I have dreamt of going to Morocco ever since I was a teenager in Germany, when it was still one of the destinations on the Interail train-pass. Marrakech was one of those names for me that carry mystery and calling. What better time to go than during this trip on Sabbatical.
Even today, where travel is easy and things we value, like safe drinking water, are readily available everywhere I’ve been, the sensual impact of a Moroccan town is big. Colours, smells, sounds and the mazes of old buildings and markets are at times overwhelming, but mostly awe-inspiring to me: I am definitely in a different culture!
The Arabic world is rich with ornament: from jewelry to buildings, in metal, plaster, thread, wood and leather. Patterns and symbols carrying meaning and story are passed on from generation to generation. Craftsmen and women spend their lives working on fine details, often using methods unchanged over generations.
And yet: the modern global flavour is strongly influencing local tastes: everywhere, but perhaps more in urban areas, we saw a blend of worlds: traditional gowns, tight jeans, Moroccan leather slippers and western style knee-high boots. Cellphones are everywhere.
The old world of the Medinas is full of the richness of tile work and plasters. Visiting the Ryad Moqri in Fez, which is now housing a school for the traditional crafts, I learned a little about the technique of the fine plasterwork. The pattern is transferred from a cast using a powder-coating. Then the plaster is cut to the depth desired by the artisan. The result is a relief with strong shadows.
Old buildings require repair and I saw plenty of restoration underway. Newly plastered facades grace beautifully restored interiors. Modern materials replace older tools here too: a plastic burnishing tool.
The sense for decor doesn’t stop in old town: high end condominiums also show attention to detail and seem to carry the traditions forward adding modern style.
Tadelakt plasters are a lime finish that we have just recently been learning about in Canada; Morocco is where this technique originates. We saw beautiful examples both indoors and out. They set the mood of a place and give elegance and beauty featuring cut out patterns and bright colours.
The waterproof surface isn’t used just for wet environments: here restaurant walls, hotel foyers and courtyard walls are finished with shiny blue, red and yellow. You can even take some home in the form of small containers bright turquoise, blue, pink or purple.
As a designer and builder of earthen homes I appreciate the work of finishes as much as the construction of the building.
On a trip south into the desert we saw towns and villages of earthen architecture; some dating back hundreds of years and kept in use or restored, others crumbling and in disrepair. There are themes in the architectural form: corner towers, stepped rooflines, courtyards and large colourful gates.
Houses are built tight together three or four stories high. Narrow streets and walkways are bridged here and there by arches of stone. The old buildings are built of mud bricks or rammed earth on stone foundations, tapered on the corners. They are covered with earthen plaster that is rich with straw fibre. Cut patterns create sharp shadow lines . The colour is the colour of the earth around, ranging from red to orange and yellow tones.
The desert climate allows for clay roofs as well. Layers of bamboo and clay over wooden beams form terraces that blend completely into the landscape.
It’s not all good though; earthen buildings need to be maintained annually and slowly fall apart if not cared for. They do age gracefully and damage can be fixed- even by re-using the original materials. It takes time, interest and energy to make that happen and out in this desert new buildings are often built with cement blocks like everywhere else. In comparison they appear sharper, their colours less attractive and clearly artificial. And if you’ve ever felt the difference inside when it’s 40 degrees outside you’ll stay with the mud.
I was often reminded of villages in Northern Sudan that I saw a few years ago: the private sphere of the courtyard behind walls of earth, bright coloured gates and large clay water urns on the roadside. A gesture of hospitality – even at the gas station.