Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Fez Tanneries - Aziza Chaouni responds

Recently we ran a story about the work of Aziza Chaouni, the Aga Khan Research and Teaching Fellow at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. One aspect of her work is a plan to remediate the Fez Tanneries. (Read the story here: Tanneries). The story evoked many interesting responses in comments and emails and now here is Aziza's response.

I will attempt to give a few answers. First, it seems that I should clarify the proposed scheme, which has been misunderstood since not yet fully published, and which is the result of more than 4 years of research in my home town, Fez.

First, the scheme was based on a thorough analysis and interviews of locals who live in a radius of 500 m from the tanneries as well as along the river. We discussed with them their views of the tanneries as well as possible programs to replace it.

Second, we extensively discussed with the tanners themselves possible alternative futures and transformation of the space. It appears that most of them suffer from diseases pertaining to years of using chemical dyes, and would like to switch jobs or work in a better environment. All of them expressed anger at the tourists taking pictures of them all day long, they told us they felt like being in "animals in a zoo" I quote. We also were told that a dozen people died already after being exposed to so much pollution.

Third, we did soil tests of the tanneries and found an extremely high levels of Chromium 3, so simply switching to natural dyes is not an alternatives at all, the place need to depolluted first.

Thus, the problem we had to solve was the following: how do you remediate such a place with a low budget? One solution is phytoremediation, which takes time but is very efficient. Finally, I would like to stress that once the place is remediated, parts of the tanneries could return to a natural dye system. The new hybrid typology will offer what the Medina lacks most: a green public space + a new, clean and vibrant leather centre.

I think stating that public gardens will become dumps because we are a developing country (implied by some readers) is a bit insulting, why don't we try instead through education, municipal lobbying and NGO involvement try to change the current status quo? Don't we Moroccans deserve better public spaces, instead of archaic spaces commodified for tourist consumption?

Finally, let me return to the role of history and economic development in this scheme. A team of economists from Harvard and Fez worked with us to propose a new form of leather economic model for the tanneries, that is not based on dying but on craft. The tanneries building surrounding the public garden will be turned into a new typology of leather craft interface: it will house studios for craftsmen as well as artist/designer temporary residences, which will allow for the production of crafts products with a higher added value.

The interaction between old and new in design and craft, will create a synergy where leather that is organically dyed will be used to reinvent the Fassi artisanat, which we all know is encountering today a large crisis. This craft model has been developed and has proven very successful in Jordan ( The dying phase of leather will be moved to Ain Nokbi, where space and adequate infrastructure can easily treat the dangerous waste, thus jobs are not lost.

In other words, the artisans will be integrated to this project but in a manner that is more in touch with today's needs and environmental standards, and which privileges the actual well beings of the local inhabitants.

At last, this tannery proposal is part of larger master plan to clean the Fez river and better the water quality of the Sebou river basin. In that respect it should not be seen in isolation.

I would like to conclude that the driving force behind this project is a belief that the soul of Fez is its people and their liveliness, which has throughout the centuries been constantly evolving and adapting to their contexts. Thus, I believe in a process of preservation which is adaptive on one hand and on the other hand benefits the population, not freezing them into time, but projecting them into the future while still keeping the soul of the city intact. I admit it is a very difficult task, which is still a work in progress and will keep me thinking for decades to come...

I am so pleased to see your reactions to my research work, thanks for taking the time to voice your opinions. If anyone wants to reach me please email me at :

Aziza Chaouni's websites: Extramuro & Kuochaouni

The View from Fez would like to thank Aziza for contributing her response.


1 comment:

Helen Ranger said...

I am hugely relieved that the tanners themselves were consulted.