Nature’s Steel

Be inspired by irregular architecture produced by a very regular material; bamboo. Charley Larcombe looks to nature’s building blocks.


One of the (many) memorable aspects of my vacation on Cempedak Island a few months back, was how the incredible architecture seemed to burst from the earth rather than be built a-top it. Voluptuous ylang-ylang roofs curved into the contours of the island and the structures towered from the sand towards the sky as if Mother Nature had been the engineer herself. This feeling was created, in most part, by the extraordinary use of bamboo – and not in an aesthetic castaway-island superfluity, but in the actual construction. From the vaulted ceilings of the villas, to the drinking straws; from the infrastructure buildings, to the door handles, different types of bamboo were put to hard work – proving the versatility of this very ordinary plant. And how important it could be to the region’s construction. Bamboo doesn’t have to be regulated to beach-side ‘tiki bars or the atypically cultural idea that only the poor and the rural live in a bamboo house – it can be put to use in the design of the best-of-the-best hotels, full-time homes and high-end boutiques.

“What I like about working with bamboo is that it’s a natural material which is flexible yet very strong,” comments architect, Miles Humphries who worked on the Cempedak project. The island’s buildings – from front-of-house to the behind-the-scenes – are bamboo as per the vision from the resort’s owner. “It regrows at a rapid rate and, with over 140 species in the world; it comes in a variety of shapes and colours. It automatically gives a strong interior look to the buildings so it means that the interior is already established… rather than you having to apply a ‘second skin’. I see the use of bamboo like this only growing in popularity – although it has been in use for 100s of years, it is now taking on a new dimension.”

That new dimension is being seen in property throughout SEA. In Ho Chi Minh City, a ‘green’ ethos is being juxtaposed with the concrete jungle and designers from the often polarised visions of-the-moment technology and getting back to nature are shaping the landscape. Throughout the region, architects are pushing the importance of incorporating green space and doing so sustainably.

From the urban to the idyllic, Bali boasts several examples, including another of Humphries’ projects – the incomparable Kubu restaurant at Mundapa, the Ritz-Carlton Reserve property in Ubud. The bamboo structure on the banks of the Ayung River includes nine private cocoon tables inspired by traditional rice huts used by the Balinese farmers at harvest. The pomp of white table cloth dining accompanied by a tropical breeze and the natural surroundings combine to make a meal there an immersive experience. “For that project, it was important that Kubu be a part of the landscape, not just built on it,” recalls Humphries.

He is not alone with using bamboo in Bali for a more design-centric purpose – and it isn’t just for the high-end hotels.

Artist and Designer John Hardy has been a strong advocate for the use of bamboo for many years. Harking from Canada, he first visited Bali in the ‘70s and his experiences inspired his world-renowned jewellery collections – and now he clearly wishes to give back to his adopted home.

Back in 2004 he joined forces with Singapore-based architect, Cheong Yew Kuan in building the Kapal Bambu boutique. A 90ft-tall bamboo cathedral, it is referred to as ‘the ship’ and appears to float over the rice paddies, allowing the subak, Bali’s traditional natural irrigation system to flow uninterrupted. They hired the whole village to work on the roofs which were created from hand-cut bamboo shingles, an ancient technique almost lost in Bali.


Then, in 2007 Hardy gathered a team, IBUKU, to design and build the Green School, a holistic student-centred environment with nature at its core. The first structure was a bridge connecting the two sides of the river campus and is an outstanding example of what is possible when architects, engineers, designers and craftsmen come together.

This project has since progressed into a growing style – in particular with the Green Village, a collection of stunning homes and Sharma Springs (the jungle fantasy escape for the Sharma family) using the bamboo style and pushing the envelope in terms of design.

The sustainability angle is obviously of great importance – not only for its rapid regeneration but bamboo also absorbs a great deal of carbon dioxide whilst releasing plentiful amounts of oxygen. It ticks the ‘green’ credentials.

“From a sustainability angle, it’s probably as good as it gets,” says Humphries. “It is the fastest growing grass in the world so by the time you have finished building your villa for example, the bamboo that you originally harvested, has already regrown!”

It also boasts incredible strength with a greater tensile strength than steel (meaning it is harder to pull apart) and, with new treatment methods, it now has longevity as a building material.

The beautiful plus, is that this living and breathing building-block feels as good as it looks. It’s smooth and tactile and inviting to the touch – it’s meant to be a hands-on design. Which is why, perhaps, that traditionally the builders work off miniature models of the build as opposed to architect’s drawings.

With so many attributes, it’s no wonder that these structures are growing in popularity. By blurring the lines on the idea that construction can descimate, these structures show they can enhance an area. These buildings are not just surrounded by nature, they are part of it.