and rot. Traditional Japanese architecture embraced this temporality, which fit in well with the Shikinen sengū-sai tradition of repeatedly rebuilding Shinto shrines. Other cultures tended to use it as a more utilitarian material; gutters and fencing, constantly maintained bridges and, in Hong Kong, scaffolding, where it has even been used for the construction of skyscrapers.
But treating bamboo with salts or acids derived from boron has allowed more recent architects to unlock bamboo's potential as a desirable, high end or bespoke material, often focusing on sinuous curves and naturalistic or traditional forms to best complement the tensile strength and non-standard shapes of bamboo canes. Vietnam's Vo Trong Nghia has been incorporating bamboo in his light, natural designs for some time, while Hardy and her father's use of bamboo for as much of the interior as possible has led to the redesign of basic architectural concepts, such as the shape of doors or the location of hinges, moving beyond basic recreation of traditional ideas to a synthesis of contemporary and traditional architectural forms. Now, use of bamboo is even migrating to the West for more architectural purposes than just floors: for example, Karawitz Architecture in France used bamboo to form a sustainable open skin to their abstract representation of a traditional French house.