Thursday, October 27, 2011

What next for the traditional Moroccan house?

Future architects from Britain and Morocco converged on Fez yesterday for a cultural exchange with a difference. The 16 students from Manchester University were keen to hear from their counterparts at the l’Ecole Nationale d’Architecture Fes about traditional courtyard housing.
Architecture students from Manchester and Fez, with senior lecturer Dr Magda Sibley, third from left.

During the three hour seminar, held at the Arabic Language Institute Fes riad, the students and their lecturers had an animated discussion about the nature of courtyard housing in the Fes Medina.

“Courtyard houses are ideal for the climate and they are the backbone of the architectural heritage here in Fez,” said Shems Benyahia, director of the l’Ecole Nationale d’Architecture, Fes. (Below, standing.)

Dr Magda Sibley, Senior Lecturer in Architecture at Manchester University, said that the courtyard housing model was a versatile one. It enables families to mix together and individuals to overcome the sense of isolation prevalent in contemporary Western society.

“Although this can create problems with privacy”, she said.

The students formed into mixed groups to explore aspects of how this traditional Islamic style of house, originally based on an ancient Roman design, functions.

“In the past, courtyard houses protected women, who were considered a jewel,” said Ghislane Dhaidah, a third year architecture student from the ENA (below, right). “Now many families live that way because the cost of doing so is much cheaper.”

Several of the Moroccan students agreed that, while they enjoyed helping to rehabilitate houses with local artisans, they didn’t feel the communal lifestyle of the Fez Medina would suit them and preferred to live in the Ville Nouvelle.

Ms Benyahia said that for Fez locals, attachment to the Medina had changed with different generations. “My parents lived in the Medina and I often return to shop. Nowadays, the younger generation who live in the Ville Nouvelle don’t necessarily have that direct connection with it.”

Some of the British students felt that the lack of vehicle access in the Medina was a problem, “due to the increasing speed of the modern lifestyle”. This was disputed by Moroccan students, who pointed out that anywhere in the Fez Medina can easily be reached from the edges within about 15 minutes, by walking. In fact, one said, the lack of cars was one of the most desirable aspects of the Medina.

As an exercise, the Manchester students will design a project to rehabilitate a group of at risk houses in the Fez Medina.

“It’s about the problem of reconciling a more mobile population with an existing site,” said Dr Sibley. “How do you treat the gaps where houses have collapsed?”

Manchester student Rob Chilton asked the question on many peoples’ minds, “But what will the Medina be like in 50 years time?”

While it is impossible to more than guess the answer to this, the Manchester students plan to suggest possible solutions for adapting the courtyard house for the future. We’ll update you on the best of the proposals.

Story and photos by Suzanna Clarke.


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