Bali has long attracted free-thinkers: travelers seeking a tropical escape from the usual routine, with a spiritual dimension. When John Hardy arrived in the 1970s, he was struck by the beauty of the island, the lush landscape, the kindness of the people. When I visited the island, it was the unique institution that he and his wife had created there that entranced me: the Green School. This bamboo structure is impressive not just because it’s made from sustainably harvested materials from the surrounding forests, but because of its green ethos and the family behind it. Which is why I am writing this from a balé in the Balinese jungle: I was so inspired by the Green School that I decided to move to the island for three months and enroll my daughter in the school. As she runs around in the sunshine, I can work in the café.
The story behind the Green School offers many lessons, not just about what can be achieved by one family with a vision, or what we should be teaching our children, but about the buildings in which they learn. In the past, bamboo was thought of as something to be used in constructing scaffolding, simple huts or basic fishermen’s shelters. But thanks to John and his wife, Cynthia, who opened the Green School in 2008 – having previously operated a successful jewelry business on the island – the plant has been given a dramatic brand repositioning.
When the forward-thinking Hardys built their ambitious eco-minded school south of Ubud, nothing had been done like it before. It took the combined brainpower of an engineer from New York, an architect from France and many local artisans to produce this three-floored masterpiece from 2,500 pieces of this light-yet-strong wood. Today, in this stilted 200ft-high, corkscrew-shaped construction, shaded by a sculptural helical thatched roof, you’ll find no glass, no metal nails, no air-con. Air flows through it, and natural scenes flood in from all around. It is one of the finest examples of environmentally-friendly design in the world.
The resilience and versatility of the material and the ingenuity of the Balinese people have made this bamboo project an enlightening educational environment in every sense. When it was first built, this kindergarten-through-high school was an attention-grabber because of its innovative, undulating looks. Now it has become a benchmark for environmentally friendly building practices that help not only to foster a collaborative, forward-thinking ecologically-minded community, and contribute to the local economy in a way that empowers Indonesia’s islanders, but that lead by example on an international stage.
Bamboo is now being considered not simply as a green material with which to build homes, but also to create furniture. In 2010, the Hardys’ daughter Elora established Ibuku, a structural and decorative consultancy that has grown into a highly respected collective of architects, engineers, and craftspeople known for their surprisingly sleek creations. A former designer for Donna Karan in New York, Elora has never formally studied architecture. Yet today the craftspeople at Ibuku are regularly commissioned to build magnificent multi-story bamboo mansions, as well as elegant custom-made furniture. Its beautiful handmade objects, such as the teardrop hanging-seat or graceful double bed, are a natural fit with upscale homes. Elora also hosts courses on how to harvest and manage bamboo and invites participants to design and craft their own furniture through old-fashioned carpentry with the help of 3D-printing technology.
Above: Elora Hardy, founder of Ibuku, has set out to demonstrate that bamboo can be used to make a vast range of products, including beautiful furniture (photo: Tim Street-Porter)
Elora’s design business – creating new bamboo buildings with her local artisans and exporting natural furniture to eco-homes and green schools around the world – is, if you like, a continuation of what her parents started, but expanded across the globe. “With Ibuku’s architects and craftsmen, there’s an entire new dialogue unfolding with people who have never been to Bali before,” she says, explaining how homes in Florida, Japan, Canada, South America might now be furnished with Ibuku’s pieces. “I’m lucky I can be a connector between them all.”
Her younger brother Orin is also involved in putting environmental principles into practice and educating others about permaculture at his Kul Kul Farm, neighboring the Green School, which he runs with his partner Maria. Here they grow organic produce, which feeds the children and is sold through a stall at the bi-weekly farmers’ market, and leads courses to teach families about organic farming methods. He also helps run a small fleet of BioBuses that run on used cooking oil collected from hotels and restaurants, and to supply power for the campus from alternative energy sources — solar panels, a bamboo-sawdust hot water and cooking system, and an ambitious hydro-powered vortex generator.
There’s no better way to get a crash course into John Hardy’s vision of how we all might live better than to take a “trash walk” with him through Sayan in Bali’s jungle-covered highlands. As I spear garbage that has washed up from the river, I hear his plans for tree houses and T-shirts made from organic fabrics, his plans to make our world greener. Sarong-wearing John is not shy when it comes to pointing out how we could all be living greener lives. He believes engineers, designers and architects are foolish to fear using bamboo. “Bamboo is truly sustainable: cut it and more comes up,” he declares. “It’s the fastest-growing renewable building material in the world and it has greater tensile strength than steel. You can grow enough to build a building from nothing in five years. It’s beautiful: there’s no ugly bamboo, just as there’s no beautiful concrete.”
Brutalists might disagree, yet there’s no denying this grand grass’s sustainable credentials. “And there’s enough for everybody,” he adds. “We can promise every child on the planet a beach hut and a city house made from bamboo.” He pauses for a moment before adding, “Do you know the Queen?” It seems he would love the chance to persuade HRH to send her great-grandchildren, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, to the Green School, to learn about environmental principles. “When Michelle Obama planted gardens at the White House,” he says, “thousands of gardens sprang up all over the world. Great things happen if people lead by example.”
Your address: The St. Regis Bali Resort
(All images courtesy of Ibuku)