The Majlis, San Giorgio Maggiore

Caravane Earth Foundation will bring a unique bamboo Majlis to the gardens of the Abbazia di San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice for the 2021 Architecture Biennale from 22 May – 21 November 2021 (Preview: 21 May 2021). The project is one of the official Collateral Events that reflect the 2021 Architecture Biennale’s theme of How will we live 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, the Majlis is designed by the internationally acclaimed bamboo architects Simón Vélez and Stefana Simic. It is wrapped in textiles handwoven in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco by a women’s collective from Ain Leuh, and the Boujad Tribe of Morocco.

The Majlis structure will be installed in a wildflower garden at the Abbazia of San Giorgio Maggiore, designed by celebrated landscape architect Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, with plants from East and West. Once the Biennale is over, the garden will stay at the Abbazia as a gift to Venice.

An exhibition inside the Abbey of San Giorgio will contextualise 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 will be exhibited from Wereldmuseum (the Netherlands), the Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani (FBQ) Museum, and the monastery of San Lazzaro degli Armeni in the Venetian lagoon. 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.

The Majlis embodies the values and mission of Caravane Earth Foundation: to champion and preserve craftsmanship and vernacular architecture, the careful sourcing of materials, ethical production, and community. 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 the Biennale 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.

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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 commissioned by Caravane Earth Foundation to be a community meeting place and centre for vernacular architecture and construction skills in Qatar.  Caravane Earth is an international foundation based in the Netherlands and is the sponsor of The Majlis exhibition.

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 held in collaboration with Benedicti Claustra Onlus, the Benedictine community of San Giorgio Maggiore.

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 building. Vélez’s building for Expo Hanover 2000 became the World Expo’s most popular pavilion with 6.4 million visitors, and he has been awarded The Principal Prince Claus Award (2009) and the Award of Honour in Analysis and Planning by the American Society of Landscape Architects for ‘Crosswaters Ecolodge’ (2006).  Vélez and Simic together run the design-build firm Gigagrass, based in Colombia.

The Majlis is curated by Dr Thierry Morel whose many award-winning exhibitions include Houghton Revisited exhibition at Houghton Hall, as well as Francis Bacon and the Art of the Past at the State Hermitage Museum on the occasion of the Museum’s 250th Anniversary and subsequently at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich. His book on pre-Revolution architecture and art collecting in St Petersburg was recently published by Rizzoli (New York). Morel 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).

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