Ornement is nor a crime
par Jean Loup Pivin
Words of reason do not suffice to fully translate an intuition of the mind.
All cities have become international. All production, be it artistic, architectural, literary, industrial or economic, is instantly registered within the world, even though the images of objects and architecture don't always cross the borders of their city or country.
Yet the place, the cultural land and heritage of the production and those who inspire it, turn one message into another and can create misunderstandings. The great misunderstanding of a world in creation and transformation giving people a vision that they can each interpret according to their culture and background. Of all these misunderstandings, one of the seemingly most derisory is the question of embellishment.
Foreigners can recognise elements of old Moroccan heritage but find it hard to accept today's interpretations. Yet modern Moroccan cities contain the same accumulated traces of Morocco's formal history in their suburbs and city-centres, their self-built houses and fancy villas. All the way down to the most underprivileged dwellings, the heavy decor is so omnipresent it can make you think all sense of criticism has been lost. The decoration that adorns bourgeois villas could even appear to be a mere unseemly ostentation in a country of visible poverty.
Despite a post-Corbusier period at the end of the French protectorate and the beginning of independence, most of today's Moroccan architects eagerly embrace decorative embellishment while associating it with acquired modernisms. Post-modernism could be the theoretical justification of this, but it is better to refer to an oriental modern architecture in which Morocco is participating to the full. Let's take one aspect of it: even though the courtyard - heart of the Arab home - has spilled out into the street and despite the fact that nearly all buildings are adorned with windows and balconies, the desire for secrecy remains, translated by the changes the inhabitants frequently make to the facades. While the formal misery of «mass buildings» subjected solely to the economic imperatives of international construction firms distresses the whole planet, it is surprising to note that the same imperatives applied in Morocco produce very different results.
The new town of Salé-El-Jadida, with its 100,000 strong population, was built according to a restricted choice of building and apartment models. But it does not look like a human cattle shed, it looks like a real town. This is partly due to the existence of a street hierarchy, but mainly because it was built around religious poles that map out the town. This example may show a city enslaved by an age-old culture, with no «spectacular» innovation, yet it has a true meaning. The mosques have far more meaning than any supermarket car park, sculptural crossroad-cum-roundabout, administrative town hall, pompous theatre or uncharitable hospital. It was built according to a royal demand that stems from the spiritual and temporal power held by one man alone in Morocco, but it expresses the existential questions of a society and an individual.
This religious power worries those who would like modern Moroccan cities to defend individual liberties, but they should take a better look at the confusion of secular societies that are incapable of finding the words and forms to replace it. One can only hope that the religious power will apply the humanist, tolerant interpretations of its Book and manage to find the words that will let each individual express his or her established and respected differences. Society cannot exist without finality, morals and a meaning to life. The world's different religions and rites used to provide this framework : sometimes tolerant and gentle, other times sectarian and bloody, religions have often abused the spiritual tenets they so strongly advocated. Respecting others - both individuals and cultures - and even plain old cohabitation (now a general rule) should lead to a new look at the role of religions. This reconsideration will obviously never stem from above, it must come from man himself in his quest for fundamental questions linked to life on earth.
A society that still dares to place a building dedicated to spiritual values as a ruling element in the centre of its town is probably more modern than those that put a bank there, i.e. most of the rest of the world. Even though the examples of its neighbouring countries should be feared, as should the frequent premises evoked in Morocco regarding the intolerant side to the Muslim religion, the risk has been taken. It is probably dangerous, but also no doubt the only way out for modern societies that have to invent the sites where one can question the essential matters of life, death and spirituality. No matter what the religion. The different religious practices in the world are known and communicated throughout the planet, so one day the religions themselves will no longer be able to carry on ignoring each other, they will have to reconsider the temporal dogmas of their relationship with the spiritual.
Similarly, going back to the days when the monarchy was restored and independence proclaimed (1956), can we reproach Morocco for choosing to reproduce architectural tradition instead of the international modernity invented by dominant Europe, when modernity and progress legitimised French colonial conquest ? That would have meant taking the all too effective risk of producing a mere caricature for the integration of new technical functions that reduced tradition to mere «packaging». Legitimised by tradition and history, the King had a powerful religious role and could not let the signs of colonial modernity assert themselves without magnifying the contemporary presence of tradition and without running the risk of weakening, if not forsaking his self-same legitimacy.
This choice, which could be purely political, is rooted in another reality that goes back to our first thoughts : the notion of the religious believer carving God's own terms in human creations like sculpted and painted wood, engraved plaster, excised porcelain tiles, chiselled silverware, zelliges... Even though the words disappear into the embellished flourishes of paradise or the geometrical tangle of inspired thought, they flow through all arts, not as meaningless embellishment, but imbued with the very meaning of architecture itself and the life that will be lived within it. The courtyards of ryads, palaces, medersas, mosques and rural houses frame the sky, as if to assert the notion of nature framed by the spiritual. Light - God - is filtered by claustras and moucharabiehs, even though some see them as purely functional (limit the sun's rays or favour ventilation) or social (see and not be seen), whereas in fact they make up a far richer, complex whole. Architecture and decorations are a way of enhancing the hidden order of divine nature and making man appreciate the order of things: the blind can now see. Decoration and objects are intimately linked to the primal meaning of objects and architecture in the Arab world, especially Morocco. One could say the object and the architecture remain unfinished without the specific elements of represented reality that relate to the function of the space and object in question. Just as an African mask does not acquire meaning and life until it has been painted.
Embellishment is the basis to representing the meaning of society in Morocco. It is not the crime upon which the architect Adolf Loss decreed a curse (in Vienna, 1908) that then became one of the foundations of modern architecture, or even of modernity itself.
This is where the debate on embellishment takes on its full meaning. Adolf Loos wanted an end to the "ancien regime" eclecticism that held out until the early 20th century in Europe. He wanted to assert a modern architecture niched in the «purity» of volumes and structure, rid of monumentalised doors, caryatids with nothing left to support and superimposed orders of old or invented styles &endash; like decorative art or Art Nouveau &endash; which were deemed to be the last avatars of obsolete vocabularies. Windows and doors became openings created in relation to functional needs for light, air and entrances : the most striking example being windows that stopped being vertical to frame a human being standing and became horizontal «picture» windows that allow a panoramic vision and transform the landscape outside into an external picture, or else just let you see man lying down. The reason expressed by functional necessity had to invent its own aesthetics : the geometry and now visible structure and raw construction materials were intended to be legible for all, devoid of all those futile stones and embellishments.
Banishing now accessory embellishments &endash; the rational architectural way of hiding purity &endash; became the formal facet of revolutionary commitment that fitted social theses of a collective, free individual who finally had a right to happiness on earth, given that the sky, now mastered by the sciences, contained no god.
In time, this so-called modern architecture became a model throughout the world, for it embodied a sense of belonging to the «new era» (the individual belonging to the city, the country and the continent) while enabling virtually endless cost-effective construction. The science of numbers linked to religions and ancestral social traditions made way for the limits of the technical possibilities of the day. Le Corbusier had no qualms about designing a building that could cover society's needs at a given moment with a flick of his pencil, and aimed purely at quantitative needs. Cities became apartment blocks.
The place of worship or the castle no longer stood as a city's landmark and structure, apartment blocks took this all-integrating role. Other zones were almost half-heartedly designed for other needs, like work or sports. Over the years this utopian model has turned into a less systematic reality, but it is still resounds in urbanist methods today. Despite a few snatches of Moroccan style on official buildings &endash; ornamental embellishments used as architectural accessories &endash; colonisation legitimised its presence through the progressive modernity of modern architecture.
While part of the world finds no meaning in decoration and eliminates it, the other part keeps it going and gives it prime status. Without decoration, the object does not exist. Understanding that there is not one single concept of modernity on earth, and that each concept implies diverse forms, is one of the steps towards a new concept of modernity. Embellishment is not a crime.
by Jean Loup Pivin
(published in the magazine Revue Noire RN33-34, Morocco, September 1999)