Bamboolean Huts

Begin the Slideshow

This is the third in a series of three photo essays on the vernacular natural building styles of Ethiopia. The first, Hararchitecture, focuses on mainly clay binder houses in the East. The second, Axum Rock City & the Tigray Towns, focuses on mainly stone aggregate houses in the North. This, the third, Bamboolean Huts, focuses on mainly wood fibre houses in the South.

To Western eyes, bamboo building is increasingly attractive. It is being used more and more in North America, and not only for furniture, or as cladding. In recent years, it has been industrially pressed into so-called 'ply-boo' and other synthetic products to create solid structural timber. Large beams of compressed bamboo can even be used to support massive loads.

But bamboo on its own is plenty strong, and it has the advantage of be the fastest-growing tree on the planet. No natural builder's toolkit would really be complete without an understanding of this fantastic fibre. It is used extensively throughout tropical East Asia, to be sure. But here in the South of Ethiopia, it is put to extraordinary use -- not only rectangles or circles, but boolean shapes.

Boxes and cylinders are basic primitives -- standard three-dimensional building blocks. Boolean shapes are made from complex curves, or from fusing two different primitives in plan. These building styles are no longer widely practiced, if they ever were. But deep in the heart of the SNNP -- the Southern Nations and Nationalities Province, there are a handful of villages that maintain these traditions.

Hagos Aman, head of the architecture department at Arba Minch University, directed me to the 'bamboolean' practitioners. Near the town of Chincha, locals construct cone-shaped huts that climb to a height of about fifteen feet or more. I was lucky enough to witness a house in mid-construction. The thick scaffolding pierced through the bamboo walls, and rested on nothing else! Amazing!

The Chincha style is true boolean, like the home of a honeybee, in which one blobby pod emerges from the main cone. This is the small entrance room, to buffer the hut's inhabitants from the public sphere. The interior of the large main room is partitioned with short bamboo walls to separate sleeping parents from children, people from cattle. Yes, I said cattle. Here, goats co-habitate with humans.

For me, it was sad to see people cooking on the earthen floor, an open stove. Their lungs must fill soot, causing major health problems. The one saving grace of an open fire is that it is supposed to banish insects, which would otherwise eat through the bamboo in time. Still, isn't that leaping from the frying pan into the fire? Maybe the walls can be coated with mud, protecting them from flies...

One of the funny features that results from this type of housing is its portals. Since the walls pose no heavy load, there is no foundation to support it, and the bamboo is inserted directly into the earth. Over the years, of course, the point of contact will deteriorate. So once in a while, the whole house is sliced at ground level, and reinserted a little deeper, which means that the doors get shorter and shorter!

One disadvantage to this building technique is that it leaves the house without windows, it can get incredibly dark up in there. But I have seen modern adaptations of these 'gojos,' built for upper-class Ethiopians and tourists, in which more than one portal is fashioned from the bamboo, allowing much more light to penetrate the hut's interior. We can learn from the past and even improve upon it.

In the Sidamo Region, the bamboo houses are built in reverse: instead of from the ground up, they are built from the top down. First the roof is woven, then they work towards the bottom. There are many variations, but three main models: one in which the singular structure is covered to shoulder level in thatch; one in which the roof rests on the walls, pagoda-style; and then the beautiful Kremlin-like, onion-shaped huts.

After seeing these 'Bamboolean Huts' and what they are capable of first-hand, I am inspired to incorporate bamboo into my natural building practice. I believe that we can produce structures far superior to that infamous Renzo Piano piece. Perhaps a bamboo-and-daub temple of saced geometry? Save the Frank Gehry ego-trips, but let's re-inject organic into architecture.

Begin the Slideshow