Each time I step into the ancient Medina of Fez, I feel as if I am traveling back in time. The Medina (which means “cityâ€ in Arabic) was founded in the ninth century and is considered by many to be the educational, religious, cultural and artisan heart of Morocco. Today it is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, home to thousands of artisans who continue to ply their trades as they have for generations, producing the exquisite pottery, leather, metal, textile and wood crafts for which Morocco has come to be known. I never tire of getting lost in the Medina’s narrow pathways, dodging donkeys, pushcarts and crowds of people, and taking in the sights, smells and sounds of this ancient, living, breathing city that is home to over 100,00 people. It’s easy to see why Fez is a UNESCO World Heritage site—there is truly nowhere like it in the world.
However, much of the Medina has fallen into disrepair from lack of investment. It is common to see wooden beams braced between crumbling buildings to prevent them from collapsing. Approximately 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Over half the Medina’s residents are said to be linked to the artisan sector. These artisans typically work in small, cold, dark and unsafe workshops and I’m constantly amazed that they can produce such beautiful artwork under such conditions. The Medina also faces serious environmental degradation. The Jawahir River (the name means “the River of Jewelsâ€ in Arabic), which bisects the Medina, has become highly polluted from years of being used as an open conduit for wastewater and toxic chemicals used in artisan production.
MCC and the Government of Morocco are working to address the poverty, poor working conditions and environmental challenges through an ambitious project to revitalize Place Lalla Yeddouna (PLY), a public square in the Medina where copper workers and other artisans produce and sell their goods. The project aims to stimulate economic growth by launching a redevelopment project that addresses the dangerous working conditions and safety hazards and makes PLY the center of commerce and community activity that it should be.
MCC and the Government of Morocco launched an open, anonymous International Design competition in September 2010 and selected a winner in March 2011. We were thrilled that 176 teams from over 90 countries registered for the competition. The people of Fez were consulted at various stages, before and during the competition, to provide input on the future of Place Lalla Yeddouna and the needs of residents who would be affected by the project. This led to a conversation about the future of the Medina that was unprecedented in Morocco.
On March 18, 2011, a panel of expert jurors representing all the stakeholder institutions and including a group of renowned international architects selected the design of mossessian & partners, an architectural firm based in London, as the winner. Mossessian’s proposal shows extreme sensitivity to the Medina’s urban context and architecture, using cues from the patterns, geometry and repetition that characterize Islamic design, while introducing innovations like re-connecting Place Lalla Yeddouna to the riverfront and creating a pedestrian route along the river. Outdoor galleries and public spaces will be connected through pathways that echo the Medina’s narrow streets and will be decorated with colorful tiles produced by local artisans, giving each space a distinct identity. Historically important buildings will be rehabilitated and preserved while new buildings will replace less-significant buildings that have fallen into disrepair or are inconsistent with the new uses surrounding the square. The project has already caused the Municipality of Fez to take steps to clean up the river, and additional improvements are planned so that Place Lalla Yedounna can realize its full potential as community center and driver of economic development.
There still remains a lot to be done prior to construction, such as resettling some artisans and cleaning up the polluted river. However, the International Design Competition was an exciting event for the City of Fez and an important milestone for the project. We are on our way to realizing the goal of improving the lives of the people of the Medina, and moving this community closer to a revitalized future.
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