June 1, 2011

Not the Usual Suspects: Three Firms Collaborate On A Morocco University’s Campus

They sound like separate firms, and indeed they are. But the namesake principals of Saad El Kabbaj Architecte, Driss Kettani Architecte, and Mohamed Amine Siana Architecte—friends from architecture school in Rabat, Morocco—now collaborate on about half their projects. The practices even share a Casablanca­ office. Their largest joint project to date is a university campus in Taroudant. 

An ancient town with 65,000 inhabitants, it has a history as an important intellectual center and is also well known for the hotel Gazelle d’Or, where regulars include former French president Jacques Chirac. The campus, an offshoot of the Université Ibn Zohr in the coastal city of Agadir, is the result of the?national educational system’s new decentralization policy. “There has been an effort to encourage people to remain in their hometowns,” Mohamed Amine Siana explains. Offering courses in such subjects as law, engineering, and agricultural science, the Taroudant facility sits on 15 acres 1 1/2 miles from the historic town center. The 220,000 square feet of facilities have a capacity for 3,500 students in the long term. For the first year, 600 enrolled.

Architectural inspiration came from the vernacular of southern Morocco. “It’s powerful and solid, generally­ rammed earth with simple cubic volumes,” Driss Kettani says. The style, he notes, developed not only because of the extreme heat—temperatures regularly rise above 110 degrees Fahrenheit in summer­—but also because of the character of the locals. “At first, people seem quite closed and austere­,” he says. Interiors, however, are surprisingly luminous, a contrast that this trio of architects perfectly­ captured in, among other things, lecture halls, classrooms, laboratories, a library, a prayer room, academic and administrative offices, and accommodation for the dean. 

Two parallel runs of buildings, facing each other across an open space, form a north-south axis, and doors and archways are strategically placed to frame the best possible views of the High Atlas Mountains to the north—the library offers the finest vistas from its upstairs reading room. Meanwhile, the south end of the open space will eventually be shaded by a bushy native tree species. “They’re the emblem of the region,” Saad El Kabbaj says. Buildings also feature gravel courtyards planted with cactus, agave, and yucca.

Walls along the central open space are almost completely blank. Instead, windows are on the north and?south facades, perpendicular. “To the north, the sun is very weak. To the south, it’s very high in the sky,” Kettani explains. Deep overhangs and reveals and protruding fins do the rest of the job—particularly important since, due to budget constraints, the campus has neither air-conditioning nor heat. The lecture halls’ tall narrow windows produce cross ventilation when their single operable casements open, at the top. When students walk from building to building, they’re shaded by colonnades.

The buildings are the amber color that so typifies the region. Traditional rammed earth could not be used because of seismic concerns. Instead, the walls are reinforced concrete and terra-cotta brick, covered with tinted and painted stucco. (Almost the only exception is the portico of the administration building, clad in creamy stone from Agadir in order to stand out from the rest.) In addition to the uniformity of color and materials­, a striking horizontality is a regional attribute. “A relationship to the ground is very important here,” Siana notes. Nowhere do the buildings exceed two stories, aside from the glass caps on square stair towers inspired by the watchtowers that punctuate Taroudant’s medieval ramparts. At night, the stair towers are up-lit.

The architects seem to be masters at creating an interplay of light and shadow, enhancing an architecture that’s distinctly geometric, dominated by the straight line and the right angle. “It’s pure and strong, without embellishment and extravagance,” El Kabbaj says. To contrast with the rigor and severity, they gave the landscaping more freedom and softness. Lawns have curved forms, and the vegetation, as it grows, will invade the buildings a little. “In time, it will bring something more organic and poetic to the project,” Kettani says. That won’t, however, detract from the theatricality that was clearly the goal of all three. “It’s not just any old building. It’s a university with everything that implies, a certain gravitas,” he continues. In other words, a meaningful environment where students can explore both the traditions of the past and the innovations of the future.

Yassine el Aouni: Project Architect. Bepol: Structural, Civil Engineer, MEP. Entreprise Zerkdi et Fils: General Contractor. 

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