Colombian Architect Simon Velez on the Culture of Bamboo

Colombian Architect Simon Velez on the Culture of Bamboo

Simón Vélez 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.

Bamboo Forest

Bamboo Forest

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]

Bamboo architectural drawings

Bamboo architectural drawings

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.

bamboo-simon-velez.jpg

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.


Meg: Is there support among environmentalists for using bamboo as a building material?

Simón: In the developed world, since you are so worried about the ecological thing, and the ecocatastrophe, so they are starting to have a kind of religion that I don’t like about the ecology.

Right now, the bamboo is an illegal crop, like marijuana, or like coca, or like poppies, because there is a stupid law. Those eco fundamentalists are terrible. The eco Ayatollahs. There is a law saying guadua bamboo is an endangered species, which is not true. So, it’s not allowed to buy a bamboo from the bamboo forest. I can never buy a bamboo pole, and any landlord who owns a small piece of bamboo is not allowed to cut it. He’ll go to jail.

I think the damage we do to air is nothing. We cannot do anything to the air; the air doesn’t care. The damage we do is to ourselves. That is my point of view for the earth, if we disappear nothing happens. If we keep doing those things we are going to disappear, but the air, itself, it will be very happy without us. [Laughter] So, the faster it happens, the best for the air.

There is volcanic activity, huge pollution coming from the interior of the earth that can change the climate without humans. The dinosaurs disappeared without humans; it was something coming from the outside space, crushed the earth.

We are doing nothing to the earth; it’s to ourselves, but that is not politically correct to say but I’m really thinking ‘what the air can care about us?’ Well, we are producing a lot of pollution, but a single volcano makes a huge explosion; it can produce the pollution of the human history in a single emission.

Simon with his father and siblings.

Simon with his father and siblings.

Cordillera de los Andes - Image c/o Wikimedia Commons

Cordillera de los Andes - Image c/o Wikimedia Commons

Meg: Your family is from Colombia’s coffee region?

Simón: I was born in Manizales, where the coffee grows; there is bamboo everywhere. The attitude of Manizales is 2,200 meters above the sea level, and it is the end of the guadua bamboo. Below Manizales, the bamboo forest everywhere.

We have the Cordillera de los Andes, a system with quite a lot of earthquake activity, like it is in L.A. and Lima. We have big volcano activity right now in Manizales, so the airplanes cannot fly there some days, because of the ashes.

There were huge forests before; it was not colonized by the Spaniards; there was huge volcanic activity during the Spanish times. There were not even Indian people living there. It was empty, because of the ashes of the volcanoes. The volcanic activity kept a big area of Colombia without humans. Then the volcanic activity stopped, so it was colonized by the people of Medellin, by the people of Antioquia, where we come from. The colonists were looking for gold; we have always been obsessed by gold; gold, not coffee, gold. It’s the same. [Laughter] But they were looking for gold, because it’s a rich area of gold. The volcanic ashes make the soil so perfect, so that’s why we have such a big important coffee culture there, because of the volcanic ashes that fertilize the soil.

I come from the family that founded Manizales. They were very poor peasants, but they were really well-educated people. We’re supposed to have a lot of Jewish blood. So, we are Christians, but in the Jewish tradition to be educated is so important. In the Spanish tradition it was not that important. I think it was our Jewish ancestors who kept us getting involved, and to be educated.

Half of our blood is Indian. The Spaniards came here without women, so our mother blood is 100 percent Indian blood, even if we look kind like Spaniards, we are half Spaniard, half Indians. And the Spaniards are also Africans; they are not like Europeans. We have a lot of mixture of blood, but mainly what we have the most is our Indian blood.

The Indian culture has really disappeared. The only custom that survived is that we wash our body every day. For the Europeans it was not written in the Bible, so you were not allowed to touch your own body with your own hands. The Catholic Church coming here, they were scandalized by the Indian tradition that we wash our body every day. It was something incredible for them. To clean your body is an Indian tradition.

Meg: Can you tell me about the history of Manizales?

Simón: The city was founded 163 years ago. The year I was born was the centenary, it was 100 years old. Many of the families that founded the city were cousins and I come from all of them. It’s an old tradition of incest in my family. We were very isolated. So, we are always cousins getting married with cousins. My grandfathers were cousins of my father’s; my third wife was my cousin.

Coffee landscape in Columbia. Photo credit Alvaro-Ramírez.

Coffee landscape in Columbia. Photo credit Alvaro-Ramírez.

The founders were very poor, but well-educated. They started building in the Spanish way with just warm earth and adobe. But at the beginning of the foundation of the city there was a very strong hurricane, and the only house that survived it was one of the most poor—and built out of bamboo. So they decided to start building out of bamboo; they developed their own constructive system. The influence was not Indian, more British.

We were already independent from Spain, and the independence of Spain came by the money of the British Empire. The sponsors of Simon Bolivar; they put up big money, because they wanted the gold from the Spaniards. The gold mines that were in the area were given by Simon Bolivar to the British. So the British came with engineers, and they got involved with the local people, so the influence of architecture in that area is British. The Spanish houses traditionally have a patio. The British tradition has no patio when they are in the tropics; they have a veranda. If you go to the area where I was born, only the German houses have a patio, but in the countryside, they never have a patio; they have a veranda. It’s not a Spanish tradition; that is an English tradition.

Those Anglo-Saxon cultures they have a forest tradition in their blood. They build out of wood. So, the most beautiful buildings in that area, they were built by the British, not with bamboo, but with wood. The bamboo was hidden; it was never shown, and there was so much wood, that there was not the need to use bamboo, because there were forests everywhere. So, our tradition of building with wood in that part came from the British. Manizales was the second city in Colombia in economic activity, because of the coffee and because of the gold. The people were very rich, and the houses were really beautiful.

But then came a huge fire and everything was destroyed because it was a wooden city. Manizales was destroyed by the fire but there was big money, so they started to rebuild the city with concrete imported from Denmark, and from the U.S. But after that Manizales was never the same; it started to be a low-profile city. The Cathedral of Manizales, it was a huge wooden church, was destroyed by the fire. It was a beautiful church, and it was built again with concrete, and it was the biggest building in concrete ever built in the world for maybe 20 years with imported concrete. There were no roads; the concrete was brought in by mules.

I think architecture had never been ugly; it’s the first time in history that there are ugly things, because of architecture. That has never happened before. It’s a kind of pollution; peaceful pollution, the ugliness of the modern building for me is terrible.

Cathedral of Manizales.

Cathedral of Manizales.

Meg: I understand you come from a family line of architects.

Simón: My father studied in the U.S., because there were not architectural studies here in Colombia in his time. He was first an engineer here, and then he decided he wanted to be a proper architect, so he went to Washington Catholic University. He was trained in the Bauhaus attitude. I think he was the very first modern architect here in Colombia, the way we understand modern architecture.

There were not architects during my grandfather’s times but his business was construction, so he built many houses in Manizales, where he was from. He was always buying books from France, because the educated people spoke French, not English. He was into the French culture, and he used to live in Paris, but then he went bankrupt in the ‘30s, ‘20s so he had to come back here as a poor guy to start his life again.

I finished my studies in Manizales. My father, because he was an architect he was always bankrupt. [Laughter] So, he did not have the money to send me abroad, so I had to study here. My brother and my sister are a little bit older than me, so there was money in my family, so they studied abroad. So, my brother studied in North America, and my sister in England. I had to study here.

Coffee farmer in Brazil

Coffee farmer in Brazil

I started to study here in a private university; Los Andes is the name, very close to here. But I was never interested in that kind of architecture we were training to be. I was kind of a hippie, but I am a hippie who plays golf, and who doesn’t smoke marijuana but I was influenced by that attitude. I was never interested in modern architecture, because I grew up in a modern house. I appreciate what my father built, but I don’t belong to that. I was always interested in vernacular architecture and now that I travel so much around the world, I realize that the only nice architecture is the vernacular architecture. The only thing that impresses me; it doesn’t matter where in the world, is the vernacular architecture.

Meg: By “vernacular,” do you mean the traditional, natural materials, or...?

Simón: Well, natural is everything, except for plastic for me. Steel is a natural material, and stone; I love stone. In my next life, if it exists, I want to be a stone architect. I really love stones.

I’m 63-years-old already, and was born in ’49, and ever since I was at the university I was always interested in doing countryside architecture. I was never interested in urban architecture, but the country has transformed into a decent culture, “campesino” they say, “peasant,” the people who grow the cattle, the farmers. We are a culture of farmers, and the high class of Colombia is from the countryside, not from the cities. We were the land-tenders. The country was managed before by the Church and the party of the land-tenders. I don’t believe in any church; I am not into that, but I grew up as a campesino, not from a rich family. My mother is a rich woman; my father just a bankrupt architect always. [Laughter]

Mother of Simon Velez

Mother of Simon Velez

Father of Simon Velez

Father of Simon Velez

I was interested more in doing the houses for the farmers than doing urban architecture, and I was influenced by a book from California from some hippies. The name of the book is "Shelter". It’s a very important book for me. It’s like an encyclopedia of how to build with whatever is around you with garbage, with wood, with whatever. They show the igloos; they show everything everywhere in the world, how to work with your hands, so I was very impressed with that.

Meg: Your home is incredible—can you tell me a little bit about it?

Simón: My house is the result of architecture without an architect. It has been developed for years. It’s a family hamlet.

Interior of Simon Velez's home

Interior of Simon Velez's home

I’m always buying stones from beautiful buildings that the mayor tears down. Did you see the gate entrance when you arrived here?

You can’t imagine how beautiful the building was that gate entrance belonged to and it was not far from here. It was torn down by the authorities in charge of keeping the patrimony; the heritage. The office in charge of heritage, those criminals, they tore down that beautiful building. I love to hate those guys. [Laughter]

Meg: What are you working on now?

Simón: Right now I am doing something I’m very proud of: The last floor of that very ugly building you see there, the brick one. I tore down the whole floor. My plan is to intervene old buildings from the top to the ground floor, because generally they have a marvelous view.

Simon Velez on the balcony of a Bogota  apartment he renovated.

Simon Velez on the balcony of a Bogota  apartment he renovated.

I think it is a crime to demolish old buildings to construct new ones, it would be better to start making the old ones beautiful and comfortable. People might be interested because downtown is cheaper, to have a nice place in central Bogota could be more fun and interesting, and special than to have a new, ugly, and uncomfortable place in the north neighborhoods.

The local authorities here don’t allow me to do any building under my name because they are ashamed that I work with materials that are associated with poverty, like bamboo. In this third country little nation the fact that I work with poor men’s materials makes them mad. They don’t consider architecture things that are made of different materials than steel, glass or concrete.

Tomorrow I have a meeting with the mayor and I am going to ask him, “Please, I don’t want to travel that much; I want to work around my house. I am tired. I’m getting old, and I want to do my work after having breakfast in my house with my granddaughters, and I don’t want to travel anywhere that is not a walkable distance. [Laughter]