The UNESCO World Heritage Listing for Rabat (2012) describes the city as ‘the product of a fertile exchange between the Arabo-Muslim past and Western modernism’.
That is a fair description of the architectural history of Morocco as a whole. Included in the Rabat listing are the new town, built during the French Protectorate to house administrative, residential, and commercial areas, alongside botanical and pleasure gardens and in the shadow of the remnants of the Hassan Tower (begun in 1184) and the
Thus, the listing for Rabat covers most of the principal stages of Moroccan architecture, with three exceptions: the Roman period, the impressive modern architecture of independent Morocco, and the modern bidonvilles (shanty towns) that surround Rabat (and all other Moroccan cities).
The only extensive examples of Roman architecture are at Volubilis, another World Heritage Site (registered in 1997). Volubilis was a fortified Roman municipium on a commanding site of 42 hectares at the foot of the Jabal Zerhoun, near Meknes, although it also predates and postdates the Roman period. Volubilis was occupied for about a thousand years, ending in the early Islamic period as the first capital of Idris I in the late 8th century, before he transferred the Idrisid dynasty’s capital to Fes. The ruins are surrounded by ramparts and contain an impressive triumphal arch.
Early Islamic period
Little architecture remains from the early Islamic period. Idrisid Fes has largely vanished, although the Andalusiyyin and Qarawiyyin quarters and their accompanying great mosques indicate the outlines of the Idrisid city (see the Medina of Fes at UNESCO).
Almoravid and Almohad periods
The architecture of the Almoravid period is also difficult to find: although the city plan of Marrakesh is Almoravid, there is little to show for it apart from a few ruins and the qubba (domed tomb) of the Ben Youssef Mosque. The Almohads destroyed much Almoravid architecture across Morocco, and their architecture is prominent, as seen in Marrakesh in the city walls and gates and the Koutoubia mosque, whose square minaret was the model for the Tour Hassan minaret in Rabat, the Giralda in Seville, and countless other mosques across Morocco (see the Medina of Marrakesh at UNESCO).
The Marinids were responsible for building New Fes as a military and administrative centre, and much of Marinid architecture is military, for example, the massive city walls in Fes and Salé, and the abandoned city of Chella outside Rabat. Their other important buildings were madrasas: the Seffarine in Fes, and the Bou Inania, in Meknes, with its elaborate decorative plasterwork, are fine examples.
The most important Saadi structures are the tombs and the Badi Palace in Marrakesh. During this period, many refugees from al-Andalus brought new architectural styles; their houses are found especially in the medinas of Tétouan, Rabat and Fes. The numerous palaces of the sultans and the Moroccan elite date from this period; many of the more interesting ones are now museums.
When the French took over their Protectorate, Marshal Lyautey insisted that new European-built suburbs would introduce European ideas of urban planning while preserving historic monuments and traditional housing and using Moroccan motifs, where possible, in the new buildings. Thus, the past was re-appropriated and used in an architectural and decorative synthesis that set modern public spaces and landscaping alongside the older medinas. The best examples are in Rabat, Fes, and, especially, Casablanca, a city that was rebuilt almost entirely by Henri Prost, Lyautey’s chief architect.
Modern Moroccan architecture has continued the colonial synthesis to a limited degree. Large-scale modern developments, such as hotels and apartment blocks, look much like similar buildings elsewhere. Their sleek designs do not resemble older Moroccan styles of architecture, but the interior decoration of their public and common spaces is often heavily dependent on Moroccan designs. At the same time, a self-consciously nostalgic ‘Moroccan’ style had become popular through the fashion of renovating riads (elaborate town houses) in Marrakesh and elsewhere. This style is now becoming popular in domestic architecture in Britain and the United States.
The architecture of the bidonvilles has been little studied: it is based on appropriating sites and materials from formal urban spaces and reusing them without reference to official architectural styles, state and public facilities, or official control. Dilapidated housing and few paved roads, utilities, or public services have thus been accompanied by a lack of government interference. The political problems of the 1990s and 2000s led the state to try to remove bidonvilles and replace them with publicly controlled housing, which many inhabitants find even less attractive. Traditional rural architecture is confined to domestic and mosque architecture. Domestic styles vary according to region and physical conditions. Mosque architecture has developed considerably as a result of emigration: eastern Arab styles, especially minarets, have become much more common.
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