Bamboo majlis at Venice Architectural Biennale pays homage to the traditional Arabian meeting place

The Majlis, which will be shown in Qatar in 2022, is the combined effort of craftspeople from Morocco, Colombia and Italy

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A majlis made from a bamboo frame and walls of handwoven textiles is being showcased at the ongoing Venice Architecture Biennale.

Designed by architects Simon Velez and Stefana Simic, The Majlis is a combined effort by craftspeople from Morocco, Colombia and Italy.

The structure recreates the traditional Arabian meeting space in a bid to pay homage to the form and function of the majlis, which was inscribed on Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2015.

VENICE, ITALY - MAY 20:  Stefana Simic poses for a portrait at the Majlis pavilion during the 17th Venice International Architecture Biennale in San Giorgio Maggiore Island on May 20, 2021 in Venice, Italy. The San Rocco Mamluk carpet, possibly the largest of its kind in the world and more than ten metres long, has been installed in the Majlis, presented by Caravane Earth Foundation at the Architecture Biennale in Venice.  (Photo by Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images for Bolton&Quinn)

Today, a majlis refers to an area within a house where guests are received. With carpeted floors and plush seats, it is a paradigm of hospitality but also where the personal and public spheres converge.

The majlis’s significance dates back to pre-Islamic Arabia, when it was seen as a place where people would come together to exchange ideas.

It is this communal aspect of the majlis that the structure in Venice relies on to address the biennale's theme of How will we live together?.

"What we are trying to make is a place for learning," Velez told the magazine designboom. "For many people, from many places of the world, and for many different ages."

The Majlis, which is installed in the gardens of the Abbazia di San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, was launched by Caravane Earth, an international foundation that promotes traditional crafts as a way of answering modern social and environmental problems.

Its bamboo frame was designed and built in Bogota, Colombia, by Velez and Simic. The woollen panels walling the structure was made by Moroccan craftsman Ahmed Chmitti along with women weavers from Boujad, a small city in Morocco's Khouribga Province.

The carpet inside was handcrafted by the Ain Leuh Women’s Weaving Cooperative, a group founded in the Atlas Mountains in the 1970s with the intention of empowering Berber weavers and promoting their craft.

Once each group had finalised their individual pieces for The Majlis, the parts were shipped to Venice. Because of travel restrictions brought on by the pandemic, the original craftspeople behind the project could not fly to the Italian city themselves to assemble the structure, so instead a team in Venice stepped in to bring The Majlis to its final form.

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You can't eliminate the craftsmen from any part of the bamboo architecture production

Once the biennale concludes, The Majlis will travel the world, and is set to appear in Qatar during the 2022 Fifa World Cup.

The project highlights this varied building process through an exhibition at the site, revealing – according to the project's website – "the material and immaterial labour that has brought it into being".

The exhibition, which "strives to rehabilitate and reinvent the idea of cultural diplomacy through practices of care and cultural sensitivity", also displays artworks and rare artefacts from the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures in the Netherlands and Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani Museum in Qatar. The grouping is meant to underscore The Majlis as a meeting point of transnational and transhistorical exchange.

The Majlis also showcases the environmentally friendly characteristics of its building materials. Bamboo and wool are among the most renewable materials on the planet, the former known for its durability and lightness, leading Velez to coin the term "vegetable steel".

VENICE, ITALY - MAY 20:  Architect Simon Velez poses for a portrait at the Majlis pavilion during the 17th Venice International Architecture Biennale in San Giorgio Maggiore Island on May 20, 2021 in Venice, Italy. The San Rocco Mamluk carpet, possibly the largest of its kind in the world and more than ten metres long, has been installed in the Majlis, presented by Caravane Earth Foundation at the Architecture Biennale in Venice.  (Photo by Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images for Bolton&Quinn)

Both Simic and Velez are famous for their bamboo-based architectural work, however it still takes an experienced craftsperson to deal with and shape the material.

"Bamboo has an obvious advantage in terms of sustainability, but for me, the most motivational aspect of bamboo is the relation with the craftsmen," Simic told London design publication Dezeen.

"There's no way to really standardise bamboo, you can reach a certain point but you can't eliminate the craftsmen from any part of the bamboo architecture production.”

Another noteworthy aspect of the project is where it is situated. Located on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, the garden fills the courtyard of the island's monastery with a wildflower lushness, featuring plants from Mediterranean and Central European regions that are expected to thrive in the local climate for years. These were selected and cultivated under the direction of Royal Palace specialists from the UK.

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