Guest Post: Inside the Walls of Fez

Lina Kara’in (BSA 2015) writes for ArchKiosk on her trip to Fez, Morocco with Cristina Parreño Alonso’s Fall 2014 undergraduate studio, Platforms of Exchange in the Medina of Fez​. – AK

The medina of Fez, Morocco is a place that stimulates your senses like no other, with haunting and beautiful sounds, infinite rainbows of color, and unfiltered odors and smells. More than any city I know, it seems suspended in time between the Middle Ages and the modern world.

Walking down the streets of Fez is like stepping back in time. Laid out in the 9th century on the Fez River, Fez was a scholarly and commercial center of North African and Muslim life, and the home of the oldest university in the world, University of Al-Karaouine, founded in 859. Once the capital of Morocco, Fez remains a cultural and spiritual center, and its medina, named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981, remains unchanged in its form and spirit.

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The medina of Fez is a labyrinth of unpaved narrow streets and alleys. Sometimes the streets are so narrow as to permit only one-way traffic; occasionally a motorbike roars through, and you have to back up or step quickly to the side. Though donkeys still often pass through carrying mostly leather goods, the majority of traffic is pedestrian, or feline; stray cats are everywhere.

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The best way to find your way through this unmappable maze is to use your nose. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of stalls in the medina of Fez, selling spices, sweets, fabrics, leather, oils, and metals. For instance, as you come closer to the leather tanneries, you start smelling the unfiltered odors of animal urine and dyes.

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These leather tanneries are among the main attractions in the medina, dating to the Middle Ages. The practice of turning hides into leather has hardly been updated. You can see dozens of workers dipping animal skins in open pits that contain animal urine and pigeon dung, before dyeing them in red, yellow, green, or white, and laying them under the sun to dry. Visitors are typically not permitted around the pits, so a robust tourist business has appeared on terraces overlooking them. You can pay a few Moroccan Dirhams for a peek and you receive some mint to combat the unpleasant odors of the tannery.

Leather making is only one of the many crafts that still exist today in Fez, such as wood and metal working, carpet waving, pottery and many others. Our Studio project is to design a ‘Craft-Factory’ as a platform for exchange: a novel program for the Medina that will bring components of a school, a market, a workshop space, and an urban living room to the old town of Fez. The Craft Factory will foster education, production, and exchange in a productive interaction among the different sectors of the craft industry in the medina of Fez.

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Our site is one of the most strategic sites inside the Medina called The Square of Yeddouna. This area, where the City was founded on the two banks of the River of Fez has been for years a thoroughfare, a commercial and handicraft production area and a venue for holding various cultural festivities that date back to the early 17th century.

In order to understand the city, and more specifically our site, we walked around the city everyday. We built familiarity with our surroundings not through memorizing a city map, but through total immersion in the city and culture. We spent countless hours sketching and taking photos of the medina while talking to local artisans, tour guides, and university professors. We were never told what or how to think, but were rather left to wonder. We learned to trust ourselves and formulate our own perceptions about things; there was not a right or wrong answer.

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By engaging in on-site fieldwork in and around Fez, this trip offered me the chance to truly experience Fez, its history, culture, and architecture, rather than reading about it in books or looking at pictures. It was only after being there that one could truly understand and fall in love with this mysterious place.

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– Lina Kara’in

 

 

 

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