Tuesday, August 3, 2010

"So, what exactly are you doing in Morocco?"

Here is my Statement of Grant Purpose, what I submitted with my Fulbright application, along with an Architecture Portfolio and Personal Statement.

Architecture in the Making: Artisans and the Restoration of Fez, Morocco

My research focuses on the role of artisans in the recent effort to restore the ancient city of Fez.  The goal of my project is to document the traditional uses of architectural building materials and how they are being affected by the modernization of the old city or 'medina'.  I will research the integral link between the city's architectural heritage and the work of its artisans, culminating in a book containing interviews, drawings, and written analysis.  Because Fez is a World Heritage Site, there have been many studies of the restorations underway.  What makes my project unique is its concentration on artisans, their viewpoints and how the celebration of their practices is both a link to preserving history and a way to bring Fez into the future as a sustainable 21st century city.



Known throughout the world as Morocco's spiritual and intellectual capital, Fez has a vibrant architectural crafts industry.  Colorful tile, intricately carved woodwork, and detailed plasterwork fill the medina and its more than 3,000 monuments and 10,000 traditional courtyard spaces.  Maalems, or master craftsmen are important keepers of the time-honored methods but their population is declining and their wisdom is in danger of being lost.  The decorative architectural elements they create are not merely ornamental, but reflect values of Moroccan society and important religious tenants of Islam.  The spaces they define are emblematic of the way people live and how the city has functioned since its founding in 789 AD.

In the last century, however, overpopulation, economic decline, and environmental stress have caused the medina to fall into critical disrepair.  Houses are collapsing due to structural failures; theft and neglect have left once-animated gathering spaces derelict.  This has led to the degeneration of traditional building methods and their replacement by cheaper, imported facsimiles.  In addition, long-established uses of buildings have changed.  Houses for a single extended family have been subdivided and packed full to keep up with a rising population, creating one of the densest cities in the world, a density the city cannot support.

Great effort has been put into restoring the Fez medina, its balance in the environment and its architecture in the last twenty years.  Since teaming with UNESCO, l'Agence pour la Dedensification et la Rehabilitation de Fes (ADER-Fes), a local team of architects, engineers and planners, has employed 160 artisans and workers to restore buildings in need of repair.  Fouad Serrhini, the president of ADER-Fes, has expressed interest in my project and has written a letter of reference and support.  He will allow me to observe restorations in progress, interview artisans and workers involved, and learn about the role of his organisation as appointed by the Ministy of the Interior.

Among the goals of ADER-Fes is the development of institutions within existing ruined buildings to foster the city's cultural and intellectual life.  Such projects include the transformation of and 18th century livestock market into a woodwork museum, restoration library and laboratory, (LLR, Laboratoire de Restauration et Rehabilitation), and the conversion of a 14th century 'funduk' or traveler's lodge into a school and dormitory.  Similarly, individual Moroccans and foreigners alike have begun buying and restoring traditional houses (riads) in the medina to become private residences, guesthouses and restaurants.  Fez Riads facilitates the donation of funds from its guesthouses to finance small restoration projects in the medina.  Its founder, Helen Ranger, has agreed to put me in contact with craftsmen with whom she has worked on various restoration projects, including her own 400-year-old house.

To relieve pressure on the city's infrastructure and to ease pollution, another objective of ADER-Fes is to reduce the medina's population from 600,000 to 300,000 inhabitants.  One way to make space has been to relocate building materials workshops such as tile manufacturing to a new craftsmen's district outside the medina, Ain Nokbi, which is equipped to handle industrial waste.  I will visit new communities of craftsmen to observe how they have adapted to their relocation and compare their viewpoints to those still living inside the old city.

By documenting techniques used by master craftsmen of tile (zelij), carpentry and plaster, my research will serve in a timely effort to record traditional building practices.  I will investigate how traditional techniques are being passed from one generation to the next.  I will also examine how the cultural significance of houses and monuments in the medina is being affected by changes in their use.  Using my architectural training, I will draw and draft architectural elements in existing buildings and restoration projects by hand and with the use of my laptop computer and camera.  I will pair each drawing with a description of its cultural significance using research conducted at Fez's many cultural institutions including IFMTB (Institut de Formation aux Metiers Traditionnels du Batiment) and LRR, (Laboratoire de Restoration et Rehabilitation), both branches of ADER-Fes.  I will use my fluent French to conduct research, while taking Arabic classes at the American Language Institute of Fez (ALIF) in order to better communicate with artisans and workers.  The final product will be a catalog of important architectural building elements, interviews and written analysis.  I will make a copy of the book for the libraries of the aforementioned institutions, and upload the book online as a tool for people throughout the country involved in restoration projects.  Throughout my ten and a half month stay in Morocco I plan to have an online blog to record my findings and to interact with the greater community.

The importance of my research lies in the cultural connection Fassis have with their city.  Architectural restorations must take on cultural credibility with the local population in order for the city to continue to function as an organism.  As Abdellatif El Hajjami, the former director of ADER-Fes says, "The driving force behind the restorations is a belief that the soul of Fez is its people, their liveliness, which has througout the centuries been constantly evolving and adapting to their contexts.  Thus, I believe in a process of preservation which is adaptive on the one hand and on the other hand benefits the population, not freezing them into time, but projecting them into the future while still keeping the soul of the city intact."

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