BAMBOO with Simon Velez


Mark Jarzombek, Acting Dean and Professor, launched Lateral Studios this semester, a one-day “masterclass for the unencumbered” open to students from all departments of the School. On October 25, architect Simón Vélez worked with students in a hands-on design-build workshop exploring innovative structural forms with bamboo. ArchKiosk asked a couple of the participating architecture students to reflect on the day:

Catherine De Wolf, PhD Student, Building Technology Group

“For the Bamboo Lateral Studio, the different groups ended up having very different outcomes, as the program was not fixed in advanced. Our group decided to test a concept we learned in our engineering class as well as what we had learned from Simon Velez during his lecture. We constructed a three-dimensional version of a “Michell Truss”, which is the most optimal shape for a tensegrity structure in bending. Using the available materials of bamboo and twine, we had both compression elements and tension elements for our tensegrity truss. We built a canopy of these trusses that cantilevered of the wall and attached a bucket at the end of the cantilever.

We filled the bucket with bricks to test the strength of the bamboo structure: while it buckled slightly, it nicely illustrated the strength and structural behavior of the bamboo and twine joinery. We were impressed by its strength, and this made us see bamboo as a valid construction material, as strong as steel. It was also enjoyable to see the architectural achievements each of the groups achieved in only several hours! Having Simon Velez describe his connection techniques with cement mortar was the cherry on top! Thank you for this amazing experience!”

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Irmak Turan
, SMArchS, Building Technology Group

“My first encounter with Simon Velez was during his departmental lecture. His public persona was one of an uninhibited liberal artist and craftsman. The presentation of his work, a seemingly ad-hoc slideshow of disorganized images, stood in peculiar contrast to the elegance and refined beauty of the projects themselves. His informal and lighthearted presentation style, peppered with off color jokes, was incongruous with the masterful description of tectonics and material prowess. The lecture left me curious about his practice, a process that seemed at once at ease and deeply focused.

I participated in the bamboo workshop led by Velez a few days later. Witnessing Velez at work provided insight into this puzzle. The event was loosely organized as a team-led building challenge, with five groups free to construct as they wished with the bamboo supply provided. Our group structure was an organic experiment, designed with little foresight and built like a bird’s nest: a collection of found materials weaved together into a stable form. As we worked through this amateur exploratory process, at an adjacent station Velez methodically and masterfully prepared examples of his bamboo joinery technique to present to the group. Simple and straightforward in theory, the method require precision and deft handling of the material: the bamboo is cut at an exact angle, the pieces are wired together, fitted with rebar, and then filled with mortar. In the process of making the joints, Velez exhibited his meticulous craftsmanship, working patiently with the tools and materials at hand (which were not his own). He allowed it to get messy, letting mortar fall onto his non- “work” shoes and pants, while calmly instructing the assisting students. His attention to details and skilled handling of the material within the ad-hoc circumstances of the situation echoed the dualism in his lecture a few days before: a calm and focused mind that is not afraid to get messy.”

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Danniely Staback, MArch

“It was a cold, foggy morning in Cambridge but we all showed up with excitement for the Bamboo Lateral Studio. Having attended Maestro Simón Vélez’s lecture two days before, we all came with high expectations, a desire to learn and get our hands on the “real business”.

With coffee in hand, we brainstormed and sketched, and finally decided it was imperative to use a tall, sturdy tree in the center of the backyard as a basis for our design and as a support structure. From the group, Paul had a background in structural engineering and had worked with bamboo before. Diego, Stavros, and Jon were from Urban Planning, and Alice and I represented the MArch group. We discussed structural fitness, aesthetics, functionality, and even public safety… Together we designed a scissor-like, triangular bamboo shade that would sit on the tree while hanging from a taller branch. Conceptually, the weight of the shade, placed at an angle, would keep the structure in place. Structurally, as the bent arch pushes to regain its original straight geometry, a counteracting rope joint behind the tree keeps the arch in its bent form and the scissors fixed.

In order to achieve all this, we quickly claimed the sturdiest rope we could find. We then assembled the two main “bamboo beams” for the scissors and proceeded to join them with a pivoting joint made of a bolt and nut. We used a bamboo washer in between as a filler. I underestimated the strength in compression of the tiny bamboo piece, but it held in place! And it also looked pretty good. Once we built the frame, we placed the cladding sticks, wove them in with a hemp rope, and intertwined thinner twigs to densify the shade. We explored the potential of a material to create different scales and textures which gave our project an interesting depth! During the final conversation, we cut the string that was temporarily holding the frontal bamboo arch in compression to see if the counteracting rope held its promise. And it worked!!”

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Mark Tam, Department of Civil Engineering

“There are a number of things that set our team apart from the other participating teams at Simon Velez’s bamboo workshop. Among these differences, the greatest of all was perhaps the process that brought us to our final design: the project was an exercise in participatory design that was conceived to be open-ended, with neither the constraints of a final design nor the dictation of a particular designer. Everyone was involved in the project and everyone contributed.

That the project was not planned meant that the design was parceled into a number of discrete components. The greatest lessons offered by the workshop were the variety of techniques with which we experimented. The only overarching design principle was to respect the material properties of bamboo, a criteria which particularly affected the design of connection joints, as our team consciously avoided the removal of any bamboo material. This would have compromised its structural integrity. With this constraint, we embarked on an experimental project. The initial injection of ideas was provided by Leonardo Todisco, who imagined a structural system that was separated into compression struts and tension ties, where the former would be made up of the bamboo members and the latter with ropes. This, of course, was only an abstract idea that had no form. It wasn’t until another participant, William Plunkett, had discovered an existing rope tied to an anchor on an adjacent wall that our final hanging form arrived. The idea was to create a cantilevering bamboo L-shaped element that was partially supported on the unrestrained end by the rope tied to the wall anchor – a tie that would effectively provide some rotational restraint and self-weight support. With this concept in mind, the remainder of the workshop was an extended exercise in piecemeal problem solving. Whereas Todisco had taught us the rigorous method of knotting (he learned this from his experience as a scout), it was Mark Jarzombek who introduced to us an interlocking technique that would simulate the stabilizing functions of a moment joint. Although the time constraints led to an unfinished design that did not achieve the stability for which we had hoped, the various techniques we acquired will no doubt benefit us as designers for years to come.”

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Next up on ArchKiosk are the Color Workshop with William Miller, Urban Poetry with Nick Montfort, and Performance with Coco Fusco. If you have any questions, be in touch with Ana María León, the Lateral Studios Project Leader.

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