|The Contemporary Significance of Bamboo
Bamboo is being rediscovered by mankind in the age of the information revolution, environmental consciousness and space exploration. As a potential renewable resource and an inexhaustible raw material, if properly managed, bamboo could transform the way we think about and use man-made objects to improve the quality of life. In many economically deprived countries bamboo could provide the answer to the distressing problems of employment generation and of providing basic shelter and amenities in an affordable and dignified manner. It also holds promise of the spawning of a host of new industries that are ecologically responsible while providing for the manufactured artefacts for a new age. An agro-industrial infrastructure could well bridge the urban-rural divide in many regions of the world. Can this promise be realised?Notwithstanding the complexity and magnitude of these assumptions it seems appropriate that these propositions need to be addressed with all seriousness and a multi-disciplinary approach be developed to realise this latent potential. The design disciplines that have emerged in this century have been increasingly drawing on the systems metaphor to cope with the complexity in the real world of resource identification and problem solving. It is here that the lessons from the Bamboo Culture could provide a direction to mankind. Above all the subtle messages embedded in the Bamboo Culture can be re-articulated by mankind today with the aid of some of our very powerful analytical and conceptual tools available to us in this age. Never before has mankind been so fortunate to be in the possession of such a vast and widely networked information base along with the capacity to process this knowledge base for the benefit of all mankind.Last year, I was fortunate to be a member of an editorial group that met at Singapore to assemble an annotated bibliography on the engineering and structural properties and applications of bamboo. The group led by Dr Jules Janssen of the Eindhoven University of Technology worked for four days at the IDRC office (International Development Research Centre, Canada) accessing satellite databases and team contributions to complete the editorial task which is now in production. IDRC’s massive investments in bamboo research around the globe are indicative of the resurgent interest in bamboo. These researches however, need to be given a larger framework to make the individual research efforts more meaningful and to enable us to pattern these contributions in a holistic perspective. Hence I shall use this opportunity to elaborate the ideas that I had barely sketched out in my contribution to that editorial effort. Further, I shall try and link these to the deeper concerns that have grown over the years as a design teacher at India’s premier design institution while grappling with the immense problems faced in India’s developmental efforts along with the conviction that design as a discipline has a pivotal role to play in alleviating some of these seemingly insoluble problems of immense complexity.
Bamboo: A Personal Journey
Bamboo is found in most parts of India and has been traditionally used to solve a variety of structural and constructional problems in the Indian subcontinent. A very interesting observation that we have made in the course of our studies is the nexus between the form of bamboo structures and a set of influencing parameters. These include the variety in types of local bamboo species, its distribution and variability over climatic zones, the availability of particular species and its translation into products and structures for local application. These factors have all had an overriding cultural connotation particularly in the detailing and formal expressions that are chosen by local communities in solving their structural and constructional problems. Product variability in form and structure seems to be quite independent of product function and dominated by considerations of cultural differentiation expressing a need for an unique identity at the community level. Properties of material and structure, and their appropriate interpretation in product detailing are a high-point of almost every traditional product that has emerged from a very long process of cultural evolution. These findings have convinced me that we need to understand this material at many levels simultaneously to be able to use it effectively.
We have followed up our field research work with several attempts dealing with the design of contemporary products and structures using bamboo. Through these experiences we have further confirmed the need for a very precise understanding of the physical and mechanical properties of bamboo. However, I would also like to stress that in order to ensure its successful utilisation over diverse climatic and cultural zones these physical and mechanical properties need to be carefully juxtaposed with cultural and formal practices that are evident in the expressions of local communities. In order to bring about a simultaneous correlation between the various types of information that would be required by any engineer, designer or local craftsman to utilise this raw material in situations such as ours it would perhaps be important at some stage to reorient and enlarge the scope of the ongoing research and development work to include several aspects relating to the cultural dimensions in the use and conversion of bamboo into useable products and structures.
The purpose of the International Bamboo Culture Forum at Oita Japan as stated by Dr. Shin’ichi Takemura is to develop an agenda for the setting up and providing a focus for the development of design activities that are ecologically responsive and humanely sensitive. This conference in Oita which is one of a series of efforts planned to set up the agenda for the proposed Asian Design Centre gives me the unique opportunity to connect and reflect on two of my favourite topics, that is, Bamboo and Design. Firstly I shall spell out the issues and messages that map out the boundaries of the Bamboo Culture after which we can explore the various dimensions of the new awareness relating to the use of the systems metaphor in design and their mutual interdependence.
Knowledge Base of the Bamboo Culture
Man’s use of bamboo in the development of human civilization perhaps predates the Stone Age and the Iron Age as a study by G Gregory Pope seems to suggest. Pope’s thesis based on the study of fossil records of the distribution of animal species when juxtaposed with the occurrence of traces of human settlements over the globe along with other indirect evidence suggests that the Asian regions housed the origin and flowering of human civilizations rooted in the availability of bamboo. If this is so, history will be rewritten to give bamboo a catalytic role in the cradle of human civilization which was overlooked due to lack of any subterranean traces caused by the biodegradable nature of bamboo. The theory is quite plausible and it provides some clues on the prehistoric origins and development of man and shifts the focal point to our region of the world.
These regions of Asia have had an undisturbed association with bamboo and in many inaccessible parts of India and most of other East Asian countries this link survives in the lives and practices of its people even today. These need to be systematically and sympathetically studied by contemporary man to distil the essence of the millennia old wisdom that even today resides in these local associations with bamboo. These proposed studies are not merely aimed at the conservation of archaic practices for the sake of some romantic or sentimental mood. They should be aimed at discovering the larger patterns that lie embedded in the details of each product, practice or ceremony associated with the use of bamboo.
Bamboo: The Tasks Ahead
Having outlined what I perceive as potentials in the study and contemplation of the Bamboo Cultures we can now look at developments in design thinking in order to try and articulate the kind of shifts in thinking that are beginning to emerge with increasing ecological awareness and environmental consciousness amongst concerned planners and designers. Industrial design principles and processes are being re-assessed in the light of the massive ecological disaster that have been caused by the follies of the so called advanced technological process of scientific industrialization.
Systems Thinking and Design
However as professional designers, the various areas of specialization that are represented by Architecture, Urban Design and Planning, Industrial Design and Communication Design, to name only a few, are rarely found to cross their artificial boundaries to explore the potential of a higher level of synthesis that could accrue from such a crossing. Further at the academic level a host of other disciplines (which are also specializations) such as Sociology, Anthropology and Ecology, and Mathematics, Logic and Ethics, to single out a few for the purpose of this illustration, are piously touted as essential branches of human knowledge that enable the resolution of complex design tasks. The attitudes that foster these specializations come into direct conflict with the premise that design synthesis requires quite the opposite, that is an integrative capacity. It is here that emerging concepts of systems thinking, in a vast number of fields, are increasingly influencing the search for inter-disciplinary options that transcend boundaries of traditional specializations.
The keyword here is complexity. The resolution of this complexity resides in the necessary diversity and range of factors that affect each designed situation. The handling of this complexity requires the development and assimilation of a body of theory that could enable designers, architects and planners to effectively grapple with real life challenges. This should be possible without having to break down every task into simplistic and specialized sub-functions, to be resolved in isolation, thereby losing the vital advantages of the symbiotic relationships that are enabled when such tasks are perceived and resolved as interrelated components of a dynamic system. The ecological model of design will perhaps be the outcome of this realisation.
Design methodologies have constantly been invigorated, over the years, by assimilating into their repertoire developments in a vast number of disciplines. This is particularly so in recent years when there is a resurgence of interest in the theory of systems and structure. Developments in mathematics, physics and information technologies have been responsible for opening up new vistas of exploration in the study of biology and ecosystems which in turn have influenced explorations of the systems metaphor in design and in other fields of human endeavour. These explorations have been greatly influenced by the work of the structuralists in the field of anthropology and linguistics with a resurgence of interest in product semantics and semiotics amongst designers. Engineers and architects have been exploring the limits of the concepts of module, proportion and symmetry while drawing analogies with corresponding work in other quite ‘unrelated’ fields. Bionics is one such field, where studies of nature and natural forms, structures and their working principles set the platform for the creative development of engineering details and new product analogies that use similar principles. The emergence of the fields of biotechnologies and genetic engineering throw up new design challenges and potentials along with the dangers of a runaway disaster if handled irresponsibly.
Design: An Alternate Definition
Design as a discipline necessarily draws on a vast body of human knowledge that are appropriate to the task at hand to generate the scenarios that could be subjected to rigorous evaluation. Design activity focusses on the user’s needs. In this case we recognize the need to use design processes to identify and configure products and processes that would enable both producers and users to benefit in a market economy. To achieve this, the designer must develop an intimate understanding of both the production and user environments. The Indian experience in design for the handicrafts and handloom sectors of our economy as well as in the areas of small-scale decentralised production exemplified by Mahatma Gandhi’s Khadi and village industries experiment that is being sustained to this day, throws up an intricate set of propositions that impinge on the success of the country’s developmental efforts.
Many years of efforts have shown that capital is not the sole determinant of economic success nor is the multinational industry model the only way. These views on design are further substantiated by the thoughts and expressions of design thinker Gui Bonsiepe from his experiences in Ulm, Chile, Argentina, Brazil and India. He has been a source of inspiration for many of us in India. Small-scale production on a very low capital base is very susceptible to economic and social exploitation, while markets respond to quality and value in an extremely competitive manner. The designer working in these sectors must recognise the proposition that in the product environment there are those products that are exploitative in nature and products that are liberating in nature, e.g. a component supplied by a vendor to a large industry is exploitative in nature, whereas a small product, low in investment, low in tooling, short time cycle for manufacturing and sale and with direct access to market is least exploitative. Design strategies that recognise these and other similar principles provide us with a tool and methodology for social and economic change.
Can we design products of this nature to enable start up entrepreneurship? Can this form of industry be based on use of raw materials that are truly renewable? Can the demonstration of a successful model based on the use of carefully cultivated bamboo set off renewed searches for meaningful patterns in other forms of industry? Can design enable disadvantaged communities to solve social and developmental problems locally? Can a productive and market oriented community be ecologically responsible? Can women play a vital role in the social and economic development of a community? I think the answer to all the above questions is a resounding yes!
The New Bamboo Culture: A Search of Sustainable Models
Note on photographs illustrating this lecture
Keynote address at the International Bamboo Culture Forum at Oita Japan from 5 November 1991 to 7 November 1991.