By Alexander Jusdanis
By Alexander Jusdanis
Rabat – Dismissed for “abandoning” traditional styles and techniques, Morocco’s modernist architecture lies in disrepair. But a new generation of architects is leading a push to renovate these forgotten sites and welcome them as a legitimate and valuable piece of the kingdom’s heritage.
The hot springs of Sidi Harazem, a town resting in the arid mountains surrounding the city of Fez, have drawn travelers as early as the Romans seeking their alleged healing powers. In 1958, to accommodate these visitors, Morocco constructed the Sidi Harazem Thermal Bath Complex, composed of gardens, walkways, open-air pavilions, accommodations, and a striking circular pool.
The spa was the first large infrastructure project featuring a public space erected after independence. “The complex [was] the ambitious statement of a new nation determined to create modern and forward-thinking gathering places for its citizens,” says Fez architect Aziza Chaouni.
But in the past 30 years, the site has fallen victim to neglect and poor maintenance, and its central features – a market, a central courtyard, and a set of bungalows – remain closed. Meanwhile, public interest has dwindled.
This summer, Chaouni and her design practice received the Getty Foundation’s annual Keeping It Modern grant, which awarded her USD 150,000 to “preserve the complex’s architectural significance while reimagining the location as a dynamic tourist center.” Leading a team of architects, engineers, researchers, and photographers, Chaouni intends to not only return the spa to its raw concrete splendor, but also to put together an exhibition, a book, and workshops detailing its history.
The architect, known for her work on Fez’s urban riverbanks and Al-Qarawiyyin library, explained to Morocco World News that the project is a personal quest. Growing up in Fez, Chaouni would frequently visit the nearby Sidi Harazem springs, saying the site’s “architectural power touched [her] even as a child.”
“As I witnessed the station closing down little by little […] I felt compelled to safeguard this wonderful heritage,” said the architect.
But the Sidi Harazem spa also has a broader historical significance as a relic of the continent’s post-colonial zeitgeist. The 1950s and 1960s saw African colonial governments drop like dominoes, with 32 countries liberated from foreign rule over the course of nine years. In a fervor to establish themselves as modern nations, many of the newly-independent states embarked on ambitious public works projects, using the style of the day: Brutalism.
This no-frills design philosophy fetishized function, favoring simple shapes, hard edges, and a heavy use of concrete. Drawing upon an aesthetic purposely void of historical precedent, governments across the continent started constructing universities, stadiums, state banks, and other public buildings to signal a clean break from the colonial past.
“The daring and ambitious designs of new buildings […] mirrored the optimism and aspirations of the newly liberated states,” explains the New York-based Center for Architecture.
Mémoires des Architectes Moderne Marocains (MAMMA), a modernist heritage advocacy group run by Casablanca architecture professors Imad Dahmani and Elmoumni Lahbib, stressed that independence represented a turning point for construction in the kingdom: “A new generation of pioneer Moroccan architects were able to work freely, in a contemporary and modern fashion, without attachment to any colonial or conformist dogma.”
One of the country’s most prolific post-independence architects was Jean-Francois Zevaco. A French national born in Casablanca in 1916, Zevaco studied at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris before returning to Morocco, where he “established the very principle of modernity,” according to HuffPost Maghreb’s Youssef Roudaby.
Through his private practice, Zevaco designed some of the kingdom’s best-known architecture during the decades following independence: the United Nations Dome in Casablanca, a housing development in post-earthquake Agadir (for which he won the Aga Khan Prize for Architecture), and the Sidi Harazem spa, among others.
Financed by the state pension fund CDG, the Brutalist baths personified “the image of progress the young state wanted to project,” said Chaouni. MAMMA called them a “referential site of the era.”
Leaving the Modern Past
But changing aesthetic tastes and economic policies soon killed the state’s passion for public works. Starting in the 1970s, modernism came to be felt as “reminiscent of both a repressive imperialist past and an enduring western dominion,” writes Chaouni, and subsequently fell out of fashion in Morocco and the rest of the continent.
To push against modernism’s “pure aestheticism,” King Hassan II himself advocated in a 1986 speech for a revival of “Moroccan identity” in architecture, explained MAMMA. A neo-traditional style gradually emerged, embodied by what the group disparagingly called the “green tile” – referring to zellij mosaic – “a convenient rhetorical motif to express a national architecture.”
At the same time, attention turned towards rehabilitating Morocco’s pre-colonial heritage, particularly its medinas. The old cities had been left crumbling after their more affluent inhabitants moved to the higher-prestige villes nouvelles, fleeing an influx of dispossessed rural migrants. As Morocco began inscribing its prominent medinas and historical sites like Volubilis as UNESCO World Heritage sites in the 1980s, preservation groups cropped up across the kingdom to lead repair efforts.
While architectural aesthetics took a nationalist bent, Morocco’s economic policy went in the opposite direction. After independence, the kingdom had adopted a state-development mode, maintaining a well-funded public sector. But starting in the 1980s, facing poor agricultural returns, a hefty state budget deficit, and pressure from the IMF to enact “structural adjustment,” Morocco began privatizing its public enterprises to attract foreign investment. Thus the state largely stopped funding and maintaining ambitious public works like those designed by Zevaco.
The Sidi Harazem baths subsequently fell into disrepair, compounded by a shift of the nation’s tourism industry towards its beaches. A series of poorly-executed renovations followed, which Chaouni deplored as seeking to “tame” the austere concrete with a “vernacular varnish” of traditional tiles and wood carving. Zevaco was not consulted. As a result, according to Chaouni, some of the spa’s original furniture and fixtures are now “unfortunately lost forever.”
MAMMA says this could a taste of things to come for Morocco’s modernist sites. “When we’ve seen the state of [architectural] heritage built after independence, we’ve realized that in 50 years this heritage, which we are in the middle of indexing and studying, will also be partly abandoned, forsaken, or even demolished. This is already the case of many buildings, unfortunately.” The organization was founded last year for this very reason,and has since led a number of programs and exhibitions drawing attention to the sites’ plight.
But Chaouni is optimistic. Asides from some irreparable damages, the majority of the site is in “excellent state.” And with the Getty Foundation grant, she sees a chance to not only revive an ignored piece of Moroccan architectural history, but to cast light on the potential of these post-independence sites as much-needed public spaces.
Partially as a result of the privatization initiatives of the 1980s, Morocco’s population and urban centers have since doubled in size “without the development of sufficient public infrastructure and programs,” the architect wrote in a 2008 article. For her, time-tested modernist sites like the Sidi Harazem spa offer a workable, if concrete, cushion to urban overcrowding.
“Within a developing world context of stringent economic pressures and a growing political disengagement from the urban public arena, the resilience of modern buildings allows them to become efficient means to palliate the scarcity of adequate public facilities and infrastructure,” explained Chaouni.
This may be marking another turning point in Moroccan architecture. Whereas architects of the late 20th century saw themselves in conflict with modernism, something they saw as contrary to Moroccan tradition, Chaouni and her ilk take a more inclusive approach.
Moroccan modernism drew upon the kingdom’s heritage as well, asserted MAMMA, which it “understood and translated through its use of space, light, and materials, not through identity-based forms or motifs.” The success of the style “was in its relationship with the past, and with the modernity of the era.” Through this, it itself has become part of Morocco’s heritage and should be respected as such.
Chaouni refrained from making any such grand theory, but her plans for Sidi Harazem seem to put forth a similar message: the buildings are already here – let’s put them to use.