New Bamboo: The Everyday Material That Has Become A Symbol of Vietnamese Culture

Far from the rural stereotypes of old, Vietnam is showing the world how to urbanise with bamboo.

In one generation, rapid urbanisation has transformed Vietnam from a rural-based economy to an increasingly globalised economy. As the country changes economically and environmentally, it also transforms culturally. This is expressed through new buildings and urban spaces that are becoming increasingly more ‘international’ than identifiably local. Within this ever-changing context, there are attempts to maintain a connection to the increasingly fading remnants of Vietnam’s built cultural heritage. Bamboo, traditionally regarded as a ‘poor man’s material,’ has emerged as a symbol of Vietnamese culture, offering new directions for contemporary architecture.

The expressive buildings of Vo Trong Nghia Architects (VTN) have come to represent a contemporary Vietnamese architecture, heralding bamboo as the new ‘green steel,’ and also forming part of a narrative of nostalgia for the traditional life of the ‘homeland’. Although the architecture of VTN invites associations with vernacular traditions, it also employs complex and high-tech construction techniques. In contrast, less well-known projects by Hoang Thuc Hao and the team at 1+1>2 explore simpler, low-tech construction methods that extend local traditions in diverse, yet subtle, ways. In particular, the Cam Thanh Community House, to the east of the city centre of Hoi An, offers ways of understanding the potential of bamboo as a contemporary building material.

Traditionally in Vietnam, bamboo was used as one of a number of materials in a hybrid construction that included hardwood timber, wattle and daub-like stucco, masonry and thatch of various types. Bamboo was both structural and decorative; used as roof framing, flooring and wall cladding. Today, bamboo used in buildings is more likely to be processed, for flooring, paneling and furnishings, while raw bamboo is mainly used for furniture and other household objects.

The Cam Thanh Community House extends local traditions by employing a hybrid structure of masonry and raw bamboo. In doing so it offers a new expression of cultural identity. The design incorporates both traditional and contemporary principles of spatial design and passive solar strategies. Drawing inspiration from the world heritage-listed courtyard houses of Hoi An, a series of interlocking spaces are structured around two internal courtyards. A small library is nestled around the edge of one courtyard, and a series of interlocking spaces wrap around a second courtyard. The flexibility this creates allows for a diversity of activities, from taekwondo and table tennis, to community meetings and educational classes.

Double layer adobe brick walls form an outer envelope, while timber columns support a bamboo and thatch roof that slopes down towards the internal courtyards. This allows for the exterior of the building to present a fortified wall to the torrential rain and winds. The overhanging eaves are designed to stabilise the low pressure of the airflow under the roof with the high pressure on its surface. The sheltered masonry walls and concrete floor stores cool temperatures, to provide relief from the summer heat. The high roof promotes convection ventilation, and doors on every side of the building can be opened in a range of combinations to promote or suppress cross-ventilation.

The bamboo structure is held together by bamboo dowels and nylon fishing line, and the roof is clad with water-coconut palm fronds, drawing directly on traditional construction techniques that are still in practice in the district. Although presenting a new formal aesthetic, the hybrid construction system utilises materials in a manner consistent with the region’s traditional vernacular building styles, providing a new contemporary form that is unburdened of kitsch nostalgia.

Commissioned in 2015 by the Action Centre for City Development (ACCD), an NGO focused on helping to improve the quality of life for urban residents and promote sustainable development and tourism, the Cam Thanh Community House provides a central gathering place for the community, hosting a diverse range of activities.

Central to the success of Cam Thanh is a critical understanding of community and building use, underpinned by carefully supported programming, to foster the building’s ongoing cultural and community relevance.

This article was written on location in Vietnam by Dr Helen Norrie and Jed Long.

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