Moroccan architecture is diverse. Colorful. Unique. Often stunning. And sometimes, completely hidden from view.
Deceptive beauty is a phenomenon we observed regularly in Morocco. It’s a pattern we first noticed while wandering the medina of Marrakech. Our guide describes this phenomenon as blind architecture: the beauty hidden behind every wall.
Certain structures–such as mosques or palaces–display outward beauty to the world around them. Meanwhile, many other buildings appear plain on the outside. Heavy wooden doors provoke curiosity. Tall, windowless walls leave the curious traveler wondering, “what’s inside?”
Most of the time, this question was left unanswered. But when we did have the opportunity to actually enter one of these buildings, we became awestruck by the splendor of Moroccan architecture, art, and attention to detail.
This idea of blind architecture certainly applies to the elegant riad that we called home for 3 nights. From the outside, the entryway to the riad is humble and unassuming. But inside, a gorgeous courtyard and ornate fountains decorate the internal space.
Zellige tilework covers floors, walls and ceilings. Each tile is hand-carved. This type of skilled, precise craftsmanship dates back centuries.
So, why is such exquisite beauty kept secret from the outside world?
To try and answer this question, let’s explore some of the factors that may contribute to this style of design.
Moroccan architecture: theories behind this “blind” approach
1. Physical comfort
Many buildings in the medina of Marrakech are 1000 years old. The architects who designed them combined high walls with open-air courtyards, ensuring temperatures remain cooler on the inside than the desert’s unforgiving heat on the outside.
This approach is as resourceful as it is practical.
Outside the home, a lack of external windows makes it impossible for inquisitive outsiders to peer in. Inside the home, rooms typically have windows and balconies facing in toward the courtyard. This inward-facing design gives the family privacy from the outside world.
Several design elements combine to protect the home and its inhabitants:
- High, imposing walls are difficult to breach
- Thick, robust doors are reinforced with bolts & sophisticated locks
- A lack of windows, helps hide any riches that may provoke intruders
The approach to construction addresses the basic human needs of physical survival and safety.
4. Modesty & humility
So far, all these concepts seem logical and rational. Also, they seem relevant to both ancient times and the modern day. But let’s open our minds to another concept, more ideological in nature.
High, windowless walls and a plain exterior serve to shield those less fortunate on the outside–from the affluence possessed by those on the inside–so as not to incite feelings of jealousy, envy or a low sense of self-worth.
This very human way of explaining the hidden approach to construction was described by our guide as being “a fundamental notion of Islam.”
Whether this concept of blind architecture was born of humility, the desire for privacy or the more practical need for home security, one thing is certain: much of the beauty we discovered within the medina of Marrakech…was on the inside.
What’s your perspective?
- Great excerpt from Elan Fleisher’s book, The Riads of Marrakech
- This article provides background on the history and style of Moroccan architecture