The Church of San Giorgio Maggiore is one of the architectural gems of Venice. Designed by Renaissance master Andrea Palladio, it sits beautifully on the edge of an island opposite St. Mark’s Square.
For the next six months, the gardens behind the church will host a building that could not be more contrasted: a temporary structure in bamboo and wrapped in hand-woven Moroccan textile.
The structure – known as the Majlis, an Arabic word meaning common gathering place – is one of the side events (or sidebar) of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. Presented by the Caravan land Foundation, a non-profit organization created by the former Qatari Ambassador to Moscow, Fahad Bin Mohammed Al-Attiyah, it will serve as a discussion forum in Venice and then reappear in Qatar, where it will be relocated next year in time for the 2022 World Cup. Cup.
The designer of the Majlis is Simón Vélez, a Colombian architect who has worked with bamboo all his life. Born in 1949, he gained international attention at the Hanover World’s Fair in 2000 when he erected a vast Colombian bamboo pavilion. The pavilion, which attracted over six million visitors, was considered an example of sustainable, zero-emission architecture.
The Majlis was born out of a much larger project. Mr. Vélez was commissioned in 2018 to design a pop-up village with eight bamboo buildings where artists and artisans from around the world would organize workshops in the Al-Adaid desert in southern Qatar, according to the Caravan Earth Foundation.
“The idea was to build a nomadic village in the desert that would disappear completely after winter,” he said. Its aim was to pass on traditional arts and crafts to younger generations – “teaching people to cook, to weave, to paint, to draw.” It was really a very ambitious cultural project.
When the Covid pandemic scuttled the pop-up village project, Mr. Vélez and his fellow architect (and wife), Stefana Simiç, decided to build a prototype. This prototype is the Majlis which is exhibited in Venice.
The architect said that the original commission of the nomadic village was “very interesting” because “it was the first time in my life that I was doing textile architecture. We used to work with bricks, with clay tiles, with cement mortar, with very heavy materials. But I had never built with fabrics, with tents.
The walls and roof of the Majlis will be covered with wool woven in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco by Ahmed Chmiti and the community of weavers in the city of Boujaad. Inside the Majlis, there will be a shepherd’s rug woven by the Ain Leuh women’s cooperative in Morocco.
The curator of the Majlis exhibition, Thierry Morel, said that when he first proposed the idea to the curators of the Architecture Biennale, he did not have much hope. But M. Vélez had a “good record”, and M. Morel had found an ideal location for the temporary building: the monastery of San Giorgio, one of the very few gardens in Venice.
He said the bamboo structure helped promote the foundation’s mission: to revive local crafts and traditional architecture and agriculture.
“Very often we think that architecture is completely independent of the environment,” said Mr. Morel. “I think it’s time we thought more about how architecture and nature should work together.”
Visitors will first be introduced to an exhibit illustrating traditional uses of the Majlis in Qatari culture. Carpets and rugs, bronze objects, ceramics and musical instruments will be on display alongside historical objects borrowed from Venice’s own collections and originating in Egypt and Turkey.
A separate room and a screening room will explain how the bamboo structure and its textile components were made. Finally, visitors will stroll through a garden designed by landscape architect Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, showing how European gardens were influenced by the East and how plants were imported via Venice to the Western world.
Mr. Vélez explained that he had fallen into bamboo architecture by chance. Although he grew up in the bamboo-rich region of Manizales, in western Colombia, he never thought of working with the material, as there was “a stigma: this bamboo was for the poor” .
His attitude quickly changed. “As a young hippie, I became interested in natural materials,” he recalls.
Then a very rich client – a German-Colombian named Carlos Lehder, who will spend 33 years in prison in the United States for drug trafficking as co-founder of the Medellin cartel – hired him to make a bamboo barn. for his horses.
What Mr. Vélez discovered was that if he poured liquid cement into hollow bamboo, and inserted screws, bolts and steel plates where the joints would normally go, he would end up with “a very strong connection ”.
He realized that bamboo was a kind of “vegetable steel” – as strong as steel itself, and highly renewable due to its abundance in nature: bamboo can grow up to one meter. per day.
Today Mr Vélez said: “I mainly design country houses for the rich, because the poor hate the material I use, which is bamboo. Rich people don’t have a problem with that. “
Not that he himself is married to the material and unable to build with anything else. “I love when a client asks me to build a house without a single piece of bamboo,” he said. “This is just one of the hundreds of materials you have as an architect.”
For now, bamboo puts Vélez in the spotlight, and not just any projector: on one of the most glorious sites in Venice, and near the architect he most admires in the world – Andrea Palladio.