The Majlis at the Venice Biennale
The Majlis by Caravane Earth Foundation brings together people and materials from around the world to preserve craftsmanship and vernacular architecture the 17th International Architecture Exhibition curated by Hashim Sarkis.
A beautiful garden designed by landscape architect Todd Longstaffe Gowan at the Abbazia of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice becomes the venue for this Majlis designed by internationally acclaimed bamboo architects Simón Vélez and Stefana Simic and wrapped in textiles handwoven in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco by a women’s collective from Ain Leuh, and the Boujad Tribe of Morocco. A coming together of artisans and crafts to create a Majlis that celebrates the experience of coming together.
Majlis is a word that originated in Pre-Islamic Arabia, meaning “council” or “gathering place.” Traditionally, a majlis is a place where people come together to discuss local events and issues, exchange news, socialise, and deepen their connection with each other. Inspired by nomadic architecture, this Majlis is designed by Simón Vélez and Stefana Simic and installed in a wildflower garden at the Abbazia of San Giorgio Maggiore, designed by landscape architect Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, with plants from East and West. Once the Biennale Architettura is over, the garden will stay at the Abbazia as a gift to Venice, according to the organisers.
An exhibition inside the Abbey of San Giorgio contextualises the Majlis, featuring the people and materials involved in its construction. A wide range of objects and craftsmanship is presented, some associated with nomadic peoples and the majlis, others highlighting the exchange between East and West, with Venice as a major hub. Loans from Dutch National Museum of World Cultures, the Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani (FBQ) MuseumQatar, and the monastery of San Lazzaro degli Armeni in the Venetian lagoon are exhibited here.
Colombian architect Simón Vélez is the world’s foremost innovator working with bamboo, the most sustainable of natural building materials which he calls ‘vegetable steel’. Working with Stefana Simic, they strive to widen the use of bamboo in architecture through their design-build firm Gigagrass. “Bamboo is not for the rich or for the poor — bamboo is a material for humans,’ says Vélez, who, with Simic, made the first model of the Majlis with bamboo from his garden. “We cut the bamboo, the strips all to scale, and then boiled each piece in a pot of water,” explains SImić. “We forced the bamboo to curve, approximating the way it’s done for the large-scale structure. It was the first time our team saw a 3D representation of our design. Initially, there were too many reinforcements, we didn’t trust the strength of bamboo. but once we prototyped in real life, at real scale, we realized that bamboo is strong enough on its own to hold an 80 square meter building.”
“We put together layers of thin bamboo one-by-one,’ say the architects. “The larger ring of the majlis took 14 layers, which comes out to three weeks of work for four experienced bamboo craftsmen. the joinery system was yet another challenge, as our buildings have to be easily assembled and disassembled. we had to fit the curves and geometry with strings first. however, once that work is done, assembly and disassembly can be easily done, giving a structure like a majlis the ability to travel the world.”
“Due to the pandemic, craftsmen that originally produced the Majlis could not travel, so the construction has been assembled with the involvement of local Venetian craftspeople,” say the architects, “We produce designs that can mitigate socio-economic, cultural, and environmental challenges of today. We use craft techniques that were refined over generations to make sophisticated, durable, portable contemporary buildings using textiles and bamboo, two of the most renewable resources on Earth.”
The Majlis embodies the values and mission of Caravane Earth Foundation, whose honorary committee includes Sheikha Al Mayassa Bint Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, Chairperson, Qatar Museums. The Caravane Earth Foundation champions and preserves craftsmanship and vernacular architecture, the careful sourcing of materials, ethical production, and community. The Majlis was commissioned by Caravane Earth Foundation to be a community meeting place and centre for vernacular architecture. Caravane Earth is an international foundation based in the Netherlands and is the organizer of The Majlis exhibition.
“The Majlis also provides a spectacular platform for events reflecting on our collective futures on planet Earth: experts from many fields and nations will discuss this year Architecture Biennale’s theme How we will live together? in a world of rapid change and uncertainty. The Majlis events programme includes the participation of the Simón Vélez, Stefana Simic, the Smithsonian Institution, INTBAU, the University of Cambridge, UNESCO, the Aga Khan University, RestART Beirut, the State Hermitage Museum, and the Syrian architect Marwa al-Sabouni. The Majlis events are produced in partnership with the Science and Human Dimension project,” reveal the organisers.
Following Venice, Caravane Earth Foundation and the Majlis will begin a multi-year journey, travelling to countries in East and West to find answers to the vital question How will we live together?
The Majlis was inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in 2015 as ‘a cultural and social space’. UNESCO’s list aims to ensure better protection of important intangible cultural heritages worldwide and the awareness of their significance.
The Majlis is curated by Dr. Thierry Morel whose many award-winning exhibitions include Houghton Revisited exhibition at Houghton Hall and he is currently Director and Curator-at-Large to the Hermitage Museum Foundation (USA), as well as Trustee of the Sir John Soane’s Museum (London).