Rapidly developing nations are a wild frontier of sorts for sustainable design and architecture; often building codes are lax or non-existent here, allowing local architects to experiment more freely with unconventional ideas and materials. Vietnamese firm Vo Trong Nghia Architects is one of these pioneers, having made their name with their award-winning projects made out of bamboo, as part of a larger movement to re-define a locally appropriate architecture that is distinctly Asian, affordable, durable and environmentally friendly.
In this episode of Rebel Architecture, Al Jazeera English's six-part series on architects who are “shunning the glamour of ‘starchitecture’ and using design to tackle the world’s urban, environmental and social crises,” director Nick Ahlmark takes us behind the scenes to see for ourselves what Nghia's bamboo buildings mean in the larger context of Vietnam and beyond.
In the film, Nghia relates how he aims to increase the greenspaces in concrete-choked Ho Chi Minh City through his designs, and how some of the hurdles he has faced in realizing these unique projects originate not from any flaws with bamboo, but rather from consumer perceptions of what is acceptable or not.
Regardless, it seems that opinions about bamboo building are gradually changing. Ahlmark describes stepping inside one of Nghia's structures:
It's definitely a unique feeling when you step inside a bamboo only building, the acoustics, the smell and the light are all different. Nghia seems to have figured out a way to treat the bamboo and make it even more durable over many decades. The dome featured in the documentary is comprised of units and can be relatively easily deconstructed and reassembled if need be. Through his innovations, I think Nghia has shown there is a lot of potential for bamboo architecture in the future.
Masaaki Iwamoto, one of the firm's architects, tells us that great care is taken to ensure structural safety, through the making of 1:1 scale mockups before assembling the whole. The bamboo used in Nghia's projects is treated so that it can last for decades, first by heating and bend the bamboo stalks into shape, and then soaking them in mud to reduce the sugar inside so that it doesn't become a breeding ground for insects or bacteria. The stalks are then smoked to create a carbonized layer which further protects it from the elements. This treated bamboo is so strong that Nghia has confidently called it the "new green steel."
For Nghia, bamboo is a means to an end, as he explains the bigger picture:
Green architecture helps people live harmoniously with nature and elevates human life by embracing the powers of the sun, wind and water into living space. If the current way of thinking does not change, sooner or later, citizens will actually live in concrete jungles. For a modern architect, the most important mission is to bring green spaces back to the earth.
The film gives a deeper insight into the design philosophy and mettle of one of Southeast Asia's emerging architects, showing that while the road to developing a modern architecture suited to Vietnam is a difficult one, Nghia has the beauty and integrity of his vision on his side. More over at Vo Trong Nghia Architects and Al Jazeera English's Rebel Architecture.