The Skin of Bamboo, The Spirit of Bamboo

author Kengo Kuma
project Bamboo House, The Great Wall of China, China
written by Kengo Kuma

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I wanted to make houses entirely of bamboo. I built one in Kamakura and one is under construction on a site next to a corner of the Great Wall of China.


I have a strong passion for bamboo. That’s why I want to make houses out of bamboo. The floors, walls, and ceilings are all bamboo. Then I am living surrounded by, enveloped in, bamboo. The pillars are also bamboo. There are several difficulties in making the pillars of bamboo. The exterior of bamboo, the “skin”, is weak and fragile, and bamboo is difficult to utilize as is as a structural pillar. The bamboo interior has hard membranes of vascular bundles separating each hollow chamber along its stalk.  But in the bamboo pillars in my houses these have been removed and a steel rod, reinforced with concrete, runs through the entire length of the hollow stalk. The pillars look perfectly natural from the outside, but have concrete and steel strengthening the center. 


I envelop myself in bamboo. I become enclosed by the delicate, simple and unpretentious skin of the bamboo. Japanese cedars and cypress logs do not have this beautifully smooth skin. In addition, a space or room created by assembling cedar or cypress logs has no sense of tension or presence, and lacks charm and appeal. But enclosures created with bamboo are filled with a feeling of tension... a unique sense of the stretched presence of the skin of the bamboo. Just sitting inside them places the soul in a different state of being. On the other hand, sawed cedar and cypress bear a smooth surface, but lack skin. They have also lost the peculiar raw and born-in-the-wild feeling that only natural skin possesses.


Skin and outer surface are different things. Concrete has an outer surface, but not skin. On top of that, I don’t find concrete particularly attractive. That’s because without skin, the soul within never appears. Bamboo has particularly beautiful skin. And, bamboo has a soul residing within. In Japan, there is a famous children’s tale about how Princess Kakuyahime, the Moon Goddess, was born inside a stalk of bamboo. People believed the story that she was born inside a bamboo stalk because bamboo has a peculiar type of skin and possesses a soul. I believe that structures and buildings must also have a skin, not just an outer surface. That’s because without it, there would be no place for the soul of the structure to reside within. The skin is not just the outside of something; it is a living organ. The role of this delicate, high-functional organ is to facilitate the interaction between the natural world inside the structure and the natural world on the outside. This is interaction and not blockage or isolation. Through the skin, the natural world on the outside filters into the natural world on the inside, and conversely, the natural world on the inside permeates the skin into the natural world on the outside. It is this two-way permeation of essence that preserves life, and it is within this process that the soul is born. And, this soul resides neither in the heart nor in the brain. If you believe this, then you would appreciate that if you removed the heart or brain, it would be clearly evident that the soul does not live inside them. There is no soul in the center of those organs.


It is this type of structure, in other words, one that enables interaction between the inside and outside worlds, which I wish to build. One of the methods of construction would be to use utilize walls with louvres and Japanese paper. These would allow the light, wind, sound and other elements existing in the outside natural world to filter into the inside, and the light, air, and other elements generated inside to flow to the outside, all through the skin of the structure. And if I wanted to utilize stone as the construction material, I would bore minute holes through the stone in an attempt to use stone as the skin of the structure, and try to generate lively interaction between the outside and inside worlds. When I have designed the skin, the designing work for the entire structure is almost completed. For me, designing a structure is all about designing the skin.


With a living body and an inanimate structure, what exterior form or shape it may take is not a major issue. What is most critical is whether or not it bears skin and what type of skin is used. That is to say, that the kind of inner soul the body or structure will possess is intrinsically relevant.


The Great (Bamboo) Wall


In this project, ten Asian architects were commissioned to each design ten residences, creating a hundred residences altogether, in a forest adjacent to the Great Wall of China, an environmentally mutual commune.


Our basic notion of this project was to leave the original geographical features intact and to utilize locally produced materials as much as possible.


The idea of leaving the land intact is in keeping with the planning ideology of the Great Wall.


All the 20th century houses in the suburbs had been built on flattened land. That seems to be the usual way of planning and locating architectural objects.


However, we felt such a method to be unsuitable for the beautiful land of China with its intricate undulation. Hence for our concept, the best solution was to build a wall without interfering with the original geographical feature, but instead enhancing it.


Therefore, the plan was to design the wall as a filter formed with bamboo.


There are several reasons we chose bamboo as the principal material. First of all, we thought there was charm in the material’s fragility. The Great Wall, built with solid stone and brick, had been a device to sever the worlds of civilization and savagery, while the bamboo filter, on the other hand, would allow light and wind to pass through.


Also, the bamboo filter could work as a connection between the worlds.


Historically, having been brought to Japan from China, bamboo is a symbol of cultural interchange between the two countries. 


We intended this building to similarly be a symbol of cultural interchange.