Sometimes the most interesting explorations can be found through “invisible architecture”—the antithesis of "starchitecture."
Sometimes the most interesting explorations can be found through what I call “invisible architecture” or the discovery of what exists in the city but was once hidden to the naked eye. We’ve seen people discovering the formerly “invisible” in recent projects like the High Line in New York, which was always there, in a sense, but was just waiting to be discovered. At the same time, another invisible architecture project emerged, but in Fez, Morocco, and it calls upon visitors to look down and around rather than up and out.
The Fez River Project, spearheaded by award-winning architect Aziza Chaouni and her Bureau of Ecological Architecture & Systems of Tomorrow (Bureau EAST, now Aziza Chaouni Projects), revitalized the city by restoring and uncovering the Fez River, which runs through its center. Although the dense and labyrinthine medina of Fez has been a Unesco Heritage Site since 1981, the river was hidden under concrete until Chaouni’s project was unveiled (literally!) in 2008.
With more than 200 water sources for public use such as hamams and basins for ablutions, Fez is often referred to as “The City of a Thousand Fountains.” Once considered the fluid and raging spine of the city, the Fez River (Oued Fes) became increasingly tainted as a source of clean water when the population turned to it as a convenient sewage outlet for domestic and industrial waste. Toxic chemicals (sulphur ulphate, formic acid, and liquid chrome) were dumped into the once pristine source from the leather tanning industry and copper crafts. Because these industries have contributed to the history and tourism of Fez for hundreds of years, the production only continued to accelerate. Tragically, the City of a Thousand Fountains instead became known as the Oued Boukhrareb—or, the River of Trash.
What did the authorities do? To obscure this disgraceful eyesore and block the stench, the river was paved over to become a road and parking lot. But in 2004, Unesco’s World Heritage Committee took official note and demanded that the enormous slab be demolished. To quote Chaouni: “For the river to reappear, this must disappear.”
Bureau EAST created in place of the concrete parking lot a vast square that Chaouni likens to a grand sort of outdoor living room complete with benches made of recycled wood and riparian plants to oxygenate run-off water. The next phase includes a playground with terraced wetland plantings. Finally, the third stage will include relocating the tanning facility to the new industrial zone outside the medina. In its place, the former color-dye vats will form part of an urban park where workshops will be held in a new Center for Leather Design.
Just as the river races deep within the wadi of historic Fez, Chaouni’s project digs down, undoes and re-builds through the existing and fragile fabric of the historic center. Dedicated to pairing sustainability with design, she is on a mission to have the local population relish in city space and face the water as the uniting force: the lifeblood of the city. Her unorthodox approach to architecture renews the path of the river and its banks as a circulation system for Fez.
It is a radical urban exploration that celebrates nature and human agency while remembering the river’s former life. Newly re-identified as the medina’s iconic heartbeat and woefully misunderstood heritage, the river is quickly becoming its highly visible, audible, and functional central feature. In revealing this once invisible river, Chaouni’s project revives the entire city and the way people go about their daily life. Chaouni configures outdoor rooms taken from the river’s lead. Once freshly exposed, the river weaves under, between, and through existing historic and contemporary structures in celebration of its new freedom and in homage to its past.
I like to think of this “invisible” architecture as igniting conversations and new pathways in the very center of the city simply by using what is there, yet not known. In fact, it is difficult—even useless—to divide city from landscape in this project, as those traditional tropes suggest, because the architect concentrates on the infrastructural components of the city and its natural habitat as a synchronized unit. Her project activates what was always there, waiting to be explored again.
This type of intervention is really the flipside of “starchitecture.” What do I mean by that? Whereas starchitecture or celebrity buildings draw attention to themselves—these are “look-at-me” structures—this project speaks to a different kind of celebrity that highlights a new sense of urban exploration, a kind of archeology or undoing of what was done wrong and waiting to be reversed, and in this case, highlights what was once and now is again, the city’s centerpiece. As invisible architecture, Chaouni reverses the “look-at-me” building and invites us to challenge our concept of history and memory, monumentality, and spectacular architecture, while circling us back to the origins of the river’s life force in the medina.
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Images via Aziza Chaouni