by Whatsblem the Pro
[Whatsblem the Pro is embedded in the International Arts Megacrew for the building of THE CONTROL TOWER, a sixty-foot “cargo cult” version of an FAA control tower, equipped with lasers and flame effects and other interactive features. This series of articles begins with The Poor Man’s Burning Man: Part One, and shows you how you can attend Burning Man even if you don’t sleep on a giant pile of money at night.]
Work on the Control Tower continues to go smoothly as the necessary materials and tools show up. This last couple of weeks has seen the real work beginning with the arrival of the actual bamboo members that will make up the load-bearing part of the Tower.
Bamboo is incredibly strong, and can stand in for steel in many applications. It can splinter and break, though, especially at the ends of these long poles the crew is working with. They’ve been busy embedding steel joints into each piece to allow them to be joined together, and cementing them in place with an expanding foam poured into small holes in the shafts. The tendency to splinter is being dealt with by capping the ends of the thirty-foot segments with fiberglass.
Expert help with all of this has arrived in the person of Gerard Minakawa, an artist/designer from Southern California whose company, Bamboo DNA, specializes in sculpture and architecture built from bamboo. I asked Gerard to tell me about building with bamboo.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: So Gerard. . . what’s so great about bamboo?
GERARD MINAKAWA: Where do I start? There are so many amazing things. It’s so versatile, it’s had so many different uses since humans first started working with building materials. People in Asia and South America are pretty familiar with how useful it is.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: I was in China for five years and noticed that even on huge skyscrapers, when there’s a building project, they’re using bamboo scaffolding.
GERARD MINAKAWA: Yeah! It’s just so friendly and easy to work with. There’s so much you can do with it. It’s both very strong, and very flexible, which I’ve always regarded as its two most redeeming characteristics. That combination of strength and flexibility is hard to match.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: And it’s so light!
GERARD MINAKAWA: Yes, it can be very light, too. It’s a good thing these cylinders are hollow, though, because if they were solid they’d be extremely heavy.
The variety we’re using for the Control Tower is called Guadua angustifolia, commonly known as just ‘guadua.’ It’s native to South America, to the Amazon. Most people think that all bamboos of any significance come from Asia, but actually the one I’ve found to be the most useful, the best to work with in construction, art, and design is this species. Brazilians and Colombians work with it a lot; it’s my number-one choice.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: How does it compare with steel, structurally?
GERARD MINAKAWA: The five-inch poles we’re using here are comparable to two and three-eighths inch diameter tube steel, in terms of compression strength, with a lot smaller carbon footprint.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: You’re actually sequestering carbon by using bamboo, rather than releasing a ton of it into the atmosphere by manufacturing steel.
GERARD MINAKAWA: Right. . . and none of these poles are older than six years, from the time that they’re harvested, so from the time they start shooting to the time you turn it into something like a Control Tower, you’re looking at six years.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: These will shoot later?
GERARD MINAKAWA: It grows from a network of roots, called rhizomes, so cutting down a bamboo pole in the forest doesn’t mean you have to reseed it.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: I’ve heard that some species grow so fast you can hear them.
GERARD MINAKAWA: I’ve never heard it, but some species grow as much as a meter per day, so you can definitely watch it grow.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: But only if you’ve got plenty of Whip-Its handy, to get into that jaw-dropped state.
GERARD MINAKAWA: It would take quite a bit of patience. If you filmed a time-lapse, though, it would be really amazing.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: How long have you been doing this?
GERARD MINAKAWA: I’ve been building with bamboo for about twelve years now. It’s a lot of fun to build with. . . never a dull moment!
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: So, today you’re filling it with polyurethane foam to anchor the steel joints inside each piece?
GERARD MINAKAWA: Yes. This is the trickiest part; we need to splice poles together to make sixty-foot members. You can’t import sixty-foot long poles; you just can’t ship them at that length. . . so to get the length we need, we’re putting in a steel ‘bone’ that’s held in place inside each pole with structural foam. The two halves of each resulting sixty-foot pole will come apart, to be locked together again later, so there’s a little bit of modularity in the structure. . . pre-fabrication, for ease of reassembly later on, when the Tower gets to the playa. After Burning Man they want to be able to dissassemble and reassemble this for other events, so we’re making a fairly large compromise by using steel and foam instead of just bamboo alone.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: I guess there must be some challenges whenever you start getting into any kind of composite construction.
GERARD MINAKAWA: Sure. The materials industry has a way to go. On the bright side, when we do the reinforcement lashings for this, we’ll be using a bio-resin that’s linseed based as a replacement for the typical polyester resin. That cures in the sun; it’s a biological resin and non-toxic. The finish will also be an atypically non-toxic finish, so I’m happy about all of that.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: Tell me about Bamboo DNA.
GERARD MINAKAWA: Bamboo DNA is a company I started as an import and wholesale company; I guess I was trying to take the safe route and do what everyone else was doing, but I ended up getting mostly commissions, and asked to do festivals and design stuff. I was trained as a designer; I just wasn’t really seeing how it would be possible to create a business centered solely around bamboo design and building. . . but that’s how it’s ended up! Now that’s what Bamboo DNA does year-round, all the time: design and build bamboo structures. I tried to do something more generic, and a niche customer base found my niche business and turned it into something unique. I couldn’t be happier, and it gives me many chances to help awareness of bamboo and other ecologically-friendly materials grow.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO: Thanks, I’ll let you get back to it.
Meanwhile, I’ve been trying not to fall apart while fulfilling all my own commitments, getting some artwork done of my own, and suffering head colds in the recent heatwave. I’ve had a good bit of luck with getting all kinds of donations coming in from supportive local businesses, from a forklift to a fleet of bicycles to lumber to the gourmet beer the crew sold at one of their fundraisers. I feel a little like James Garner in THE GREAT ESCAPE: the Scrounger, pulling necessaries out of thin air so that we can all leave the Nazis and their shitty POW camp behind for a better life on our own. Hopefully the tunnel won’t collapse on us before we all get through!
Morale remains high, especially after hours when the overhead lights go down and the bold shirt-bearers of the IAM rise to meet it.