Morocco undoubtedly has the richest and most remarkable urban architectural heritage in North West Africa.To be convinced of this,one need only walk through the narrow winding streets of the medina of Marrakech, with their high unbroken walls, enter the superb Merenid medersa.
The ornamental splendour of the inner courtyards and their façades of ceramics, plaster and wood still bear witness to the splendour of the town-houses of imperial Morocco.
The Moroccan house is the most striking expression of a culture and a society which makes the private residence and its inner courtyard one of the most valued and important features of the medina or town.
Rooms lead off an inner courtyard or garden, the central area onto which they open and which determines their shape. The walls of the courtyard are the principal façade of the house, as there is no formal frontage on the street. The streets form blank walls interrupted only by doors.
In general the courtyard is surrounded on all four sides by the living rooms (bayt), each of which occupies one wall of the courtyard.
The courtyard is regular in shape, square or rectangular. In a typical Moroccan house, there are no doors between rooms. To go from one room to another, one must cross the courtyard. This enhance the significance of the courtyard whose functions and existence are ever-present in the life of the house. The service rooms-kitchen, hammam and laundry are generally on the side of the courtyard nearest the street. The main room, the biggest and generally the most ornate- it often possesses a bahou opposite the door- is found furthest from the entrance and public area.
Decorative surfaces are essential to the moroccan house.
Interior walls are covered with rich,bright materials : mosaics,sculpted plaster and painted wood. The courtyard is paved with white or grey flagstones whose joints are embellished with bands of polychrome mosaic tiles. Floors are covered with mosaic tiles. The walls of the courtyard and room alike are invariably decorated with the same repetitive vertical patterns. The lower part of the walls is covered with mosaic tiles( zellige), the upper part with a cornice of sculpted plaster( tagguebbast) and the crowning glory- the cornice and ceiling-is made of painted wood. The middle part of the wall, between the zelliges and the plaster, is left plain,smoothed over and painted white. Sculpted plaster is very often used around doors and windows,on the inside edges of arches, and for the capitals. Above each door, one or three litle vaulted lattice-work windows ( chamachât) in carved plaster ensure ventilation. Also worthy of notes is the wrought ironwork used to protect the courtyard windows and for the balustrades of the first flor colonnade.
The motifs used in the zelliges and sculpted plaster are always geometrical and abstract.
The techniques of the craftsmen are ancient, passed down and perfected from generation to generation. In zelliges the artist uses pieces of broken ceramic to fit standardised geometrical designs with evocative names such as the soldier,the olive-pit, the fig-leaf, the snail etc…
Fountain. Finally , no description of the traditional Moroccan house is complete without mentioning the importance of fountains and gardens. In the grand houses there is either a fountain built against one of the courtyard walls,richly decorated with zelliges and sculpted plaster, or a marble fountain basin in the center of the courtyard, of which the tiled bottom in polychrome geometrical motifs creates a jewelled effect.
This entire domestic world, enclosed and protected until the turn of the century, was shattered by the arrival of the french in the early 1900s. the rapid construction of new European towns , the importing of new cultural models, new architectural styles and new ways of life presented as superior to those of traditionnal Moroccan culture, eventually led to the decline of, and some degree of disaffection with, the arab town and its buildings. And this despite the sensitive and respectful policies of marshal Louis Hubert Lyautey, resident General from 1912 to 1925, which favoured the separate development of new towns and the existing arab towns in the hope of protecting the latter from the horrors of medernity. The old towns became the poor quarters of the contemporary Moroccan town.
Moroccan families who have chosen to live in flats or villas in the new suburbs , has not meant the wholesale abandonment of moroccan architecture. On the contrary : royal directives and the recent publication of André Paccard’s monumental work on Moroccan crafts have paved the way for a vigorous renaissance of Moroccan decorative techniques and traditions,making Moroccan craftsmen the most competent and sought-after specialists of islamic art in the world.
Return to traditional houses
This return to traditional embellishment is paralleled by a predominantly upper middle-class clientele, often of european origin, who are anxious to spend parts of the year in fine residences in the Moroccan style.
Well –known European artists and personalities built second homes or restored old houses in Tangier and Marrakech, the two Moroccan towns most favoured by this international society.In investing large sums of money in the restauration or construction of these houses, and in calling upon the talents of architects and decorators, the owners of these grand residences were inspired by the domestic moroccan tradition, and thus enhanced its standing. If the house was old, the rooms and their decor were carefylly restored. If the house was new, the designers respected the austere, enclosed aspect of the house, and planned the layout of the different rooms around a central courtyard or a covered living-room.
The swimming pool was a further addition and is now standard. In the grander houses it is treated as a simple pool, integrating perfectly with the traditional presence of water in moroccan arab residence and gardens. Interior decoration owes everything to the expertise of craftsmen in zelliges, sculpted plaster and wrought ironwork, to carpenters and painters on wood. Tadelakt, the traditional coating of lime mixed with pigments and smoothed on with tablets of soft soap, is mostly used on the walls of bedrooms and bathrooms.
Interior designers delighted in mixing oriental furniture with that of the european classical tradition to satisfy the eclectic tastes of their clientele.International interior design magazines have long celebrated these creations which draw for inspiration on the ever-vibrant moroccan traditions but are also imbued with european traditions of decoration. It is to be feared that the traditional houses of the medinas will almost completely disappear. Soon little will survive but important monuments,mosques and medersas. But there will also remain a few of these fine houses in which men and women of refined taste try to revive the art of oriental living in an arcitectural setting that combines tradition with modern comfort.