Located at the entrance to the old medina town, Djemaa el-Fnaa is the bustling heart of the city, an artistic, commercial, and religious hub where tourists and locals alike engage with the rich and dynamic heritage of Marrakech’s distinctive culture.Few places on earth offer such a holistic sensory experience, where the scent of mint tea joins the competing sounds of mopeds and the rhythmic drumming of local musicians against a colorful palette of umbrellas from the nearby bazaar.The bustle of the square is punctuated by frequent calls to prayer from nearby mosques. The transition from day to night is particularly dramatic, with daytime merchants packing up and filing out in under an hour, replaced by rows of gas-lit food vendors whose charcoal-roasted kebabs or spicy harira soup send fragrant plumes of smoke into the air. Entertainers, from dancers to musicians to acrobats, lead the square to reach its busiest after dark, transforming the space into a thriving temporary village, which in turn is fully reinvented the following day.
Inherent in the square’s character is a narrative about Marrakech’s history within the unique context of North African urbanism.Djemaa el-Fnaa speaks to the unique character of the Maghreb region of North Africa. Due to the Mediterranean coastline, the urban character of this region is quite different from the others. These are complex cities with layers of history, both distant and recent, with a more complete architectural record of their history than most African cities. The built environments of these cities give you a palpable sense of their vast trajectory through different kingdoms and different times. Cities in this region contain some of the few examples on the continent of indigenous architecture that have survived the tide of modernity. These preserved buildings provide great insight into how, prior to our current culture of globalization, groups used local materials and original designs to respond to the specificities of their climate and geography.Djemaa el-Fnaa is thus the complementary condition: a bustling mixed-use public space designed to bring commercial and religious function into close proximity and to serve as the nucleus of community life.
The square’s identity emerges not from the architecture that surrounds it but from the individuals who occupy it, from the merchants wheeling in carts, from the flood of tourists, from performing artists who bring the heritage of their craft into the present. This is not to disregard the importance of the surroundings. In fact, it was the proposal of a glass tower block that eventually resulted in the square becoming a protected UNESCO Site of Intangible Heritage. Rather, it is to view the square as a representation of what Rahul Mehrotra calls the kinetic city: a vision of the city that is rooted not in static symbols but in the constant motion of its inhabitants, in their cultural practices and daily habits that flood various spaces and give them their character.Djemaa el-Fnaa is perhaps the most prominent of this type of North African urban city square, which is unique on the continent. In most other regions, colonial powers deliberately avoided large gathering spaces to dissuade locals from assembling and protesting.
Djemaa el-Fnaa’s importance as a place of conversation, community, diversity and exchange was evident during the Arab Spring. During this period, the capacity of such spaces to become fully public, to facilitate idea sharing and community activism, was powerfully made visible. The recognition of this was almost certainly behind the 2011 bombing in Djemaa el-Fnaa, which seemed to be an attempt to dissuade similar upsprings of democratic action in Marrakech. The attack highlighted how crucial the square is to Marrakech’s character and its discursive life.
As Djemaa el-Fnaa demonstrates, spaces that at first may appear to reflect a simple condition are much more complex when the actions of individuals and groups are factored in. These unique patterns of movement through space can and should guide the architecture we build to serve them. For space only becomes truly public when people recognize it and utilize it as such. Great public space cannot be built as much as curated; it is architecture’s responsibility to craft space in response to specific needs and unique practices. As Djemaa el-Fnaa shows, it is not the space itself that is meaningful; it is the way space facilitates diversity, interaction, and new negotiations that makes it meaningful.
PUBLIS SCALE: A
Where does Jmaa el-Fnaa fail? It is hard to pinpoint a flaw in this incredible successful hybrid of the public, private, secular, and historical. The square does a tremendous job of acting as a repository for Marrakesh’s incredibly rich, vibrant history (culture, architecture, art forms) while still being an economic hub for the city.