On Majlisism: spatial studies and prototypes by Pierre Paulin
Istanbul, Turkey

A typology of its own, the majlis as we know it translates directly from Arabic to sitting room, with the concept of humble gathering at its core. Its scale varies from the most basic domestic function – hosting family and entertaining guests – to the grand scale of legislatures and administrative bodies deliberating over political and social affairs. Because of this, the word was later also adopted to mean “council” made up of elders and leaders in many Islamic countries and contexts. It is a space of the oral and aural; and learning and transmission of knowledge from elders to children happens through listening to stories, poetry and dialogue; and observing mannerisms and etiquette.

Architecturally, a majlis is composed of areas for seating – in a designed setting, these are simply cushioned backrests and armrests; an area to sit on the floor; and a shared space in the middle. This configuration can however be found in many different contexts – a group of chairs outside a convenience store where people share tea and neighbourhood news, a front porch or veranda – the gate to which is always open, or a circle for political debate in a radical bookstore, in which anyone can join. 

Majlis is also a verb, not unlike the way the term “salon” is used; what differentiates it from its western counterpart is perhaps that it is an integral part of life and the design of spaces in the contexts it is practised in. Majlis is one of those words that for me is potent architecturally – precisely because it is a half-noun, half-verb – it suggests an action and ritual and needs very little spatial prompts – but those spatial prompts make for very interesting design briefs.

The wisdoms of sitting close to the ground is familiar to so many cultures – South Asia, Africa, Japan, the Arab World and beyond, and has been a point of departure for Pierre Paulin’s work from as early as the 1950s. 

The prototype for Le Tapis-Siège by Pierre Paulin is simply formed by seatbacks on separate propped-up corners, connected by a common surface: a shared space in the centre for tea or a meal. Not unlike age-old mechanisms for bedouin majlis. Immediate resonances with so many similar settings from homes – a dastarkhan with my cousins in childhood; iftaar at a protest in Bo-Kaap, the Cape Malay quarter in Cape Town; a fish shop in Al-balad with friends a hundred times. 

Sumayya Vally