Simón Vélez is a singular architect who has gained international exposure through an unwavering commitment to the use of bamboo in architecture. On one of his first jobs many decades ago, Velez discovered a process that enabled him to use bamboo as a structural material in ways beyond what had ever been achieved before then. Across a wide range of typologies–from housing to horse stables to chapels to a store for Carrefour–Velez is on a mission to make bamboo fashionable, if only for its critical importance as part of a sustainable future. Notable projects include a pavilion for the ZERI Foundation (Zero Energy Research and Initiatives) at Expo 2000, Hanover; the Crosswaters Ecolodge in the Guangdong Province, China; and the Zócalo Nomadic Museum, Mexico City. In December 2009 he received the Netherlands’ Prince Claus Award for contributions to culture and development.
Velez sat down for an interview with the League’s Gregory Wessner on the morning after his Current Work lecture to talk about his work and influences and, of course, bamboo.
Let’s start by talking about your education as an architect….
Well, my father was an architect. There were no architectural studies in those times in Colombia, so he first studied engineering at the National University. Then he came to Washington D.C. to study at the Catholic University. He was one of the very first architects to work in Colombia who trained as an architect, but he always lived in a small village, which is where I am from. He never moved and I grew up there in a modern house, in the Bauhaus style. There were many German professors at his university in the wartime and some of them were coming from the Bauhaus–although not the famous ones. I grew up in my father’s environment. My only brother is a cattle man, because my family has cattle and big farms from my mother’s side. But I grew up going with my father to his office, and going with him to his construction sites. I used to play with the sons of the workers of my father. So I was always in an architectural environment. When I went to study architecture, my father went into bankruptcy, so he couldn’t send me outside of Colombia. He sent me to Bogotá to a private university. I consider it the worst education you can get.
Why do you say that?
Because private universities in Colombia are a business. They are not concerned with giving education. What they pay to a professor doesn’t pay what they have to pay to park the car; one hour of teaching is less than what they have to pay for the car. I am exaggerating a little, but very little.
What were you taught in architecture school? What were your influences as a student?
I think it’s because I didn’t get a good education there that I became more alternative. I was not interested in urban architecture in concrete and steel. I love concrete, I love steel–I’m not against that. But I started to look at natural materials, even though in those times ecology was not that important; we were not concerned about that. But it was the hippie era. I think I have never been a hippie but I am a kind of a hippie. I love playing golf and I don’t smoke marijuana, but…my attitude is a hippie attitude. [laughs] Because of that hippie culture, I think we started to look to natural materials. But not from the point of view of the environment, just from the point of view of communication with nature. I was really influenced by a book, a California hippie book, about architecture called Shelter. A big book. It’s like an encyclopedia of how people everywhere in the world build with alternative materials and with any kind of materials. That book really impressed me when I was a student. I said to myself, I want to go into that direction.
So I have to ask the inevitable questions about bamboo.
I grew up in a bamboo forest. Where I am from, bamboo is everywhere. It is like a weed. In my grandfather’s times that was the building material. Everything was built out of bamboo. But covered with a kind of…not cement but a kind of…plaster. We come from the Spanish tradition of building houses with rammed earth, adobe. But our ancestors, when they moved to that area, there was so much bamboo. And they were very poor. This was like 150 years ago that my family founded the village where I was born. They started to build in the old tradition of the Spanish architecture with rammed earth and with adobe. But there was a very strong earthquake in the beginning of the city and everything built in rammed earth disappeared. But the poorest person that built his house there–he was so poor that he built his house out of bamboo. And that was the only one that didn’t collapse in the earthquake. So because of that they started to build out of bamboo and wood. They built in the urbanism of Spanish cities, one house next to the other. But adobe houses don’t catch fire. So when the electricity came, in the beginning of the last century, there was a big fire that destroyed the whole city, because they had used bamboo and built the houses so closely together. After that, they stopped building out of bamboo, because of the fire. So we started to import concrete from here and from Europe. It was kind of a wealthy community because of coffee, and because of gold. They started building everything out of concrete and after that only the very poor people kept working with bamboo. Bamboo, it’s very good for earthquakes, but very bad for the fires. So you have to choose which tragedy you prefer. [laughs]
So when you started working with bamboo, you were in a way rediscovering a material that was traditional to the country or the village, rediscovering a building tradition of your family?
Well, I started working with wood mainly. But we don’t have a forestry culture. From our Spanish culture, we don’t like to work with wood. The Spanish were kind of Romans–they build with stone, and they use wood for the roof. But since we don’t have that tradition, it’s hard to get good pieces of wood. Then a friend of mine forced me to work with bamboo. He told me, I need a structure for the horses and it has to be built out of bamboo. I had never worked with bamboo, because I grew up with that stigma that bamboo was a poor material. I love bamboo in the landscape; it’s so beautiful. But wherever you see a building in bamboo, it means poverty. But I was forced to work with bamboo. I was standing with my workers trying to imagine how to do a bamboo structure. Suddenly I discovered that if I pour cement mortar in the hollow bamboo, it works. Really worked. Such an idiot idea, but it gave me the opportunity to do big bamboo structures. My limit is the strength of the steel, not the strength of the bamboo.
What attracts you to bamboo in terms of the aesthetics of it?
Well, it is a very charismatic material from the point of view of aesthetics. It’s a kind of high-tech from nature. You just take a machete and cut the bamboo pole and you can carry it on your shoulders. You don’t need any heavy machinery. It is already prepared for building. The only thing you need to do is to treat it against bugs….I use bamboo in the primitive way. The future of bamboo, like the future of timber, is lamination….For bamboo, that is a big alternative.
Do you continue to experiment with bamboo, to push its material properties?
I am always doing trial and error. I’m a kind of scientist. It’s the only scientific method that exists, trial and error. And by experience. That why it’s so important to have engineers doing academic work and teaching about these kinds of alternative materials. I cannot keep being like a crazy hippie doing big structures that can kill people. [laughs] You need to involve another point of view. I never had the training that an engineer had. In some ways I have to think as an engineer but I don’t know anything about numbers. It’s just my experience.
Do you involve engineers in your projects?
Yes, I try to, especially now that I am starting to have big commissions. I don’t want to be responsible for killing people. I always say it’s better to have the engineer in jail, than to have the architect. [laughs] That is the reason for engineering. You have a responsibility; you can kill hundreds of people just by mistake. It’s better to have a more scientific approach to these materials. It’s like the beginning of concrete, of cast iron. With the very first building they involved engineers to study the materials as engineers, not as architects.
When you work with an engineer, is there a lot of collaboration? Do ideas go back and forth between you and the engineer?
No. I develop the technique of building. They just have to test the strength of the joinery. But engineers are very conservative, so they only want to focus on concrete and steel. In our culture, they don’t like wood and they don’t like bamboo.
You suggested last night that the stigma attached to bamboo might lessen if the rich started using it more, that it wouldn’t have such strong associations with poverty. Is that actually happening?
It has happened. The only opportunity I had to do social housing was next to a luxury club golf course, where I did a project. In the club, I did bamboo houses; to have a bamboo house means that you are rich because it is much more expensive than the ones [in the club] that don’t have bamboo. And so the poor neighborhood built nearby knew of bamboo from the point of view of the rich, so they wanted to have a bamboo house. But even those houses are not completely out of bamboo; they have a lot of cement. I am always saying, in architecture we have to be the same as in cooking, you cannot be completely vegetarian or completely carnivorous.
Actually this leads to my next question: I watched an interview in which you described this idea of architecture as either carnivorous or vegetarian. Let’s keep talking about that. What do you mean and what do you think the right mix is between the two?
You need an equilibrium between minerals, like cement and steel, and vegetals, like bamboo or wood. Carnivorous vs. vegetarian. In that equilibrium you have protection against earthquakes. For me the ideal mixture is to have the structure with…mainly vegetable materials, like bamboo or wood. But the skin of the buildings to be out of mortar or concrete. The structural responsibility should be taken by the fiber of the natural materials; they are quite flexible. But the protection against fire has to be done by cement or by brick. I prefer cement because you can do the plaster by hand. You don’t need heavy machinery, you don’t need any heavy equipment. I don’t like buildings when they impose that huge machinery. Not because I am an environmentalist freak. It’s because we are a poor country and we need to occupy labor. As an architect, I make sure that every structure I do is expensive in using hand labor from the very poor people. When we use prefab structures in Colombia, they don’t cost less than the ones that employ a lot of people. Why use prefab with heavy machinery, if our labor is cheap?
How important are the construction workers to realizing your buildings?
In poor countries the labor is very skillful, because the people have to live by their hands. When a country becomes rich, labor loses their skills and they start to use only machinery. I can make the houses that I build without electricity, just by hand, with a chisel and a hammer and a saw. From the point of view of the country where I am from, the intense use of labor is very important, from a social point of view. You are spending money on workers, not on technology. Like if you are using aluminum, you have to go to a huge company and buy the aluminum. I don’t like that, because then I don’t use the crafts of the people. I’m not a communist, but I like to make sure that any building is intense in labor use. And in poor countries they have so much skill.
So the more labor you’re using, the more opportunity you’re giving to workers?
And the better the quality of the building.
You work out all of your projects completely in hand drawings. You mentioned last night that you had to start hiring young architects to do computer drawings, because the law requires computer drawings, but you yourself still do everything by hand.
This is my notebook. Yesterday I was designing a house for a very rich young guy. These are my very first drawings, and here I am already understanding what to do. It’s going to be a house with steel pipes and bamboo. I always design symmetry, like a kid. You give a pencil to a kid to design a house, it’s always symmetrical.
So you carry this book around and sketch wherever you are?
Then I do more precise drawings. My most important tool is the eraser, not the pencil. With these drawings, I don’t need anymore. I can start building. The measurements are already here.
You use the printed grid of the paper as a scale for measurement?
Always, I cannot design without the grid.
Then what will you do with these drawings? You’ll give this to one of your young architects and they’ll translate it a computer drawing?
They produce drawings for me, but I don’t need them.
Now that you have to do computer drawings, does it change your design process at all? Are you influenced by computer technology?
No. In my grid [on the paper] is all the information I need.
Are you against the use of technology?
No, no. In some way, this is technology [pointing to a curved steel pipe]. I need a machine to do that curve. But that machine has existed for two hundred years or more. If you see the waterworks of New York, they have huge pipes making very strange curves. Those machines existed before computers. You give geometric information to the machine so that they can make the radius that you want.
What architects have influenced your work?
I have been very interested in Greene & Greene, the famous architects that made so many works in California. I have many books about their work, their furniture. It’s very inspiring for me to see their work. My biggest influence comes from Andrea Palladio. And all old architecture, it doesn’t matter anywhere in the world it happens, for me it’s beautiful. If you travel, everywhere in the world the old architecture–doesn’t matter if it’s for the poor or for the wealthy–it’s so beautiful. For some reason with modern architecture–maybe it’s the concrete techniques of building and the steel techniques–but for some reason I don’t feel any human beings in those buildings. They are out of scale. I am not a philosopher, but I think that since concrete has no limits–you can make a twenty-meter span with just a simple beam–as an architect you don’t need to think how to make a span like that. When a material has limits, like stone or wood or whatever, those limits give you a proportion because you cannot make a huge span if you don’t do a precise design. The limits of the material give you the proportion. With concrete you don’t have any limits. And with steel. In the absence of limits you lose the proportion. You lose the scale.
You were quoted as saying that you’re not well thought of as an architect in Colombia. Why?
Because the academics think that good architecture is other things. Brick and concrete. I don’t do that. I am not against that, but I don’t do that. If you go to Bogotá you will see a very good quality of modern architecture made out of brick. I can do that kind of building, but I am not interested. My colleagues don’t like me, but I don’t care what they say.
Another question about Colombia: In New York, in the U.S., there have been a number of articles about Medellin and Bogotá, about how architecture has been used to successfully counteract the widespread violence and decline of public life in these cities. From your perspective as a Colombian, what do you think about this work?
I am not interested in that architecture. It’s globalization and exactly the same building in any magazine of architecture. Doesn’t matter where in the world it happened. It’s like we are trying to prove to the world that we are part of civilization, that we can do exactly the same building that you do here. So for me, that doesn’t hold any interest. They have good qualities; they have the skills and they design in the international standards. But I don’t feel any interest in looking at that. And they don’t have any interest in looking at what I do.
Speaking of international architecture, what do you think about what’s going on in the world today in terms of architecture. Do you feel positive about the direction that design is going in?
I was at Cooper Union in that new building. I think that building is the end of an era. It is so baroque, it is so over-designed. It’s an important lesson of architecture because it doesn’t matter what kind of style you have, every style in history it comes into the baroque at some point, and that is the end of it. The Cooper building is over-expressionistic. It’s over-designed. It’s too many things. If you look at the steel, you see too much steel. If you look at the concrete, it’s too much concrete. It’s doing a lot of fake work. It’s not doing structural work. It is very beautiful. But the beauty just for the beauty makes no sense. You have to be more equilibrated than that. That building for me is the end of an era. It’s too much form without any sense. We have to go back again to the classic things.
This interview was conducted on February 25, 2011.
Images, top to bottom: Simón Vélez; Puente en la China; Pavellon de la India; Museo Nomada en el Zocalo; Iglesia Sin Religion (interior, exterior). All images courtesy of Simón Vélez.