An interview between João Ó of Impromptu Projects and John Osmond Naylor, Director of the AA Haiti Visiting School
14 April 2016 Macao, China
“Apparently there’s going to be frost tonight!” I hear the previous day’s words echoing in my ears as I wake up in my shoebox hostel room at 6am on a Sunday morning. It was true, on the morning of 23 January 2016 it was minus two degrees Celsius in Hong Kong, which was the coldest temperature ever recorded in the city. So, strange as it seemed, I zipped up to the chin my cardigan and coat, braced myself for the wintery subtropics of Hong Kong, and headed out to catch the morning ferry to Macao.
In my position as Director of the AA Haiti Visiting School it is always important to see what pioneers in the field of bamboo architecture are working on. What is their process, their technique, their belief in bamboo as a sustainable building material of the future? In this spirit, as the headwinds of the Pearl River Delta battered the ferry, I headed to the ex-Portuguese colony to visit João Ó. – artist, architect and half of Impromptu Studio, the team responsible for the widely acclaimed ‘Treeplets’ project.
Artist, architect and co-founder of Impromptu Projects João Ó, with John Osmond Naylor, Director AA Haiti Visiting School.
‘Treeplets’ was a temporary bamboo structure constructed for the Macau Architecture Promenade in 2015. It occupied 200m2 with a height of 6.5 meters. The material was the local scaffolding of choice, the bamboo species Bambusa Tuldoides Munro, native to Guangdong province. The structure was erected within 10 days and disassembled within two working days using three to seven workers skilled in scaffolding techniques. These same scaffolding techniques were evident immediately as I arrived in Macao. Driving through the streets, we found sanctuary from the cold in a Portuguese restaurant, and began to thaw out and chat.
“The most interesting part is how the scaffolders think to adapt to the site conditions, and that is one of the things I have learned with the bamboo masters,” João explained. “Even as an architect you cannot be dogmatic and ask for exactly what I am drawing to be made. I understood that for them and for us we have to adapt to work with each other. I am not the skilled worker and what I draw will be adjusted by them to suggest poles to add structure and then I will have to accept that. Then this becomes the interesting part as it is a collaborative work.”
The pavilion mimics the splendour and rarity of identical triplets in the form of three random trees.
João continued, “It’s also a mind-set. Interestingly, the scaffolders, told me that: ‘Oh that’s the drawing?’ Ok, let me see the site and I will tell you if that is ok.’ Therefore the drawing is going to have to be adapted to the site, for instance if they build a structure next to water and the sand is very wet, they have to reinforce, and this is something you can’t expect.”
With eagerness I interceded, “So in isolation the bamboo scaffolding becomes a record of many things, the site, past weather, and even a mapping of time?”
“Exactly!” João exclaimed. “If you look at it in a narrow way it will map everything, it’s a performance work.”
Given our design process on the AA Haiti Visiting School where we look for initial design opportunities through site mapping, the idea of the bamboo structure as a map in itself was fascinating to me.
‘Treeplets’ under construction.
Most of the materials utilised in ‘Treeplets’ were intentionally chosen for their recyclable qualities. As well as bamboo, recycled PVC fabric from outdoor banners was used. The project is formed by a spatial grid of 600mm x 600mm with bamboo poles varying from 6 meters long to 1 meter with diameters between 5 and 7cm.
“Can you explain a bit about the dimension of the spatial grid?” I asked.
“They are the dimensions of your reach, 600mm downwards and 600mm outwards in order to tie the knots.”
The most basic and functional aspect is to give shade in an outdoor environment.
In effect the notion of this project being a performance work carries over to the human scale, and recording the parameters of the human body. I will definitely think of this the next time I see Hong Kong scaffolding.
In Haiti this summer (30 July – 11 August 2016), we are inviting participants to design and test a prototypical structure using Haitian bamboo which we hope will change national perception of the material. Haiti, like many places in the world has an attitude of bamboo as a poor man’s timber.
“What was the MAP committee’s reaction when you suggested bamboo?” I asked.
“The brief was very open minded,” João explains.“The good thing about bamboo in Macao is that it’s manageable, it’s cheap, and it can be very easily assembled and disassembled. The good thing for us, was that the committee only specified it had to be an outdoor intervention. Therefore the programme was open and we were into bamboo, this was our chosen material. We were very happy with it.”
A unique city of casino modernity, Macao has raised the profile of bamboo through this one project. As we drove back to the port we couldn’t help but see the scaffolding in use, this time adorning the outside of a scaled down half-finished Eiffel Tower centre on the casino strip. I am very grateful to the passion and energy of João and Impromptu Projects to give their time and share their knowledge.
‘Treeplets’ canopy from above.
For more information:
Impromptu Projects Ltd multi-disciplinary studio practice founded by João Ó and his partner Rita Machado. The studio practice is focused on the design of ephemeral structures as well as on the study of their social relevance. Impromptu Projects proposes a kind of architecture which is mindful of the territory’s current situation, aiming at expanding improbable public places and at the involvement of the community in a critical participation of the urban space with installations, events and urban art as a reference.
The Architectural Association Haiti Visiting School will be holding the next course this summer, between the 30th July and 11th August. Applications for limited places on this experimental design and bamboo construction course in the heart of Haiti are open now.