This summer I was able to do an independent project under the direction of Professor Daniel Millette. Another student and myself, under his advice, decided to investigate the medina of Marrakech and set off on a month long tour of Morocco.
When we arrived in Marrakech in mid-May we weren’t sure what exactly we would be researching. We spent the first three days wandering, getting completely lost for hours on end. We had a great time sketching, photographing, and talking to anyone and everyone. After a few nights soaking in the chaos of the night market at Jemaa el Fna we decided we should investigate the traditional planning mechanisms that help instill order within the medina. We found that despite the feeling of chaos within the medina the planning is incredibly thoughtful and functional.
We used Aldo Rossi and Leon Krier as resources to conduct our analysis and chose the tannery district as a sample neighbourhood from which we could make extrapolations.
Spending the bulk of our time in this neighbourhood was really cool. Its one of few areas that isn’t overwhelmed with tourists and still has a tight knit residential community. We came to know a handful of shop owners, tannery workers, and kids in the area who were all very supportive of our research and gave us some incredible insight.
Here are some photos our project:
We climbed through old, crumbling houses and buildings to get a better sense of vernacular construction techniques and see how older building processes and materials compared with new methods.
This is the Grand Tannery in Marrakech. It is the largest of the handful of tanneries that still produce leather goods. The Mosque that typically serves the workers here is under construction so they built this tent for prayer in the meantime.
The souks had really cool roofing systems made up of trussing, cedar beams, bamboo reeds, or in this case, bamboo mats.
Many of the workers in the tanneries have homes and families in the smaller towns in and around the Atlas mountains. We were able to take a mountain and desert tour and see where many of the workers we had met go home to on the weekends.
Because my family and friends read this blog and they all think I went on a school sponsored vacation, here is the intro to our project, to prove it wasn’t all fun and games in Marrakech.
The most spectacular patterns of Moroccan geometrical art are those that leave the viewer in contemplation. These marvels are a source of confusion and fascination; in the process of deciphering one figure, another will appear enigmatically. Thus, interpreting the pattern reveals no obvious starting point and the viewer must immerse themselves entirely to uncover the system of logic.
Geometric patterns are found on stucco in houses, in bricks on the sidewalk , and in textiles: this element of Moroccan craft provides an excellent allegory for its urbanism. The city is at first complex and overwhelming; upon initial exploration, hierarchies reveal themselves and the navigator will feel confident that untangling has begun. Much like the geometric pattern, the medina presents a logic that enables one to move through it, ending up at a new starting point. This new vista and subsequent perspective, however, will retract any sense of comfort by revealing an entirely different pattern with its own dominant forms. This revealed system will have as much validity as the first and force the navigator to begin the exploration all over again.
Using geometric forms as an analogy for Moroccan urbanism gave us a perspective on the complexity of the medina and the difficulty we would face in understanding Marrakech. Similar to the method of grouping elements to comprehend the overall pattern, we chose a ‘study area’ of the city, one district, which we used as a starting point for untangling the medina as a whole.
Aldo Rossi explains the study area as being a fraction of the city that is more easily looked upon than the city in its entirety, making it a valuable tool for an urban analysis. It is an abstraction with respect to the space of the city, and as such, is able to define the city’s specific elements more clearly.15 The study area cannot be looked at separately from the rest of the urban elements; it must be compared and contrasted with them. Since no study area exists in isolation, we must infer from it an understanding that can be broadened to weave into the city’s larger networks.
For this project we confined ourselves to a study area comprised of the tannery neighbourhood. This self-imposed limitation provided for a breakdown of the medina, which enabled a more manageable and realistic analysis. In line with Rossi’s concept of study areas, we believe that the specificity of this single district improves our understanding of the medina’s structure. This method of analysis meant we would not be able to understand how each district functioned individually, but, through a comprehensive analysis of the tannery neighbourhood, we could uncover its functions and its relationship to the entire medina. From this we are able to extrapolate the systems that exist in other neighbourhoods and their relationships to the whole.
Our analysis of the tannery district had a myriad of starting points. Similar to untangling the logic of a geometric pattern, the spectrum of preliminary research we conducted was a method of providing different perspectives. In this report, we present contextual information on the medina of Marrakech and the history of its planning and architecture, as well as the histories specific to the tanning industry and its processes. We then outline the current conditions and issues facing the tannery district, proceeding to analyze the district’s architecture and urban planning using criteria that consider more than its current function: a single moment in the city’s identity.