On a bright afternoon at his home in La Candelaria, Colombian architect Simón Vélez tells why bamboo is his material of choice. “Bamboo is better than steel,” he says. “It’s less heavy.” As a traditionally trained rural architect, born in Manizales, Caldas, at the heart of Colombia’s coffee culture, he was always interested in wood. But Vélez eventually discovered that guadua, the most prominent bamboo in the Americas, and a grass in this native region, is stronger than it bends. Its proportion to weight and resistance is unmatched. There is also no plant in nature that can grow so fast, producing as much as one meter in a day. So, it’s a constant harvest. “Bamboo is not a tree,” Vélez clarifies. “It’s a timber grass. When you cut bamboo, you’re not killing the tree.”

This discovery led to a career full of beautiful works: bamboo cathedrals in Pereira and Cartagena, a 55-square foot pavilion erected in the heart of Mexico City’s Zocalo Plaza, the five star eco resort Crosswaters in central China; considered the first permanent bamboo structure in Chinese history. The hotel project received the 2006 American Society of Landscape Architects Award of Honor. Vélez’s unique style is further complemented by the utilization of living grass roofs in places like Armenia, Quindío, and one built for a prominent Brazilian businessman in Sao Paulo.

Another benefit of using bamboo is its high flexibility; ideal for those living in a region prone to earthquakes. During the 1999 earthquake, which struck Colombia’s coffee region, many bamboo structures, such as the old farm houses –haciendas – traditionally built with guadua, survived. Most of the 1,000 fatalities resulted from those who were trapped by fallen, anti-seismic, concrete structures. Without question many lives could have been spared if guadua had been more widely implemented.

Simon Vélez constructed a cathedral in Pereira from bamboo.
Simon Vélez constructed a cathedral in Pereira from bamboo.

But while the coffee zone enjoys high abundance of bamboo that can hold up against tremors, Colombia’s building code advisors seem to snub their nose at the grass. “It’s because of a law that says bamboo is in extinction,” claims Vélez. “It’s such an idiotic law that as a result people, don’t want to plant bamboo. As you’re not allowed to call it “bamboo,” you simply don’t plant it.”

Outdated building codes, the tyranny of some ecological activists has motivated Vélez to fight for something that is part of Colombia’s national identity and question a country’s conformity to everything external, instead of valuing what can grow in one’s own backyard. “It’s not about politics. It’s an inferiority complex.”

Veléz believes that when it comes to plants, Colombians live in the shadow of “botanical colonialism” as many plants were introduced to this country during colonial rule, such as the eucalyptus, and which over the centuries, have had an adverse effect on soil, resulting in increasing desertification. Guadua, on the other hand, as a native grass is the greenest of the “green” plants, capable of storing large quantities of water in its roots and stems; essential for plantation owners who need to regulate water during dry months. Trying to untangle himself from botanical bureaucracy and get guadua institutionally grown in Colombia is one of biggest challenges facing this architect.

Rather than helping to preserve sustainable forests, Vélez has witnessed how environmental fundamentalists – whom he calls “eco-paths” – the Ayatollahs of the erroneous environmental thinking, are white-washing sustainable issues with red tape. “Misguided environmental thinking is resulting in terrible corruption,” claims the guru of guadua.

Vélez would like to see the money paid for permits allowing the use of guadua to end up in the hands of farmers rather than the self professed eco defenders of government agencies. Of the $24,000 pesos it costs to get a 9-meter bamboo pole from the Zona Cafetera, farmers only receive $200 pesos. So they’re becoming discouraged from planting bamboo.  Simón Vélez seems alone in his quest to keep a sacred plant “alive” in Colombian architecture. He  also faces powerful lobbyists who push cement as the fundamental ingredient in Colombia’s construction boom.” If you go to North America or Japan, timber is the material most used for building,” claims Vélez. “A major characteristic of ‘Third world’ architecture is the abundance of concrete. We use so much concrete that big cement companies thrive in Colombia. The poorer a country is, or the poorer the person, the more cement ends up being brought.”

With a grandfather who was a self-made architect and a father who studied at the Catholic University in Washington D.C., Simón Vélez has made his mark as a third generation architect. And his body of work just gets larger. From creating the environmental “context”  with guadua for a supermarket in Giradot to a bus terminal three football fields in length in Cali, architect Simon Vélez’s structures are as beautiful as they are practical.

Invited to lecture at prestigious forums, consult on large-scale projects involving the “poor man’s wood,” the winner of the 2009 Principal Prince Claus Award recently returned from the U.K where he was asked to show his projects to fellow architects and members of the Tate.

While sketching potential projects in his many note books, Vélez gets tired of being on the go. While he travels the world to present his creations, Colombia is always on his mind. As an architectural Ambassador of sorts, he defends the creativity of his countrymen and resilient in his belief that the beauty of bamboo is that it is home grown.