Far from the narrow alleys, dead ends, and slopes that wind in the medina of Fes, Morocco, the new city has exhibited completely different architecture since the era of the French Protectorate in 1912. It is in the style of the first artistic movement of architecture and decoration to conquer the world – Art Deco. Born in the 1910s, the movement took its name from the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts that was held in Paris in 1925.
This worldwide artistic movement, to which we owe the Arrow of the Chrysler Building in New York, went beyond the borders of France to arrive in North Africa, America, Asia, and even in Australia and New Zealand. Considered to be a return to classical rigor, shapes are principally parallelepipeds, with sharp, rounded, or cut-off edges. Circles and octagons also commonly appear.
Following the example of Casablanca, the city of Fes is chock-full of experimentations by a generation of architects coming from Paris’ prestigious École des Beaux-Arts. During the period of the French Protectorate, for these architects Morocco was a good environment for all forms of new creation. In the area surrounding Dar Dbibagh, to the south of the new section of Fes, a new city primarily reserved for Europeans was developed in 1916 according to the plans of the architect Henri Prost. The background of this style’s appearance in Morocco was an uneasy political situation – that of the French Protectorate existing between 1912 and 1956.
The Rise of New Architectural Styles
The new city of Fes was not created ex nihilo, but next to the ancient medina. The transition was made to be natural through the use of green spaces. In this manner, the city’s architectural decor offers a historic and aesthetic contrast. In the Mohamed V Square in the center of Fes, stands the Café de la Renaissance, designed by the architect Christophe Joseph Claudius in 1930. Its vast openings display the expected geometry and symmetry. A few steps away, lies the Grand Hôtel built by Toulon Emile in 1929, a building whose front once again channels geometric patterns, order, and symmetry: essential principles of Art Deco.
The Cinéma Bijou is located close by on the Mohammed V Avenue and was designed by the architect Louis Beaufils in 1929. The building is registered as part of Fes’ architectural heritage, but it is currently dilapidated and closed. It is characterized by a central circular balcony with projecting descending pyramidal shapes. This cinema weds the style of Art Deco with another. On the Mohamed V square, another larger, but also more recent, building solemnly stands. Dating from the 60s, the Rex Cinema is found across from the Café de la Renaissance, where one can admire it with a cup of tea.
The advent of Art Deco in Morocco was a force behind new architectural styles and the marriage of a type of architecture that claimed to be simultaneously modern and authentic, often recalling traditional art through the use of Arabo-Muslim arches and local materials such as green tile. Such is the case with the Bank of Morocco which was located in Place Lyautey, now the Yacoub el Mansour square. It was built by the architect René Canu. He combined a succession of wide arches with a symmetrical layout of rectangular oblong windows. A cut stone – characteristic of this style – adorns the façade of the large pillars. In regards to the green tiles, they graciously rest on the upper part of the façade to accent the parallelepiped shape.
Hassan II Avenue, the Former Avenue de France
A few meters from Mohamed V one finds Hassan II Avenue, formerly Avenue de France. This recently redeveloped avenue with tall palm trees and a wide roadway is one of Fes’ largest and greenest streets. Boasting sumptuous fountains and two decorative lions, this avenue attracts a large amount of street and pedestrian traffic.
An array of buildings dating to the French Protectorate are located along the avenue. One example is the Raulin building on Ahmed Lawkili Avenue, designed by the architects Maurice Duché and Gaston Raulin in 1930. It is a three-story building with central circular balconies and rectangular oblong windows. One can also admire the General Treasury of the Kingdom with the exceptional greens on the posts and entryways devised by the architect Pierre-Alexandre Aynié in 1935. Nearby, the Cour d’Appel towers above with its two large pilasters. It is the product of the architects Adrien Laforgue and Antoine Marchisio, created in 1936.
“In Fes, a city of crossroads and human richness, it is difficult to escape the weight of the past. Throughout the centuries, Fes has established itself as a remarkable city thanks to its detailed layout of space, the richness of its environment, its efficient urban institutions, and its rich cultural and architectural heritage,” writes the urban planner, art historian, and specialist in Islamic cities, Mohamed Métalsi in Fès La Ville Essentielle.
On the former Avenue de France, this architectural richness is illustrated through different buildings ranging from housing to public facilities such as the Central Post Office, a large building with large marble posts constructed by Toulon Emile between 1946 and 1947. Several old buildings with rounded shapes and balcony ornaments have come to embrace this colonial style. The contrast is blatant, with façades occasionally repainted and sometimes damaged, remind us of another historical periods to which architecture is still a witness. “The architecture of this place is magical. It creates a historic and aesthetic rupture between known and unknown works, abandoned and still managed ones, which reveals the attitude of the city towards this colonial heritage,” says Nadir Ibrahimi, a Franco-Moroccan architect.
Art Deco remains alive and is proof of the divergence and diversity of the urban landscape of this ancient capital of the Sharifian Kingdom. It is witness to an era of architectural freedom and cultural mixing in spite of political resistance.
Should former colonies embrace architectural vestiges of their past?
Original article, originally published in French, here.
Credits: Images and data linked to sources.