Sunday, 5 April 2009

Empty space - the mechouar

One of the things that most surprised me about Morocco was the huge empty spaces. For instance at Fes, the Mechouar (parade ground) in front of the walls, between Fes-el-Bali (old Fes) and Fel-el-Jdid (new Fes); or the Djemaa el Fna, in Marrakech; or the huge expanses of the Place el Hedim, the square containing the Qubba, and the massive area in front of Dar el-Kabir at Meknes.

Moulay Ismail's work at Meknes is said to have been inspired by what he had heard about Versailles, and it's often compared to Versailles. But in fact the comparison is instructive mainly because although Moulay Ismail achieved bigness, he did not achieve greatness. There appears to be be no significance to the walls and spaces he laid out; they do not create axes, do not relate to each other, do not create an organisation of space.

Place el Hedim (admittedly changed since his time) for instance appears to be a huge, regular rectangle laid out in front of the great Bab el-Mansour. But if you look carefully, Bab-el-Mansour is off-centre - it has no relation to the space.

Nor is there any attempt to regularise or articulate the space. The big square in front of the Dar el-Kabir is not given any organisation by the buildings that face on to it - there are no regular arcades, no features that could make it a focused space rather than just an empty area.

The huge long corridor that runs from past the Zaouia in Meknes is nearly a kilometer long (my reckoning, based on pacing it) - yet it runs from one little gate in the wall to a blind corner. It is not an axis; it doesn't go anywhere. In Versailles, an alley like this would be an avenue, leading to a viewpoint, to a focal monument; here, it's just a long dog-leg with nothing at the end.

This is characteristic of the Moroccan city - though I'd hesitate to say it is a characteristic of Arab cityscapes as a whole. Only in the work of Moroccan architects post-colonisation, borrowing from the repertoire of the French-designed villes nouvelles, do you find regular spaces, articulated by the architecture that surrounds them.

The big squares are empty spaces. They come alive, as the name of Djemaa el Fna ('assembly of the dead') suggests, only when people assemble in them. No people, no meaning. No people, no articulation. No people, no need. It's the people who define the space, and not the other way around.

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