by Jerry ElengicalJul 01, 2022
With his father and grandfather both architects engaged in saving the heritage of Tournai, in Belgium, Quentin Wilbaux grew up surrounded by hand-drawn, watercolour and charcoal drawings and plans. Deeply influenced by this legacy, and driven by his own wanderlust, he arrived in Marrakech in the early eighties, a city abuzz with architectural and urban-planning projects. He moved into the Medina, a fascinating maze of alleys concealing beautiful houses you would never guess existed. From 1990 to 1991, Wilbaux even undertook an inventory elaboration project for UNESCO, as the Medina was a designated World Heritage Site.
From as early as 1993, his interest in the traditional houses of Marrakech began to deepen and he started examining them more closely. He made architectural drawings of the old courtyard houses, or riads, (1) and photographed them, documenting the beautiful residences that still existed in the Medina, before they disappeared. Seeing the deterioration, caused by a lack of maintenance and renovation, and the fragmentation of these magnificent properties, he decided to act and protect this heritage by getting some of his friends and acquaintances interested in buying properties in the Medina, that he would then renovate in the traditional Moroccan architectural style with the help of artisans and maâlems (experts) who still employed the ancestral methods.
It was the renovation of 'Dar el Qadi' (2), which he bought in 1993, that triggered this process of rehabilitation of the traditional architecture to its original condition. After more than 20 years of work that resulted in the restoration of more than 137 houses to their authentic character, Wilbaux has become one of the leading authorities on the Medina of Marrakech.
Alongside these heritage protection efforts, he also conducted an extensive study on Marrakech’s urban history and the development of medinas (3). He presented the findings of his research in a thesis that he defended in June 2000 in Paris, at EHESS, the school of advanced studies in social sciences. The thesis was published in 2002 by Harmattan in Paris under the title La médina de Marrakech: formation des espaces urbains d’une ancienne capitale du Maroc (4). He is also the author of several coffee table books on Moroccan architecture.
Wilbaux lived in the Medina of Marrakech for close to 30 years and now spends his time between Belgium and Morocco. In Belgium, he created Wallonia’s first eco-district (passive row houses with common facilities), Pic Au Vent, in Tournai, and he shares his knowledge and experience at LOCI, the faculty of architecture of UCLouvain (5).
In Marrakech, he continues to study this labyrinth of narrow lanes and houses, thanks to a huge 3D mapping project, ‘Tournai-Marrakech Map 3D’. Part of a bilateral cooperation programme between Morocco and the LOCI faculty of UCLouvain, supported primarily by WBI (Wallonie-Bruxelles International, the agency responsible for the international relations of Wallonia and Brussels), the project aims to simultaneously create territorial and heritage databases in Tournai and Marrakech, based on 3D orthophotography images.
Christiane Thiry (CT): You are originally a Belgian architect, but today you are considered to be an authority on the Medina of Marrakech. How did that happen?
Quentin Wilbaux (QW): I discovered Marrakech when I was on a rail journey through Europe and North Africa at the age of 23. I got off the train in Marrakech and was captivated when I discovered the Medina. At the time, hardly anyone was interested in it, and very few Europeans lived there. Those days, the real estate market in the Medina was practically non-existent. The Belgian architect Pierre Blondel asked me to find him a house where he could work undisturbed on his design projects, far away from his office. While looking at houses for him, I came across incredible treasures hidden behind the doors of the Medina. The architectural richness of the riads had not been discovered yet.
I took photographs and measurements, and drew plans… Within a few months, I had more than 60 plans, along with watercolour paintings. It became a game for me, setting out and looking for these houses. UNESCO had designated the Medina as a whole as a World Heritage Site, but had not studied individual houses. Pierre Blondel asked me to go and meet those in charge of the Heritage Site and draw their attention to these gems. The head of Arab World Heritage suggested that I propose the best riads for inclusion in the National Heritage list to the Moroccan authorities. I worked on a project aimed at taking this forward for UNESCO, identifying the oldest, the biggest and the best looking riads. There were about 500 of them, a good number of which were falling into ruin. I decided to do everything I could to save them. I saved a part of the salary that I was receiving from an architectural firm in Lille and bought Dar el Qadi. This marked the beginning of a huge adventure, the restoration of riads.
CT: You have had an extraordinary career spanning over 30 years and you have restored more than 137 riads in the Medina of Marrakech. What about these spaces in the Medina inspired you and led you to devote your professional life to preserving its beauty and heritage?
QW: It’s the simplicity of the riads. They have no façade, so for starters, you stumble upon them by chance when you happen to enter the lane in which they are located. And as soon as you pass through the doorway and the zigzag corridor that leads to the courtyard, you discover the austerity of these inward facing houses. White walls, carpets covering the floors, mosaics and very little furniture. The local builders knew how to draw attention to certain more elaborate details such as the painted ceilings crowning the living rooms and b’hous (lounges opening onto the patios), and the alcoves, but also how to allow the gaze to rest on white surfaces and the blue of the sky. The accounts of travel writers from centuries gone by also bear witness to the simplicity of the riads. Gilded embellishments were not the tradition. The whole house was plain, and intended to be visually serene.
CT: The riads were once traditional, inward facing, middle-class homes. Today they have been refurbished as hotels or restaurants. How have these spaces been restored so as to enable a harmonious fusion of their original sacred character and their new purpose?
QW: We did whatever was possible to preserve the traditional spaces and the manner in which they were centred around an open area, which was either planted, or had a fountain or spring. These spaces were homes, and though the symbolism of paradise is present throughout, they did not necessarily have a sacred character. Above all, we did our best to carry on using the original materials: earth, lime, sand. We acknowledged the craftsmanship and forms that are associated with these traditional materials, while allowing ourselves to adapt the spaces to contemporary requirements. Several restored riads became guesthouses and offer those who are eager to discover the authentic Moroccan art of living, the opportunity to do so.
CT: You are passionate about conserving the heritage of the Medina of Marrakech, an important aspect of which is preserving the tradition of the artisan builders. Could you share with us some of the challenges you faced in this regard and how you have managed to integrate the art of working manually in the work that you do?
QW: When I moved to Marrakech, in 1986, most of the old trades and the artisans still existed. It was magical. When I began restoring Dar el Qadi, my neighbours recommended their mason to me, an extraordinary old maâlem. Well-built and authoritative, he would taste the sand to identify its origin and decide for which type of coating it could be used. Each family in the Medina had its own maâlem back in the day, who knew the ancient techniques as well as magic. After all, this type of artisanal construction employed a judicious pairing of body and mind.
One had to, for example, sprinkle drops of whey in the four corners of the room to feed the jnouns (evil spirits), before starting work on the site. To make a tadelakht floor, a floor with a coating made essentially of earth and pure lime, the workers would compact the ground for hours, singing all the while…
However, the real estate boom of the 21st century had a negative impact on these artisanal skills. With my company, Marrakech Medina, at one point, we were working on more than 20 sites at the same time. The riads became fashionable by the early 2000s. With our teams, we restored 137 houses. I stopped doing this over 10 years ago, others continue with it but using a different approach to mine. Builders now prefer industrial smooth concrete to the tadelakht coatings of yesteryear as it is cheaper and easier to apply. The famous Marrakech lime has become almost impossible to find.
So I take photographs, I sketch, I document, and I am drafting guidelines for the use of traditional materials in order to preserve these traditions… And I plan to write a book to share them.
CT: The new projects in the Medina of Marrakech are a mélange of Moroccan embellishments and various Western styles and influences. Do you find any particular style attractive, other than the traditional Moroccan architectural styles?
QW: The prevalent style, mostly eclectic, of the construction and renovation projects of today in Marrakech is not particularly to my liking. I would always prefer the integrity of an architectural style that stems from respect for materials and adapts itself to different functions and life styles.
(1) A riad or ryad is a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard
(2) Literally, ‘House of the Judge’
(3) The old walled parts of North African towns
(4) The Medina of Marrakech, Development of Urban Spaces of an ancient Moroccan capital city.
(5) Université Catholique de Louvain
(This interview was originally conducted in French. Any differences in the English translation are purely interpretative.)