Colombian architect Simon Velez has become internationally known for his sustainable bamboo structures. Here, we speak to him about his most recent project, a monumental structure on the banks of the Rhône, as part of the Recontres d’Arles photography festival, as well as his thoughts on sustainability and his desire to make architecture more vegetarian
If you find yourself in Provence, in the beautiful city of Arles, you might see a long, wood-like structure down by the banks of the Rhône River. Colombian architect Simón Vélez’s latest project, the Pavilion, fits so well in its environment, its natural materials blending in subtly with the surrounding area, that it feels as if it had always been there. Similar to his other works, Velez has focused on sustainability and used indigenous materials from his native country for this project, most notably, bamboo. The structure itself is 1,000 m2 and can welcome 500 visitors at once, and currently houses photographer Matthieu Ricard’s latest exhibition, entitled Contemplation. In fact, the space has been specifically designed to inspire discovery and contemplation: through both the architecture and the exhibition it hosts.
Velez became well established in his native Colombia in the early 2000s but it was only truly in 2016, at the Venice Architecture Biennale, that the world was properly introduced to his innovative and sustainable structures. Other notable projects include the striking Jenny Garzon Pedestrian Bridge in Bogota, Colombia, where bamboo meets concrete and the stunning spiritual temple, Cathedral of Our Lady of Poverty in Pereira, Colombia. Here, we speak to him about sustainability, his views on aesthetics and his career highlights.
Let’s talk bamboo. How did this become such an important material for you?
I’ve always loved natural materials and bamboo is a readily available material in my home country with enormous potential, which is why innovating with it became a passion. Thirty five years ago, I discovered a technique that allowed me to construct huge buildings made from bamboo. This involves injecting cement into the intersections of the structures, where normally there would be metallic connections like screws and welding. This technique creates a structure that cannot be moved, but now, for the first time, we have designed a new method to create structures using bamboo that can be taken apart and be relocated. I worked alongside my wife Stefana Simic (an architect from Columbia University in New York) to make this possible.
How did the idea for the Pavilion in Arles come about?
The idea was to create a building here for Matthieu Ricard’s photography exhibition, Contemplation, and the building had to have some sort of spiritual component. In order to achieve this, we looked at huge Maloca structures (long houses), which exist throughout South America – in Colombia as well as neighbouring countries, extending from the Orinoco River to the Amazon River. In such buildings live entire indigenous communities, not just one family, but many, often with only hammocks as furniture. These are highly spiritual buildings as they go beyond physical structures and become symbols for the communities that inhabit them, representing their collective existence as a people.
The Pavilion is pretty zen – how does spirituality play a role?
We were constructing a building with spirituality, influenced both by the previously mentioned Malocas but also by spiritual characteristics of Buddhism. We didn’t want to create a religious building or a temple but rather a spiritual building, that could be appreciated by anyone, no matter their own religion and be regarded as a spiritual space.
You specialize in natural architecture, but what exactly does this mean?
I’ve always said that architecture needs to be more vegetarian, as it were. Today architecture is extremely mineral; too much cement and steel, too much dry wall. There needs to be a more vegetal material, to create equilibrium and balance.
In first world countries wood is used often in architecture, but in third world countries today most architecture is done with concrete, building with wood is seen as synonymous with poverty. People would rather invest in building with brick or cement, but we are trying to change that by implementing wood and other naturally occurring materials in innovative designs that will make people change their perception of these structures and opt to change the way they choose to build.
Tell us about your career highlights so far…
About eight to 10 years ago I created another temporary building in Mexico City in a huge space in the Zócalo (the city’s main square), for a photography exhibition by Canadian photographer Gregory Colbert. This was a 5,000m2 structure, a lot bigger than the one in Arles. But this structure was not built to be moved elsewhere afterwards, yet the wonderful thing about building with bamboo is that once a structure has been used and no longer needed, the bamboo will decompose and the few cement and metal pieces can be easily reused.
Matthieu Ricard’s exhibition in the Pavilion itself focuses on spiritual commitment. That seems to resonate nicely with your own design ethos.
The building itself provides the scenography for the exhibition. It is built to create the best place to display the photographs, because it does not compete with them but, rather, compliments them. Each photograph has its own space, where it is framed by the architecture.
The idea that building is also made by natural elements and can be taken apart and moved also aligns with the spiritual commitments of the photographer, of responsibility, altruism and cyclical energy.
What is your relationship with sustainability?
With my innate passion towards natural materials my work has always been sustainable; I choose to build in a way that causes less harm. I believe that when we harm our planet we are in reality just harming ourselves
Let’s talk design aesthetics: what role do they play?
I don’t think about aesthetics from the beginning; I look more at form, function and structure. When the structure is done well, it will be beautiful. Like an airplane designer that does not think about aesthetics but rather a structure that functions well and has an efficient design, the aesthetic will come naturally. When one worries too much about it, the design can become superficial.
This is a pretty ambitious project – any challenges?
There have been many obstacles in this project, and it’s truly a miracle that it was finished. Issues included transporting the materials out of Colombia, and an extremely short timeline to build; the project itself is proof of some spiritual energy allowed us to finish it on time and well!
‘Contemplation’ by Matthieu Ricard will be on show at Simón Vélez’s bamboo pavilion until 23 September, 2018
Main image courtesy of Jan Dyver. Images courtesy of Pedro Franco, Matthieu Ricard and Simón Vélez