For a very long time, travellers conquered by the magic of Marrakech, its sunny climate and the distinctive colour of its walls at sunset have called it the Red City.

Marrakech emerged from the arid plain of earth and stones that surrounds the summits of the Atlas Mountains to the south almost a thousand years ago. Born to be a capital through the determination of a few nomads from the fringes of the Sahara, buffeted by the currents of history, Marrakech has been able to preserve the charm of its past splendours.

And there is a reason why its name alone unleashes a flood of images of the Orient, of exoticism, of strange perfumes, and that it still parades before our dazzled eyes rugs discoloured in the sun, the glint of copper in the half-light of its souks, the nostalgia of a fountain in an abandoned palace.

Marrakech still lives… 
It has retreated behind the doors and walls, into the privacy and coolness of its archways surrounding gardens of orange trees and jasmine.

All the houses in the medina have been built on the same plan; the rooms surround the patio and garden with the fountain in the centre. In Arabic this type of house is called a "ryad".

Like a gigantic maze, the city has developed horizontally by juxtaposition of its ryads, which reveal only their doors and blind façades to the narrow and winding alleyways. One gets lost there.

Here and there, a minaret, a little square, the tousled head of a palm tree up high, indicate here a mosque, the centre of a neighbourhood, there a garden, perhaps a palace. The fascination the city exerts undoubtedly has much to do with this apparent anarchy.

 
 

 

 

With over 600 hectares, the medina of Marrakech is the most extensive in the Maghreb. Until the beginning of the century, the city walls surrounded numerous gardens and orchards. They have been progressively replaced by new residential neighbourhoods that can be recognised by their square layout. The oldest neighbourhoods are grouped to the north of Jemaa El Fna square and surround the souks.

The true heart of the city beats in the labyrinth of the medina, in its winding alleyways, in the old foundouks (caravanserais) that surround the souks, around its patios, fountains, and gardens, and within its houses, where the calm offers the most refreshing contrast with the tumultuous disorder of the streets.

In Marrakech, one must dare to get lost a little.

There are two kinds of streets in the medina; first, the main streets, lined with shops and boutiques. They always lead somewhere, to the doors of the city walls or to the square. These are the riads. Then there are the alleyways (derbs) that lead to the neighbourhoods. They are narrow and picturesque, surrounded by walls and doors, sometimes covered by rooms of houses (sabas). There are no boutiques here. Most of these are cul-de-sacs that lead only to houses. They are numbered from right to left, so the first door to the left tells you the number of houses in the derb. Each neighbourhood is organised around its mosque, its fountain, its hammam and the communal oven where one goes to have one’s bread baked.

Each house is centred on its patio or garden, and all these structures attached to each other form a sort of horizontal fabric, a curious carpet of earth and whitewash from which, here and there, the arrow of a cypress emerges.

It is difficult to understand Marrakech without having savoured the ambiance of the derbs and the ryads, without having gone up to the terraces to see the astonishing spectacle of the city.

 

 

Marrakech the red, the joyful, the holy, city of craftsmanship and commerce, inherently cosmopolitan, has been able over time to create social cohesion in very densely-populated spaces through rules of neighbourliness, respect and tolerance originating in the Muslim religion.

The architecture of the houses and ryads is not just a collage of shapes; it is the perfect response of an urban population to its housing needs, fulfilling the requirements of a site and a climate with traditional materials and knowhow.

Aside from the great mosques and monuments, it’s the very distinctive urban structure of the city and the way in which the houses attached to each other form the derbs and neighbourhoods that have been acknowledged as a vital testimony for future generations of the way people have sometimes been able to organise space to live together.

The medina of Marrakech was placed on Unesco’s world heritage list in 1985. But even counting on international aid and the goodwill of the local authorities, it seems difficult to halt the process of slow destruction of the old neighbourhoods, to prevent unauthorised structures on the roofs, the splitting up of houses and the dismembering of old palaces, the doors and ceilings of which one finds as separate items in the bazaars. It is difficult to combat the very strong tendency the medina has to sell its soul to reinforced concrete and very ugly satellite dishes.

The restoration of some historic houses has been undertaken by private individuals. Several large ryads have thus become luxurious secondary residences, but these efforts don’t always avoid the traps of eclectic and often kitsch orientalism.

In keeping with this spirit of conservation, my project has been to participate in the preservation of the spaces, traditional construction techniques and the art of living that constitute the charm of the city and its houses.


 

 

 
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