What is the point of building beautiful buildings and infrastructure if they do not last?
Rabat – In my three years living in Morocco I have been impressed by how much construction activity I see, especially in public spaces, such as new sidewalks, plazas, parks, and playgrounds.
Surely everyone would like to enjoy these improvements for many years to come. Unfortunately, there are already visible cracks (literal and figurative) in infrastructure that is still new and has hardly been used.
I am not going to blame the government, corruption, or cheating with bad materials and inflated prices. Instead, I will blame the deficiencies in my own profession: Architecture.
Architects must respond to the clients’ wishes of course. But architects must also advise them when they see bad practice.
Time and time again I see projects which overreach, using expensive materials and elaborate designs. I understand these projects were designed to win a competition or get the client’s approval.
But even if a client asks for it, architects should not promise features with flashy 3D images that the client cannot afford to build well and maintain. Yet architects in Morocco continue to overreach even though Moroccans are surrounded by examples of crumbling benches and dried-up fountains.
Globally, there is an obsession with the new and amnesia for what we already have. In order to improve public space and the quality of life in towns and cities, however, there must be a mentality shift, one that emphasizes real long-term quality over short-term glitter.
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Rather than complain, I feel responsible to offer recommendations to my fellow architects, our clients, and society in general. All public infrastructure should be: Simple and elegant in design, weatherproof, vandalism proof, and low maintenance.
Architects, urban designers, and landscape designers must think simple. This is actually difficult because we think elaborate things are more beautiful.
But simple things that function well give people more pleasure than overly complex things. Apple’s products are a modern example of good minimalist design. But there are also many examples of traditional Moroccan houses which are both simple and elegant.
One aspect of being simple means that designs must be easily buildable by local workers with local materials. This is not a limitation; this is a strength. If you want proof, look at the Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Marrakech.
Let’s make it last
Durable materials, such as solid stone, cast iron, and precast concrete, are weatherproof, too heavy to be moved, cannot be burned, and can be cleaned of graffiti. Plastic, wood, glass, sheet metal, and Moroccan zellige tile can be destroyed by weather and vandalism in a matter of months. They should only be used in interior spaces and where staff is around to protect them.
As a general rule, architects should stop proposing water fountains. They look good in 3D images but are rarely maintained. The pumps stop working, they leak, and the water gets dirty and dries up. The fountains inevitably become trash bins.
Outdoor furniture, such as benches, playground equipment, and trash containers, must withstand the abuse they inevitably receive. A simple but durable playground is better than a fancy but damaged playground.
Finally, architects also have to be realistic when budgeting for maintenance. Repair and cleaning do not generate the buzz that a ribbon cutting ceremony does, but they are just as important. New but ruined infrastructure is a waste of money and has a depressing effect on society.
If there is only money to build and not enough to maintain, then it is better not to build. It can always come later.
Architects need to stop overreaching and design within the client’s resources. So let’s apply Moroccan common sense: Let’s build “b’shwiya” (slowly).