BUENOS AIRES — Bamboo has been used in construction for centuries, especially in places where it grows abundantly, like in hot and humid Southeast Asia. And yet, as Colombian architect Mauricio Cárdenas has discovered, there's still much to learn about the age-old material, and new, innovative ways to use it.

Earlier in his career, Cárdenas — the guest of honor at the upcoming Buenos Aires International Architecture Biennale (beginning Oct. 15) — focused on "typical" materials like steel, concrete and glass. Shortly after graduating, the Colombian worked for five years in Paris for the prominent Italian architect Renzo Piano, creator of the Pompidou Center among other memorable buildings. He then established himself in Milan where he followed through with his ideas on avant-guard design and sophisticated architecture.

Bamboo is resistant, light, flexible and cheap, and has good insulation and soundproofing qualities.

But it was also in Milan that Cárdenas — inspired by certain childhood memories — first turned his attention to bamboo. The architect recalls sipping a ristretto on the Via Montenapoleone one day when he flashed back to his grandfather's coffee farm in Colombia. More specifically, Cárdenas remembered being handed a machete to cut some cane for a tree house.

And so it was that in 2006, when he was commissioned to create a pavilion for the Milan design fair, the Colombian decided to make it from bamboo. Cárdenas had the cane shipped from Colombia and, together with his pupils from the Milan Polytechnic, helped in the construction itself. From then on he became a real bamboo expert and began combining it with other materials and high-technology.

Bamboo is resistant, light, flexible and cheap, and has good insulation and soundproofing qualities. And while it lasts a long time (15 to 30 years), it is not eternal. But that's also one of things that Cárdenas likes about it, especially since the cane grows fast and is easily replaced.

"Concrete buildings can last hundreds of years. But should they?" he asked during a presentation to INBAR, a body of 45 states that promotes the use of bamboo and rattan for sustainable construction.

One example of building made of bamboo — Photo: Longquan International Bamboo Commune

"Often, they're abandoned or demolished after just a few decades," Cárdenas added. "If we used natural construction materials in cities and changed our ideas, it would be easy to rebuild or restore them every few decades without having to face today's great costs."

A bamboo pavilion Cárdenas was commissioned to make for the Horticultural Exhibition in Beijing was tested for resistance to fire and insects. Its roof consists of undulating arches with different levels to create a sensation of movement, and allow air flow. Above the arches is an exuberant garden. The structure is bathed in natural light and Cárdenas hopes for something similar in the bamboo settlements Malaysian designers are creating for Mars.

Whether bamboo construction takes off on Mars more than on Earth remains to be seen. In the meantime, Cárdenas has several promising new projects in China. In Baoxi, in the Chinese province of Zhejiang, he has just finished his Energy Efficient Bamboo House. The town hosted the first Bamboo Architecture Biennale in 2017, and has kept some of its traditional industries, like glazed ceramics, swords and carpentry with wood and bamboo.

Concrete buildings can last hundreds of years. But should they?

Cárdenas wanted a house with minimal carbon emissions that is also able to take full advantage of on-site resources like sunlight, water, wind and vegetation. That's where the bamboo comes in. But the architect also combined the cane with lightweight aluminum fasteners that facilitate both the assembly and replacement of the bamboo as it ages.

That China has become the world's biggest carbon emitter makes the use there of bamboo as a construction material even more attractive. It doesn't pollute and, as it grows, actually absorbs CO2. Expanding its use, in other words, is certainly worth a shot — at least until we all have to move to Mars.

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