Casablanca was a hotbed of modern architecture during the first half of the 20th century. In 1917 it became the second city in the world, after New York City’s zoning law of 1916, to adopt a comprehensive master plan for urban development. Until the 1950s various permutations of the “modern” and Art Deco styles were enthusiastically embraced by Casablanca’s architects and inhabitants alike. At the time, the city was seen (and marketed) as a French America, a version of Chicago, home to the kind of brash capitalist modernity which threw up skyscrapers.
While Casablanca’s cutting-edge modern urban planning and architecture were certainly conditioned by colonialism, the architecture generated during that era should also be considered as part of Morocco’s cultural heritage. One of the objectives of Casamémoire, a Casablanca-based civil society organization, is to foster an awareness of this heritage, and several people at Al Akhawayn University were happy to participate in this year’s Journées du patrimoine.
The Journées du patrimoine is an annual open house weekend when the public gets to enjoy guided tours of heritage buildings conducted by volunteers. Exhibits, performances, screenings and conferences on art and architecture are also held across the city. This year’s event, the fourth of its kind, was held April 6-8. Professor Said Ennahid, an archeologist who teaches Islamic art history at AUI, and I were determined to get students involved. A student club, the Social Sciences Club, took the initiative of organizing a dual event to mark the occasion. One of its members, Rim El Jadidi, had interned with Casamémoire and is doing her senior capstone research on the city’s heritage.
On Tuesday April 2 we invited one of the founders of Casamémoire, Architect Aberrahim Kassou, to come to AUI to present the film “Salut Casa” (Jean Vidal 1954). The film showcases France’s “prodigious achievements” in Casablanca, in “a mere forty years,” at the very moment its rule was being seriously challenged. The city’s modern architecture and the pace of its economic growth (in today’s parlance Casablanca had a “tiger” economy in the early 1950s) are especially highlighted in the film.
Don’t believe what YouTube puts as the date of this film (1940) though. “Salut Casa”came out in 1954 and Jean Vidal shot it in the course of 1951-52.
For the Casamémoire open house weekend (ironically, AUI was holding its own annual open house the same weekend) Kenza Yousfi, President of the Social Sciences Club organized transportation to take students to Casablanca. AUI faculty members: Sofia Kocergin, Sandra Phelps, Said Ennahid, John Shoup and I, accompanied the students. Professor Kocergin’s Communications Studies students had a practical exercise on event promotion to prepare. The Moroccan students all have homes, family members or friends in the city (or in nearby Rabat) so accommodation was not an issue for them. The foreign students stayed at the international-class Hyatt while, for the most part, the AUI faculty members who accompanied the group stayed at the very faded Hôtel Excelsior (architect: Hyppolyte Delaporte), the finest hotel in Casablanca when it opened in 1916. We made it our headquarters for Saturday’s walking tour. This downloadable Google Earth kmz file locates the buildings mentioned in this blog post.
Saturday’s walking tour started on Place Mohammed V, formerly Place Administrative (this square has changed its name far too often, but its original name of Place Administrative best describes it). This large public square was the showcase of the architectural style promoted by Resident Lyautey, a style recently designated as neo-Moroccan. Lyautey personally oversaw the designs of the civic and administrative buildings built around the square, and he encourage the architects he hired to think beyond the box of Orientalist architecture hitherto practiced in French North Africa. Moroccan motifs, designs, materials and craftsmanship were to be re-thought within the practices of the functionalist architecture then emerging in Europe. The result, on Place Administrative, is a fantastic display of the highest-quality architecture. The lavishly funded public buildings are made from the best construction materials and were designed on a grand scale and with great attention to detail. Today, access to these buildings is very restricted, so the annual open house offers the only opportunity to visit them, and to take unlimited photos!
The Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) is now the Wilaya, the seat of the Regional administration. It was designed by Marius Boyer (1885-1947) and completed in 1927.
The trimming on the exterior of the Hôtel de Ville is local grey sandstone. A wide frieze of green zellij (cut tile work) marks the roof line. A clock towers above the building. This was Casablanca’s second clock tower, after the Tour de l’horloge (see above). Keeping proper time was an important part of the colonial agenda.
The Hôtel de Ville is organized around three leafy riyadhs (garden courts). Paintings by Majorelle (1859-1926) hang in it’s marble stairwells. State rooms on the very majestic upper floor include the mayor’s office (at the time) and the Hall of Honor, where the mayor conducted civil marriages.
The neighboring Palais de Justice (Court House), completed in 1922, has the most monumental facade on the square, with a great central portal leading to two columned galleries on the main floor.
The portal pavilion is capped with the most splendid zellij frieze.
The third building the AUI group visited on Place Administrative is the Casablanca office of the Bank al-Maghrib, the state bank. Designed by Edmond Brion (1885-1973), it was completed in 1937.
By the mid 1930s the neo-Moroccan project had taken on with architects operating in the city’s private sector. The colonial authorities therefore patronized a more sober decor for the Bank al-Maghrib. The austere economic situation of the day also lead to the understatement of opulence. For example, Earth-tones replaced the bright greens and blues in the zellij work. Clearly though, no expense was spared for the great bankers of the metropolis. One finds halls clad in fine marbles, others in expensive wood paneling with exquisite Art Deco marquetterie. The bank’s Board Room would not have looked out of place in a Manhattan skyscraper. I would love to have posted pictures of these rooms but I can’t manage to take good indoor shots.
We would have liked to visit the other monuments on the Place Administrative: the Post Office, the administrative buildings, the public fountains, esplanades and contentious statues, but time was pressing. We had to move on.
Bank al-Maghrib marks the limit between Casablanca’s civic-administrative center and its Central Business District. As private-sector patrons of grand architecture, the banks embraced the spirit of the official neo-Moroccan style, and of the times. Many of their buildings were out-right modern, with no reference to classical European or Orientalist styles.
Other commercial buildings, office blocs, department stores and cinemas, adapted the neo-Moroccan motifs to Art Deco.
Casablanca’s CBD is a living gallery of Art Deco, à la fois modern, Mediterranean, French and Moroccan. Solidly built as these buildings are, many are in need of restoration, or at least of maintenance and repairs.
Our itinerary through downtown Casablanca took us through the Passage Sumica, one of the city’s famed pedestrian galleries. Built in the 1920s and 30s these pedestrian shopping galleries (Passage Glaoui, Passage Tazi, etc.) pass through city blocs, linking the sidewalks of the busy commercial streets on each side. They allow street-level pedestrian traffic to penetrate straight through the blocs, giving additional access to buildings above, and increasing commercial retail space and store frontage. They were cutting-edge amenities for the emerging metropolis. Apart from stores, passages have coffee shops and give access to hotels, cinemas and the other anchors of the type of pedestrian-shopper-flaneur modernity Casablanca became famous for.
The AUI group could only catch a glimpse of the Art Deco exuberance around us as we hurried to the Asayag Building.
The Asayag Building was the epitome of modern urban living. The architect, Marius Boyer, did away with the dank inner courtyards-cum-light wells that typified dense urban blocks likes those described above. His Asayag apartment building rose as three towers. The stairway at the center of each is designed to be lit and ventilated naturally. Unfortunately, the mechanical apparatus necessary to operate these elaborate system of glass louvers has not been maintained. Run-down it may be, the Assayag Building must still be a grand place to live. The penthouses at the top of the towers begin on the eighth floor and rise in terraces two additional floors. Apartments in this and other blocs were designed with a new clientele in view, the young upwardly-mobile single person or childless couple. They were not designed for families. They had open multilevel plans and ranged in size from studios to multistory penthouses. As such tenants might have cars, the Asayag and other large apartment blocks in the central neighborhoods had underground parking in the basement.
An afternoon in the Madina
After a quick lunch (chacun selon son gout) the AUI group met at the Tour de l’horloge (1993 remake version) for the tour of the old city. We first visited the Dar al-Makhzen (court house and general administrative center). The adjoining mosque, which we did not visit, is reputed to be the oldest functioning mosque in Casablanca. From there we headed to the current Friday Mosque, called the Oulad al-Hamra Mosque, and to the adjacent Residence of Lyautey. The Residence currently houses the Casablanca chapter of the Union Marocaine du Travail (or UMT), one of Morocco’s largest and oldest labor unions.
From the UMT residence we were taken, by a very competent volunteer guide (as everywhere we went throughout that day and the next), to the Ettedgui Synagogue. This synagogue dates from the 1930s. It is a private synagogue which still belongs to the Ettedgui family, though they no longer live in Morocco. While ordinarily it would be possible to visit the building, Saturday, April 7 was Passover and so the synagogue was not open for visits. We proceeded to the Spanish Church. Only recently has the Spanish state turned over control of this church and its attendant buildings to Morocco. The Church buildings are currently being rebuilt and will serve as a community center. Our group was allowed to visit the site and explore the chantier.
Habous and the Mahkama
Sunday’s itinerary was less hectic than Saturday’s and took us to a few outlying neighborhoods. The Habous neighborhood was built in the 1920s to house the city’s growing Moroccan (“Muslim” was the official designation at the time) working class. It was laid out next to the new Royal Palace. Albert Laprade (1883-1978) conducted extensive field studies of Moroccan urban architecture before he set out to design the neighborhood in 1917. The actual building of the neighborhood, which continued into the 1930s, was carried out by Laprade’s colleagues Auguste Cadet and Edmond Brion. Moroccan spatial compositions and motifs guided every scale of the design. This model modern neighborhood (modern in terms of building materials and urban amenities) is a terrific mise-en-scène of traditional architectural devises: alleyways, doorways, arches at every turn. It is picturesque and highly esthetic. And it is great architecture. Built of durable materials at the human scale, every detail in the urban composition was carefully designed and executed.
There are similarities with Essaouira (aka Mogador) in the use of sandstone trim on white walls. But whereas Sidi Mohamed b. Abdellah imposed straight wide streets on 18th century Essaouira, Laprade imposed picturesque angles in Habous.
The Habous neighborhood is one last great expression of the fin-de-siècle arts and crafts movement. The model was never replicated. Rather, the industrial rationale in modernism won over the craftsmen. Mass-produced minimalist housing characterized most subsequent planned neighborhoods for workers (such as Habitations Carrières Centrales, built in the early 1950s). Also, the technocratic top-down planning approach, responsible for the design of every single nook and cranny in Habous, was at odds with the types of traditional building processes which “organically” produced the nooks and crannies of Morocco’s authentic urban architecture.
Readers will probably not be surprised to learn that the Habous neighborhood did not serve its intended social group. Rather than working families getting affordable housing, Habous became the must-have address of the Moroccan bourgeoisie, and of the Fassi upper class in particular, who appreciated access to a Friday mosque… and to the nearby palace. The hub of Muslim Casablanca during the colonial era, with its coffee houses and bookstores, Habous is still considered the epitome of Muslim urbanity today. The souks designed by Laprade are specialized in the finest Moroccan crafts. Habous is where Baydawiya brides go shopping for all their wedding things.
Habous is also famous for another astounding feat of arts and crafts architecture, the Mahkama, or “tribunal.” The Mahkama (by Auguste Cadet) is a fantastic urban palace which took over a decade to complete (1941-1952). Nothing like it exists anywhere. Built on a slope, it appears to tower over Habous neighborhood. One gains access to it through massive gate portals.
Inside the Mahkama, the pasha’s “offices” are conceived as an Alhambra. Sunlit courts gleam with white stucco work. As with the stucco work, craftsmanship on the cedarwood ceilings is crisp and perfect in every detail. And all of it is real! The best craftsmen were recruited and the best materials used. It is an extraordinarily refined restitution of Alhambra architecture, at life-size scale, with the finest materials. I took dozens of great photos but can’t possibly post them all here. This is just a glimpse.
I doubt the Mahkama ever served its purpose as the offices of the Pasha of Casablanca, and I am not sure what governmental function it serves today. I am just thankful that once a year, during the Journées du patrimoine, the public can get a look at this jewel.
The culture factory in the Abattoirs
From Habous we headed to the bildi (working-class) neighborhood of Hay Mohammadi. One of the largest employers in this neighborhood was the slaughter house, les abattoirs. The municipal facility by the rail yards was built by Georges-Ernest Desmarest and Albert Greslin in 1922. It was designed to the best hygiene standards of the day, and for industrial efficiency. It closed in 2000. In 2008 a collective of arts and cultural associations, including Casamémoire, obtained the right to reconvert this brown-field site.
Since 2009 the Abattoirs are a fabrique culturelle (culture factory). The principal building consists of a gigantic hall. Natural light enters through roof apertures and internal divisions are low. The base of the pillars and the divisions are clad in durable white tile. Given its original purpose, the facility is equipped with industrial-caliber pulleys, braces, electricity and plumbing. There are also large external areas and many ancillary buildings. The Abattoirs offer perfect work and exhibition spaces for visual and performing artists. For now, only a small part of the huge facility is being used. Our group saw an exhibit of paintings (urban scenes, I am sorry I don’t recall the artist’s name), and caught a glimpse a dance troupe rehearsing to Malian musicians.
An evening at Rick’s Café
Fully in keeping with the weekend’s theme of engaging with the history of Casablanca, and of appreciating its legacy on the city’s imaginary, AUI faculty members (the usual suspects), patronized Casablanca’s most evocative establishment, Rick’s Café.
Apart from the set for the café, every other architectural element depicted in that film is wrong. The Casablanca presented to the American cinema-going public by Warner Brothers in the fall of 1942 was shot entirely in three different Hollywood studios. It had nothing to do with the brazen metropolis of modernity described above. Contrast the Hollywood version of Casablanca with Jean Vidal’s “Salut Casa” of ten years later. The screenplay for “Casablanca”, and the sets, called for Tangiers. The film was hastily re-edited to coincide with the US landings in North Africa and the Casablanca Conference of January 1943.
Yet the film, the city, and that moment are now the stuff of legend–a romance for modern war-torn times. And nowhere are the legend and the romance more delightfully experienced than at Rick’s Café at the northern tip of the Madina. Whatever my misgivings about the external sets in “Casablanca,” the real Rick’s Café is in the best tradition of entre-deux-guerres langueur, sumptuous yet intimate, and thoroughly drenched in jazz. Kathy Kriger’s restaurant-lounge, which opened in 2004, is a classy addition to Casablanca-by-night, and it would have been right at home in the Casablanca of my grandmother’s era.
As a fils de Piednoire, Casablanca’s heritage has very personal meaning for me. My mother, Anne-Marie Roigt (later Ross, 1939-2009), grow up there, so “remembering” Casablanca is not simply an academic exercise.
A few years earlier the author’s mother and grandmother, Maria Maillis, were similarly snapped by a street photographer in a Casablanca “passage”I asked my aunt Francine, who moved from Casablanca to France in the early sixties, about photographs like the ones above. There seemed to be lots of them about. My aunt told me that roaming cameramen would snap photos of unsuspecting (or suspecting) strollers. The street photographers then handed a note with their contact address. Those who were interested in the photos went to the photographer a few days later and paid for the photos they wanted. It’s hard to imagine such civility between strangers on the sidewalks of any major city today.
The photos taken by these street-level professional photographers are common in the family albums of the Casablancais of that era, as was showcased in VH magazine (or Version Homme, the magazine of the Moroccan male. Who says I don’t keep up with the times?). In November 2011 VH magazine devoted an issue to “L’age d’or de Casablanca.” Casamémoire’s initiatives featured prominently in its coverage. Casablanca’s modern architecture has been featured in other glossy magazines as well, and in Royal Air Maroc’s in-flight magazine. More practically, the work of preserving and “re-activating” Casablanca’s protectorate-era urban heritage is gaining momentum.
I grew up with family stories about specific locations in the Casablanca of the 1940s and 50s. There were the “Boulevard de Bordeaux” stories, where my mother’s family was living at the time, and there were the “Librairie de France” stories. My grandmother, Maria Maillis (later Critch 1905-1996), had worked at this bookstore while single-handedly raising her two daughters and caring for her retired father. She was very modern, a self-made woman. Like virtually everyone else around her in Casablanca, she had come from somewhere else but she thrived in the city’s French cosmopolitan space. She remained an enthusiast of tall sleek white buildings all her life. The bookstore where my grandmother worked still exists, with its original name.
From November 1942, Casablanca was awash in Americans. The Americans loved Casablanca (see Rick’s Cafe above) and the feeling was reciprocal. Around 1952 (sorry, I don’t know the exact year) my grandmother married George Critch, a engineering consultant with the US Army (sorry, I don’t quite know the work he did). They had a civil ceremony at the Hôtel de Ville. I was delighted therefore to be able to visit the Hall of Honor at the Hôtel de Ville where they had married.
In 1955 Dad George’s work took him to Orléans, France, and not long thereafter to Ankara, Turkey. He took his new family, my teenage mother in tow, along with him… but that’s for another blog post.
I first visited Casablanca as a 19-year old backpacker. By then my family had no contacts there at all. Everyone they had known had left. I spent only a few days in Casablanca, staying at the Youth Hostel near Bab al-Mrissa. What I remember most about my stay in the city is sitting on the square next to the Oulad al-Hamra Mosque mulling things over. This is when I determined that the next time I traveled to the “developing world” (it was 1982, I had just completed CEGEP/junior college) it wouldn’t be as a tourist. I can say that my career doing field work in foreign and not-so-foreign lands got started that morning on this square.
Teaching at AUI since 1998, I have become a regular visitor to Casablanca. I take students there on field trips, I take guests on tours, even though I feel I don’t really know the city. You can’t know a city until you live in it. Yet I have now woven some new family stories into Casablanca’s fabric. My nephew Olivier came to visit in the summer of 2010. We spent a few nights at the Hôtel Excelsior before he flew back to Montréal. And in the fall of 2007 I had the pleasure of touring the city with my cousin Patrick Berger, an native of Casablanca who now lives in Toulouse. Patrick took me to the haunts of his youth, mostly around rond-point Mers Sultan. Many still serve beer.
Casablanca’s protectorate-era architectural heritage is now well known, and it has been eruditely documented and beautifully illustrated by Jean-Louis Cohen & Monique Eleb. Their book has been published in both French and English:
- Jean-Louis Cohen & Monique Eleb, Casablanca: Mythes et figures d’une aventure urbaine, Belvisi/Hazan, 1998.
- Jean-Louis Cohen & Monique Eleb, Casablanca: Colonial Myths and Architectural Ventures, The Monacelli Press, 2003.
I can also recommend the following study:
- Gislhaine Meffre & Bernard Delgado, Architecture marocaine du XXè siècle : Edmond Brion et Auguste Cadet, Editions Senso Unica, Mohammedia, 2009.
Morocco’s former Spanish zones also exhibit startling works of protectorate-era architecture.
- Antonio Bravo Nieto, Arquitectura y urbanismo español en el norte de Marruecos, Consejeria de Obras Publicas y Transportes, Direccion General de Arquitectura y Vivienda, Junta de Andalucia, 2000.
- Pablo Rabasco Pozuelo, Ciudad y vivienda experimental en Ifni y el Sáhara español: una expresión de modernidad en los años 1960, in Ciudad y territorio, vol. 45, # 178, pp. 751-767, 2013.
On French colonial-era architecture in North Africa generally, see:
- Gwendolyn Wright, The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism, University of Chicago Press, 1991.
- François Béguin, Arabisances, décor architectural et tracé urbain en Afrique du Nord 1830-1960, Paris: Dunod, 1983.
- Figures de l’orientalisme en architecture, Revue du Monde Musulman et de la Méditerranée, vol. 73/74, Edisud, 1996.