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Bamboo, beauty and pushing boundaries; in conversation with Elora Hardy.

Elora Hardy is the Founder and Director of IBUKU, a Bali based design practice. Her work has pioneered the use of bamboo to create a series of sinuous, beautifully designed and carefully crafted buildings, including the world-renowned Green School in Bali. Ibuku’s mission is to provide spaces in which people can live in an authentic relationship with nature. Elora studied fine art in the United States and began her professional life in fashion, designing prints for Donna Karan. The buildings that emerge under her direction at Ibuku are gloriously liberated from architectures often constraining devotion to the straight lines and flat surfaces bequeathed by modernism. I spoke to Elora about bamboo, sustainability and that contested word, beauty.

Photograph by Suki Zoë

VN: A lot of bamboo buildings are being constructed in Bali thanks to the influence of your work. What does it feel like to be credited with creating a bamboo vernacular?!

EH: Bamboo isn’t a mission personally. For me bamboo has been a teacher to open these perspectives and then make me learn how to bend. I think that humans need to bend and learn how to dance and flex more with the world around us to make it a comfortable, happy place for us to be in for the long term. So, it’s from that perspective, for a decade of working almost exclusively with bamboo and understanding that we really can think about structure and form from the properties of a material, which I think is a historical norm but not a current one. Let's also consider the landscape and the air and light, which is something that also happens in other sustainable and contextual types of architecture.

Bamboo sits at the opposite side of our devotion to modernism and straight lines. We still seem to believe building materials should be uniform and homogenous.

It's the mindset that is the problem. I think we’re in a century of wanting to control and apply our agenda and intention and then slot a material into it. In our work we really let the material lead. The fact that bamboo is so unruly and that we've committed to working with it, the exercise of putting our egos and our agendas and sometimes our design intentions in the back seat to let that conversation happen puts us in the really strong position of being dynamic and flexible as designers. I've come to realise it's much more than just allowing the materials to show up and do their thing and have their feelings.

We’ve alienated ourselves from having to take into consideration so many things. In many places people are designing buildings that don't account for the climate at all. They are prioritising the style, or a certain modern look over the fact that it's in the tropics and is all glass. I feel like our conversation with bamboo, this unruly material, has led us to have to do so much more listening for all of those other factors at play.

Some great work is happening with timber in the UK, but no one is talking about bamboo. We’re very Eurocentric, we’re slow to look around.

Isn't it to do with a chicken and egg situation with industry? Bamboo can't be used very easily in its raw form, and architects having to get their heads around the natural irregularity of it and then the craftsmanship. You need to use it in a laminate form. The laminate timber systems for wood are well in place and it should be a simple step to translate that technology into bamboo but in Europe it hasn't really taken off. It hasn't been invested in and you probably have enough wood, for the short term anyway. So, if there isn't a factory supplying it, a builder ready to use it, and a building code already having studied it and certified it, how can anyone really think about it and talk about it. In the tropics we say if you properly harvest bamboo and then treat it to get the sugars out and the salts in, it can have the same longevity as wood because it’s no longer vulnerable to insects. Then the rest of the job is to design it properly so it’s not getting blasted by rain every minute and UV. Any part of a building made of wood also needs maintenance.

Material Culture’s new book Material Reform is really interesting. There’s a chapter on maintenance and how we’ve lost the connection to building maintenance in this country. If you had a thatched roof for example, every couple of years the thatcher would come along and do a bit of maintenance and it was all part of the craft of the material and it was seen as normal. Because we've got this ridiculous expectation with materials as being weatherproof and long lasting, they end up being made of plastic

The only way to make them make them impermeable is to make them impermeable forever and ever. What I’m interested in is to bring examples and what we’ve learnt from bamboo into the discourse about approach to materials and how to integrate materials into supporting people and space.

Bamboo seems like it has so much potential as a sustainable material solution.

I don’t think sustainability has actually been a part of any success we've had. It's all been to do with beauty. I like to talk about the way things are sustainable, but I might not even use the word. I might say isn't it amazing that that bamboo grows in three years. The word is just so weighed down, it was just the wrong word, it was the wrong approach. Someone in branding should have gotten a clue in the 80s!

It does feel like sustainability has a PR problem! We’re still struggling with that now in a way and I think that that issue makes it easy to parcel it up and slightly stick it to the side which is having a negative effect on the conversation.

It puts it at odds with commercialism where it's ‘if it's only 10 per cent more expensive I can afford it, but not 15’. We’ve been accused of things over the years like ‘well if you're trying to be sustainable why aren't you solving housing in urban settings.’ We’re interested in making inspiring structures to take the conversation forward and to be part of future possibilities. Bamboo would have no mileage in anyone's imagination or motivation if we’d set out to make the most effective and most useful relief housing that was in use around the world. Even if we’d done that and solved it, which is which is still a huge challenge to be solved, it wouldn’t have anchored. I think the only thing that anchors things is human interest and part of that is to do with the feeling of ‘wow I want to be there, that's part of my imagination and I wish the future looked like that’. That's what Bjarke Ingels said about us (in the Apple TV series Home); ‘this is like a fragment of the future as you wish it to be’. That’s only place that I really found you catch people’s hearts, when you're saying look this is what the future could look like.

Fortunately the clients that approach us might be interested sustainability, they have definitely been interested in beauty and excellence and they've been open in the material palette to be able to say ‘if there isn't amazing bamboo craftsmanship where I am and you don't think it's practical to bring them here, just make me a space that feels like your space, even if you can't do it all with bamboo or in those techniques’. That’s good because it means we are able to hold more of a design authority than a bamboo implementer.

Beauty is a word that has been co-opted by the political right in this country, where beauty is normally a pastiche.

It’s a word that you can’t use easily. We have to tip toe around all these words! I feel like you have to be careful about it, but I also have some freedom to go ahead and do it as everyone assumes I’m a woman making curvy, hippy stuff so I might as well talk about beauty and emotion!

In Sagmeister & Walsh’s book Beauty they talk about what the industrial revolution did to the idea of perfectionism and smooth flat surfaces. Ever since reading that I keep wanting to introduce the idea imagine a few hundred years from now we look back on this weird little blip in human history everyone trying to make everything flat and right angles and perfect. They suggest that even in the context of big factories and producing on mass, it's not the most efficient thing to require uniformity, precision, quality control and perfection. There could be a much greater tolerance for blemishes and variety and for that to be a built-in expectation. That would be a great advantage within the system of manufacturing where we insist on everything being unblemished and that's actually fundamentally inefficient and ridiculous.

There's a building in London by Groupwork called Clerkenwell Close which has a stone exoskeleton. The architects worked with The Stonemasonry Company and when they took the stone from the quarry instead of smoothing and flattening it, they've kept all the signs the of the quarry, so you see the imperfections, cut lines and fossils in the stone, it’s beautiful. In the middle of the city, you can feel the quarry.

What you're talking about is about the materiality and how it affects the feeling. Another side of this, because we categorise everything the way we do in education and science and culture, running in parallel to this is the psychology of space; the study of the emotion and how spaces make you feel and part of that is how materials make you feel. That's something I want to learn more about and haven't yet figured out where the front door is. I want to connect with that too because these are facets of one thing; the sustainability, how the materials impact on your experience and how the form of the spaces affects the feelings.

The final piece of it that I've been thinking about the most recently is when we produce a design concept, we do a walkthrough; a storyboard of the experience of the building from the perspective of the people who will experience it. We say what will we want them to feel along the way and what material will best support that. Now our projects are not even necessarily primarily bamboo. We’re trying to make spaces that create the feeling that we want people to have in them. The material has to be something that we feel good about, and that we also feel good about the story of and the sourcing of and the future of, so that's where it ties to sustainability but in the service of our own self-interest and our own wish to be comfortable and happy, and whatever other feelings we state for the goals in that.

Photographs of the recently completed Alchemy Yoga Centre in Bali designed Ibuku.

Materials palette: black petung bamboo, hand-made copper shingles, dark ulin wood floor

Structural Engineer: Atelier One

Crafted by Bamboo Pure Bali

Photography by Pempki


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