Bamboo buildings are the future

Hiroyuki Oki

Around 130km southwest of Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, sits Cuc Phuong National Park. As Vietnam’s oldest national park – consecrated by Ho Chi Minh in 1962 – Cuc Phuong accommodates timeworn limestone ridges and ancient trees. But on the fringes of the national park, rising from the shores of a lake, perches a modern structure that both complements and contrasts with mountains and jungle.
The 1,300-square-metre restaurant, which was completed in October 2020, emerges from the ground like an elliptical spacecraft. A web of treated and moulded bamboo branches supports the domed roof, which is tied in place with ropes. A circular skylight lets sunshine pour in like a spotlight. The roof, which is made of thatch from local fern plants, is divided into three tiers, leaving gaps that invite natural light to further illuminate the interiors. The restaurant is housed in the Vedana Resort, which opens to the public later in 2021 and is part of a boutique hotel collection from central Vietnam.

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Substituting bamboo for more conventional building materials is a trademark technique of Vo Trong Nghia Architects, a Vietnamese architecture firm known for its sustainable buildings. The firm attracted global attention after constructing the Vietnam Pavilion from bamboo at the Milan Expo 2015. Since then, they’ve been using the Asian plant to build resorts, spas, bridges, cafes and conference halls across Vietnam. They also use bamboo for interior design purposes, due to its earthy colour and organic texture. “The beauty of bamboo is that it doesn’t look like anything else,” says Vo Trong Nghia, the firm’s chief architect. “It’s completely unique.”
But the firm’s preference for bamboo has to do with more than aesthetics. According to Vo, who grew up in rural Vietnam, there are two reasons why bamboo is so special. First, it grows extremely quickly: bamboo is suitable for construction just five years after planting. Second, bamboo branches can be harvested without killing the plant, which will survive and produce more shoots in the future. “This contrasts with wood, which might take decades to grow before it can be felled,” says Vo. “And once we’ve cut a tree down, it’s gone forever.”
Vo wants to confront deforestation in Vietnam, but he also wants to challenge mining. Rather than extracting marble and granite for interior panelling, Vo prefers to use bamboo, which is both pliable and affordable. “Of course, bamboo has some disadvantages,” he concedes, “but nothing that we can’t overcome”.
Vo’s bamboo structures are becoming increasingly ambitious. With a height of almost 16 metres and a diameter of 36 metres, the Vedana Resort restaurant is his firm’s biggest bamboo pavilion to date. With a growing number of structures and a string of international awards under his belt, Vo is starting to get commissions from further afield, including China and India. In anticipation of orders coming from the west, Vo and his team are now thinking about how to tackle some of bamboo’s shortcomings and adapt it to Europe’s colder climates.

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“I’ve already drawn up some ideas to combine bamboo with glass, which can help seal and insulate the space, but still maintain the structural and visual benefits of bamboo,” says Vo. But keeping bamboo structures warm isn’t the only difficulty. “The biggest challenge to overcome might be European construction regulations, which don’t currently permit structures made from bamboo.”
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