In Marrakech buildings don’t have a façade. They come without one. The buildings in the old city, the medina, I mean. Sure, the bending paths through the city that are lined with walls. But these walls can’t really be called facades. One often can’t tell where one building ends and another one starts. There are walls and even more walls that are all finished in pretty much the same way. And all these walls are in same state of disarray. The only thing that punctuates and thereby defines the walls are doors. Doors that lead to an architecture you couldn’t have imagined from the street. This is the miracle of Marrakesh.
I have never been to a city that is harder to navigate that Marrakech. Our guide, the Lonely Planet, advises visitors to use a compass. There are all these streets, they all go in a different direction and none continues another. It’s a labyrinth. Since the locals mostly like to get paid to show you the way, navigating this city is either costly or very annoying. Or charming, when you are willing to take your time — which is advisable.
The city is so hard to navigate because it has not only hardly any recognizable facades, but also no landmarks in the sense that we know them in the West. The walls that line the streets meander and vary in height, but don’t achieve to form something coherent like a façade. The narrow streets make it impossible to look over the walls and recognize a larger building mass in the distance. The position of a big building can only be derived from the fact that the streets suddenly change their course to circle around it. These walls are like the back of the buildings. The people don’t seem to care about. Maybe the desert climate forced them to do so.
Halfway the four-and-a-half day visit to Marrakech my girlfriend and I were shown how to navigate this city by two French couples. In Marrakech details are landmarks: a peculiar electricity tower, the name of a café, a particular sign, a certain shop. Moving through this city is precision work, precision that our tourist map of the city lacked completely. Really nobody seems to care about how these paths run. I wonder if the people in Marrakech expect them to change their course once in a while.
What marks the location of a house, mosque, restaurant, palace, school and so on is… a door. A highly decorated wooden or steel door. No big portico or grand staircases, really just a door. Even the grandest palaces start with a simple door. And they aren’t necessarily located at the major streets. The most significant palaces in Marrakech are found at narrow and dark back alleys. To find these buildings you get instructions like: take the first left, then right, then left, again left, right, another right and then finally left.
The most elaborate entrances we found was a door with some Arabic tilework around it (see first photograph). It is a door+, still no façade. It made me think of this: has the idea of the façade throughout history evolved from the door? Does a façade start with a door? Does the essence of a façade lie with the door? I think so.
The fascinating thing about Marrakech is that simple doors can open up to superb architectures focused at spacious and decorated courtyards. The representation one lacks at the outside, is put on the inside. The level of contrast between the outside and the inside is hardly seen in the architectural practice in the west. Searching for ‘truth’ in the representation of the façade a rich interior is often ideologically reflected in a rich exterior. The Seattle Public Library for instance is as spectacular on the outside as on the inside.
In Marrakech we stayed in two its former palaces (riads) that were turned into luxury guesthouses. Although each palace has its own style, they are all feature the same typology. A riad is organized around a greatly finished, perfectly square courtyard. The rooms usually occupy one side of the courtyard at the first floor or, if the riad is a little higher, on the second floor too. Shared spaces (like a lounge, living room, and dining room) and the service areas are located on the ground floor. On the roof there is a terrace overlooking the city.
Staying in these riads was amazing. In contrast to the chaos of the city, the courtyard palaces provided a stunningly calm. Silence, fresh air, a bath… this introverted architecture makes the city work.
After being in Marrakech for a couple of days I wondered whether or not the Romans lived like this. The old city of Marrakech was largely build in the sixteenth century, not around the year zero and the streets are definitely not organized in a grid, but if you look past the Arab decoration, the courtyard typology definitely has something of the Roman Domus. But maybe I see too much in it.
What also struck me was that old city of Marrakech with its impoverished walls, labyrinthine layout and improvised streets on first sight looks like a slum. I therefore wonder what we could learn from this city to improve the ever growing slums in cities all over the world. Does the courtyard typology provide the solution? A Marrakech solution?