In the southern quarter of the old city of Marrakech, a massive wall cuts through the fabric of the city. Beyond this wall first lie the ruins of an old palace, beyond another wall lies the current palace of the royal family of Morocco and beyond that that — stretching miles and miles south — lie the royal gardens.
The ruined old palace is called the El Badi Palace, the incomparable palace. Ironically the old palace is bigger than the palace of the current king of Morocco, Mohammed VI. The El Badi Palace was built in 1578 by Saadian king Ahmad Al-Mansur. In that year the army of Al-Mansur had defeated Portugal and forced them to pay an enormous sum. With that money in Marrakech Al-Mansur built a palace that would represent his newly gained power.
Even in its ruined state, the El Badi Palace is something incredible. As we have seen in the first post on Marrakech on Eikongraphia Moroccan architecture is all about the courtyard. Not the façade, but the courtyard represents how rich you are. With his palace king Ahmad Al-Mansur took this concept really to a new level. Whereas the biggest courtyards in the old city of Marrakech are about 30 meters wide, the El Badi courtyard measures 135 by 110 meters. The difference is so big that the El Badi Palace actually is incomparable.
The courtyard of the palace is so big that the building around it, in comparison, is quite narrow. The courtyard has stretched out the program so far that the building has turned into a band. It is said that this band once contained 360 rooms allocated among different floors, including a vast underground network of tunnels and cells.
The most amazing part of the El Badi Palace is the architecture of the courtyard itself. Traditional Moroccan courtyards feature a small basin to collect rainwater. The El Badi Palace dwarfs that with a massive pool of 90 by 20 meters, catched on each end between two high pavilions. Each pavilion itself is flanked by two smaller pools.
On each side of the big pool there are two gardens with trees that are sunk into the ground. This sinking of gardens, I have never seen that before. Although the motivation to do this might be to keep the view across the courtyard open, the effect of this sinking is that it renders these fields of trees into highly abstract textures. The four fields of trees become four surfaces that in the architecture of the courtyard are put in dialogue with the five water surfaces. The trees are a little higher than grade, the water a little lower.
This immense, abstract courtyard reminded me of the architecture of Superstudio. Although the imagined superstructures of Superstudio framed entire cities and landscapes, and the El-Badi Palace only frames four gardens, I would say that what both architectures have in common is that they propose a new grade. In the images of Superstudio for instance New York seems ‘sunk’ by a new structure on top of it, thereby putting in a different perspective. Subversion. The same goes on at the El Badi Palace: the sinking of the gardens turns them into something surreal.
It took king Ahmad Al-Mansur almost 25 years to build his palace, which featured Italian marbles and Sudanese gold. The palace would however stand no longer than a century. The Alaouite Sultan Mawly Ismail would torn the palace down to use the materials for his own palace in the city of Meknes. Only recently efforts are made to restore parts of the El Badi Palace.