Ubiquitous in Asia in objects from chopsticks and bowls to scaffolding and screening, bamboo has often been disregarded as a material for large-scale architecture. But Vo Trong Nghia, who grew up in a forest village in northern Vietnam and knew how strong, light and tactile it could be, saw no sense in that. After training as an architect and founding his own firm, he began working with bamboo, figuring out how to bend and form it with heat, then lash lengths of it together into columns and pillars using rattan and bamboo nails. The result has been a series of cathedral-like structures like the Café Indochine (above) in Kontum in central Vietnam, which consists of a flat roof supported by prefabricated fans of dark bamboo whose curves create elegant, arched avenues.
His work is part of a recent growth spurt for bamboo, firstly in Asia and increasingly in the West too. It is being used to make everything from bicycles to sound systems. This is being driven by two things. The first is the environment. Bamboo can grow by as much as 60cm a day, so it’s ready to harvest sooner than wood and is replenished more quickly. It was sustainability that first appealed to Kristoffer Eng, a Norwegian designer with a background in climate science, whose company, Ask og Eng, makes chic, minimalist bamboo kitchens. Using it in a plywood form – thin layers bonded together into panels – his cabinets and work surfaces are treated with wax and then polished to bring out the grain.
The second factor is technology. Dirk Hebel, a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, has created a composite material by extracting fibres from bamboo and mixing them with resin to create a substance that can be cut into sheets, bricks and tiles. Four times lighter than steel but with even more tensile strength, it is emerging as an alternative to reinforced concrete. Bamboo is also being used as a replacement for plastic. As well as being strong and flexible, it withstands heat and insulates sound. For the last few years Samy Rio, a French designer, has been incorporating it into tech products. Among them are a hairdryer with a bamboo body and a speaker in the form of a bamboo cylinder (above). And though it does the job of plastic in these products, it has one distinct advantage: it’s biodegradable. No longer the preserve of bowls, baskets and unfashionable furniture, bamboo is rapidly taking root.