Highlighting a recent garden tour in the Los Angeles area was an unscheduled stop at an eye-catching bamboo fence/sculpture. Edging the sidewalk in front of a house in the beachside community of Venice, the fence was constructed of three- to four-inch bamboo posts set upright in concrete, with long sweeps of smaller diameter bamboo, used individually and in bundles, forming a dramatic cross structure. The whole piece had a striking fluidity: it appeared precarious and yet solidly functional. Adding to its charm was the ingenious planting of Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata subsp. aztecorum) that rises through and spills over it—the fine texture of the living bamboo contrasting beautifully with the larger culms of bamboo used in the construction.
The fence, we learned, was built by Stephen Glassman, a local artist who has been working with bamboo for many years. The beauty of Glassman’s work comes from his ability to use traditional bamboo joinery techniques for splitting and tying the poles to create structures that are spontaneous and decidedly contemporary. Instead of reproducing Asian-style fences and bridges (a practice he attributes to lingering colonialist attitudes), he claims the material as his own, using it in refreshing new ways.
Glassman’s introduction to working with bamboo came about when he helped a Japanese graduate student build a twenty- by thirty-foot bamboo kite. When the kite was dismantled, he inherited the bamboo, which became his stockpile for future projects. Largely self taught, he initially relied on knotting techniques acquired from his work on theatrical stage rigging and has since added other knots taught him by the craftsmen he has worked with around the world.
In 1995, he was invited to build a structure on the estate of Linda Garland in Bali, in conjunction with the Fourth International Bamboo Conference. Glassman worked with a team of craftsman and a structural engineer to build a functional bridge spanning twenty-five feet across a sacred gorge connecting two villages. He remembers the intricacies of communicating to the others (through an interpreter) his vision of how the structural can become spectacular. In the end, the bridge was part sculpture, part drawing, and fully functional.
The projects since then have been varied. Through his connections in the art world, Glassman began building bamboo structures for residential gardens in the Los Angeles area. Most of these projects have been for art collectors, living in typical tract homes, who wanted a gate, fence, or shade structure that would also be a remarkable piece of sculpture and a distinctive addition to their garden. The fence and gate that we chanced upon in Venice was one such project.
Glassman regards bamboo as a seductive material—beautiful, pliable, and yet incredibly strong. In Japan, a common belief is that “bamboo holds the earth together.” The Japanese consider a bamboo grove one of the safest places to be during an earthquake, and many villages in seismic zones are surrounded by planted bamboo groves. Not afraid to politicize his work, Glassman sees the rhizomatous growth in bamboo as a metaphor for how communities are woven together—in direct contrast to the “every man for himself mentality of multinational corporations” as embodied in the towering skyscraper. The bamboo culms are beautiful, but the most important part of the plant is underground, spreading horizontally and uniting the whole.
This philosophy has led to a number of temporary installations in public places, most of which are sculptures serving as symbolic bridges. Many of these pieces have been connected to traumatic events such as the Northridge earthquake and the Malibu firestorm. Glassman views bridges as powerful symbols in a community, bringing together people who might have felt isolated from each other by economic or social barriers; he is adept at getting members of the communities he works with involved in the construction of his projects. Through his work as an artist, in part due to the inherent appeal of the material he is working with, he is able to introduce radical structures (and ideas) to a larger public. The beauty of the bamboo helps people open their minds to the more unconventional beauty of the structures he creates.
Glassman notes that, when he works with green bamboo, which he is most likely to use for temporary structures, he often obtains the raw material locally. While building a temporary site-specific work called “Nohara” in West Hollywood in 2002, he came to know the curators of the Schindler House, built in 1921 as both home and studio by Rudolph Schindler, an Austrian architect who worked for a while in Frank Lloyd Wright’s office. Now a museum, it is landscaped with large stands of giant timber bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii) and beechey bamboo (B. beecheyana), which Glassman maintains. In exchange, he can use the harvested canes for his work. The fences in the accompanying photographs were installed about eight years ago and are still going strong.
For more permanent projects, he uses cured poles, generally imported from Vietnam. Harvested canes are available from many bamboo nurseries, such as Bamboo Sourcery in Sebastopol, California, but curing the canes to protect against insect damage is a time
consuming process seldom done in North America. Glassman’s primary source is Bamboo Hardwoods in Seattle, the largest West Coast importer of cured poles.
The essence of Glassman’s work is summed up in a story he tells of his first public project at a community center in a Venice neighborhood that he describes as devastated, populated by gangs, skateboarders, and the homeless. He had proposed an arching bridge-like structure that would span a hundred feet. The press arrived on the first day to mark the beginning of the project, and Glassman brought with him his thickest and most beautiful bamboo poles. By the next day, the poles had all disappeared, carted off by local dealers to be made into drug paraphernalia. After some reflection, Glassman returned the next time with his worst, scrawniest pieces of bamboo. As he began assembling some of these pieces, he also started a discussion with a couple of the homeless men in the area. He offered to hire them to watch his work and insure that it would be there when he returned the next day. They became enthralled with the project and took it on as their own. It’s this understanding of the importance of engaging his public and giving them ownership of a project that gives Glassman’s work its special magic.
A Resource Guide
To find bamboo to play with, contact your local bamboo nursery. For example, Sherry Wright of Bamboo Sourcery in Sebastopol, California (www.bamboosourcery.com), sells uncured, six- or twelve-foot-long bamboo poles. Among species that commonly grow in Northern California, she has found that the best ones to build with are moso bamboo (Phyllostachys edulis); black bamboo (P. nigra), its cultivar ‘Boryana’, and its parent P. nigra f. henonis; and P. vivax. (The black bamboos will keep their black coloring when dried properly.)
For further reading
Grow Your Own House: Simon Velez and Bamboo mArchitecture. Weil am Rhein, Germany: Vitra Design Museum, 2000. Velez is one of the world’s foremost architects working with bamboo.
Jules, JA, Dr Janssen. Building with Bamboo: A Handbook. London: Intermediate Technology Publications, 1995 (second edition).
Yoshikawa, Isao. Building Bamboo Fences. Tokyo: Graphic-sha Publishing Co Ltd, 1997. A step-by-step illustrated guide to basic techniques of splitting, bending, tying and joining bamboo for traditional Japanese fences.
For more information
American Bamboo Society: www.americanbamboo.org
Bamboo Hardwoods: www.bamboohardwoods.com
Stephen Glassman, Venice, California, 310/245-9513