All forms of life depend upon a particular strategy for survival. The strategy imparts a competitive advantage to the particular species, and insures the genetic code for this strategy is passed on to future generations. Natural selection is a powerful mechanism, leaving the failed strategies to history and fossils, and the successful strategies surrounding us in the natural world. Native peoples throughout the world have recognized the genius of 3.8 billion years of evolution, and have learned to imitate and emulate nature. This practice, called biomimicry, is now being recognized as an appropriate model for modern, industrial man to achieve a sustainable culture, and insure our survival in the face of depleted resources from unrestrained and unsustainable growth.
A recent innovation to the plant kingdom emerged early in the Cenozoic period, and continues to dominate today. Flowering plants and, specifically, the grasses developed a strategy to tame the vast plains and the cooler, drier climate characterizing this geologic period. The dominance of grasses influenced the evolution of animals, as mammals, and man, flourished and adapted to the abundance. One particular primitive sub-family, the bamboos, developed a spectacularly successful survival strategy, evolving over 1500 species, and a geographic distribution encompassing most of the tropical and temperate zones.
The bamboo model has inspired Eastern cultures for centuries, having implications for familial support, personal philosophy, and aesthetics. Bamboo, as a design criteria for architecture, as a medium for human interaction with nature, and as a model for survival, could be called bamboomimicry.
The key to grass success, in part, was the shallow, fibrous root system that held the soil and retained moisture. The bamboos utilized a rhizomatous vegetative growth strategy to increase its competitive advantage. New culms, arising from rhizomes, grow rapidly as a telescoping tube, achieving a height advantage and an eventual crown density of foliage that effectively eliminates any invasive species that might attempt establishment. The tubular architecture of the culms achieves spectacular heights, with a minimum of material investment, due to a high strength to weight ratio of the culm design. The culm tubes bend to distribute stress throughout the culm, and effectively eliminates any high-localized stress that might cause failure.
The culm represents up to 97% of the total plant length, and, although strong and resilient, the extreme leverage of an individual culm could easily dislodge the shallow root system. To compensate for this weakness, adjacent culms arise to support each other, as all culms are locked tightly into the rhizomatous base, and act as one. The dense canopy of interwoven branches insures the inter-dependence of the culms, yet allowing a flexibility characteristic of the overall bamboo strategy.
Bamboo adaptivity and familial interdependence is also illustrated by the ability of bamboo to extend its space into areas that may not be optimum. New culms are aided in size and stature by gaining energy, nutrients, and water from the rhizome connection to the rest of the plant. Once established, the dense canopy, tightly woven rhizome base, and overlaying mat of leaves, alters the microclimate, cooling and conserving moisture and nutrients.
Fundamental to the bamboo strategy is achieving more with less. The visual, above ground portion of the plant is actually the lesser proportion of the plant; most of the biomass is underground. The plant invests in the relatively stable environment of the earth, while the extensions into the unstable atmosphere are temporary, and expendable. The plant can withstand wind, fire, and drought, and rapidly rebound with new culm growth when conditions are favorable.
The architectural application of bamboo survival strategy is appropriate. Flexibility, redundancy, and interdependence, achieved through minimal material expenditure are becoming key tenets of good design. Buckminster Fuller used biomimicry in his conception of the geodesic dome. Tensegrity, his principle of interconnected components forming a cohesive and strong whole, could be construed as a corollary to bamboomimicry.
The lessons of bamboo extend beyond the mere academic applications alluded to in this examination. Humans, by their nature, require nature. We see beauty in nature, and bamboo is beautiful. We need nature for relaxation, contemplation, and recreation. As bamboo is a model of utility, it is also a model of other human endeavors. The list of bamboo artifacts used for fun and recreation is long indeed. The marriage of fun and utility would fit the bamboo model perfectly. It is no accident that bamboo decor is used for places of social interaction and recreation. It is, therefore, a natural goal of good bamboo design, not only to include the structural tenets of bamboo, but also to include the whimsical, the amusing, and the beautiful.
What sort of design might satisfy the bamboo model, and epitomize bamboomimicry? Allow me to suggest an example. Long poles, slanted out from the vertical, supporting a symmetrical dome like canopy. It is spare in material investment, providing a human space high above the ground, but beneath the protective dome. Although resting on a shallow, small foundation, the structure is made stable by additional tensile supports, firmly anchored in the ground, or tied firmly to surrounding established vegetation, i.e., trees. It is flexible, and fun. It is used for fun, escape, and contemplation. It fits one, or two, and provides a place for sleep, secure and removed.
I have attempted to create a model that fits the criteria of bamboomimetic design, and it seems to work. As a structure, it is intimately related to its natural surroundings, and indeed, dependent upon it. Whether situated in a bamboo grove, a forest, or in an urban backyard, it serves as a means to escape our manufactured, artificial environment, and re-connect with the natural world. That connection, however achieved, is not only beneficial, but also necessary, and fundamental to human existence.
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