07 January 2009

Lords of the Atlas - a new museum project in Marrakesh

Since June 2008, we have been working on a feasibility study for a new museum to be created in the opulent palace of the last Pacha of Marrakech – the Dar al Bacha.

We were selected from a group of firms – we never knew whom other than a few were based in the UK – and signed up without hesitation. Tim has logged three trips and some 100 hours in the Palace – largely alone in the old Salon where Thami Al-Glaoui held court to Charlie Chaplin and Edith Piaf, as well as the various French dignitaries who shared Glaoui’s penchant for glamour, automobiles and Deco-Architecture and the continued presence of the occupying forces in his fiefdom (the Glaouis were known as the “Lords of the Atlas”, see Gavin Maxwell’s book of the same name). The last was his downfall, and following his death and that of the French Protectorate in 1956, the Palace has remained stripped and empty.

It is in this context, a nouveau-rich, over-rough architectural follie that combines spectacular Moroccan features and Western elements inspired from Parisian hotels along Avenue Montaigne - and a symbol largely reviled by the local souk owners that, cheek-by-jowl, that surround the Palace walls - that I have spent the large part of the last summer. Well not entirely, as there were other sites to visit in Marrakech, on my crash-courses into Islamic Architecture of the Magrehb and the robust castles of the Atlas tribes, where the House of Glaoui was based.

And then there was the time to learn about the life of the American art collector and philanthropist, Patti Cadby Birch, who had offered her eclectic collection of art to the King Mohammed VI, in exchange for a decent home in Marrakech. Patti’s disappearance at age 73, after 25 years in the country she loved, had left the museum project rudderless and found us in a unprepared position to make sense of her art, without her, and of the Palace also empty, though unfortunately still soaked with the image of the reviled Glaoui (the person never rehabilitated, as well as the monument he created).

On the art, Patti had stubbornly collected works from everywhere but Morocco, from regions and wide ranging time periods (from Pre-Columbia to African Art) that largely represented human forms – deities or odd amalgams of vessels and animalistic forms – to be displayed in a country where none of the above would have ever see the light of day (the Koran forbids imagery in houses of prayer and this directive has been mistakenly understood in the West to mean no human or animal images are found in any art production in Islamic countries – see the contrary examples in art from Persia and the Ottoman Caliphate – and this misunderstanding reinforced by the New York Times Best Seller, “My Name is Red” by Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, most likely against his intentions).

So, we felt this juxtaposition, of Patti’s Art and Glaoui’s Palace, would serve a great dual exercise: show some needed human forms, preferably underdressed as in early Khmer sculpture or mildly erotic as in African works, to an unversed visitorship, while demonstrating the originality of Moroccan palace architecture, complete with its own Harem.

But the real theme of the project, and the core of our work, was far less prosaic: it entailed technical assessments of the buildings waterproofing (polished earth called Tadelakt), code compliance or lack of, for the plumbing and electrical supply (absent), security and intrusion control (also absent, which allowed for the magnificent singing birds to accompany my long stays in the empty rooms), defining the urgent consolidation of the building and new infrastructure needed to transform it into a quality public space.

Our approach, being both architects, versed in historic preservation and sustainable design, and exhibit/museum designers, was pretty much the reverse process that most consultants would take on – and for this reason largely more successful as understood by our Client, the trustees of Patti’s estate – to look first at who our visitor would be, then the collection, and working backwards define what was the best possible outcome in rehabilitating this Palace.

The design that came out of this work, through the feasibility study – offering two birds with one stone in very economic terms for this commissioned work – can be seen on our web site of museum projects.

We think we have efficiently resolved the dilemma that confounded previous design teams that labored over this project, Patti herself and the Ministry of Culture who propose to run it. With an enlightened Board, now running Patti’s Foundation, were are now working on making it a reality.