GUESTS OF THE DESERT

BY: MARCIN MOŃKA, PHOTOS: JEAN-MARIE MONTHIERS

MARRAKESH 14.1.2016

ARCHITECTURE DESIGN PEOPLE TRAVEL

Contradictory values are the basis of virtually the whole culture and civilization. We also accept many challenges in opposition to someone or something. Can contrasted worlds and notions have anything in common? In other words, is their borderline clear-cut or weak and faded?
Let me take you on a trip, this time to Morocco, occasionally called ‘the land of contrasts.’ Do not be misled by the memories of offers once presented to you in travel agencies. Let us travel with the Beat Generation members, such as the eminent writers William Burroughs and Alan Ginsberg, who found their refuge in Tangier. Or we could follow the premonitions of a Belgian film producer, who reached another alluring region of that country – Marrakech and its vicinity. Let us accompany him to Fobe House. What can make a man accustomed to comfortable Western life build a house virtually in the desert? A breathtaking landscape is a serious argument for that idea, but is it sufficient?

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The investor’s name is Dimitri de Clercq. He is not the first film industry person to have loved Morocco. Let us check the long chain of films made here: Lawrence of Arabia by David Lean, Sheltering Sky by Bernardo Bertolucci, The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun by Martin Scorsese or Babel by Alejandro González Iñárritu. The list of titles is very long.

Still, de Clercq did not come here to find a perfect film set: he decided to build his house ten kilometres south of Marrakech. The Atlas Mountains linger on the horizon. Since the land is flat and the climate warm, the building’s shape was designed so as to protect its residents from sun and wind, while the two ‘sails’ from the Western side play the role of an acoustic and visual barrier. Changing the landscape was not the designers’ aim, but the house obviously became a footprint of civilization. Nonetheless, Fobe House coexists with its surroundings using the beauty of contrasts.

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Architecture has always been photogenic: there are many links between the building mass and the celluloid tape. The basic criterion is movement, in which we perceive architecture, a change of perspective or the sense of scale. The eyesight moves when a perspective opens up in front of it. This human sense, so adored by the surrealists (as a tool for stalking – or, when turned off, for escaping into the subconscious), was the domain of i.a. Giorgio de Chirico. Upon looking at Fobe House from the distance, the connection with the Italian surrealist’s paintings seems quite close. It is the eye that lets us play with this architecture, discovering the subsequent elements of the structure. While approaching the house, we notice more new, surprising shapes. The space continuously opens up and influences the change in perceiving forms and outlines. ‘Fobe was made in two phases, the first one being the creation of the main silhouette. Every element of the house was well thought out and every square metre of the space was discussed with the owner,’ admits Guilhem Eustache, the creator Fobe House, a graduate of l´Ecole Spéciale d´Architecture de Paris.

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De Clercq turned Fobe House into a retreat of sorts, but did not forget about his family. His mother, who lives here, is an Egyptologist by profession: she has conducted examinations on numerous archaeological sites. She also inspired the idea of bringing architecture to life in the natural desert surroundings. ‘There is nothing more ridiculous than trying to drag the lifestyle of Western Europe to Morocco, and that includes architecture,’ Guilhem Eustache admits. Every region, including Marrakech, deserves development which is the most suitable for the area. ‘We decided to use local raw materials such as clay. We appreciated the locals’ guidelines concerning e.g. the number of rainy days per year (10-20), rain intensity or the depth on which potable water can be found underground (40 metres),’ the architect adds. The owner had one more wish: he wanted the house to overlook the Atlas Mountains, by way of a contrast with the desert landscape. The architect fulfilled that wish: de Clercq may watch the mountains undisturbed from a roof terrace. Could Hegel have been right in claiming many years ago that architecture was the first among all arts?

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Fobe House is an incredible meeting of the Western and Eastern culture. It is a precisely planned and yet maximally simplified architecture ‘inscribed’ in the desert landscape. It is an ever-worrying test of strength: man versus nature. Its result is easy to guess unless one bears in mind the quote from Dune by Frank Herbert: ‘Polish comes from the cities; wisdom from the desert’ and is ready for such a lesson. And what if this house was to become a film? De Clercq has already considered this. ‘Maybe it could be a classic under the banner of Jean-Luc Godard, that is, Le Mépris, with the main role played by a villa with stairs leading to the roof. Sometimes I look at the walls inside my house and imagine my favourite film being shown on them,’ the director admits. The architect likes such a wide area of interpretation. ‘I wanted people to perceive this house as a range of possibilities,’ Guilhem Eustache declares.

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Fobe House and the surrounding space tell various stories and more or less likely narratives. The main ‘actors’ are inimitable despite the noticeable differences. We are drawn to their distinctiveness. As the famous Polish psychologist Antoni Kępiński once noted, ‘people hardly tolerate their lookalikes and join by the principle of contrast.’ Guests of the desert, such as Guilhem Eustache and Dimitri de Clercq, remembered one more lesson and did not let the appearances mislead them. ‘Nature can only be defeated by listening to it,’ said Francis Bacon.

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