In 1952-53, Sverre Fehn went to Morocco, on Jørn Utzon’s advice, to study traditional Moroccan masonry architecture, an experience that was to be very significant for his own architectural thinking.
Some of the many sketches and notes from his journey were summarized and presented in Byggekunst no. 5-1952.
When Picasso showed us the Negro sculpture and said: ”This is reality to us”, he might as well at that moment have signed it. It was a work of creation. He says it himself: ”I find, and I am in what I find”.
The same thing happened to Le Corbusier when he stood with the new material, concrete, in his hands and saw a new image of modern man. He suddenly saw the primitive masonry architecture. In fact, it became identical to his own world of form.
And suddenly a new world existed. The interest focused on how the negroes of Central Africa smeared the clay onto bamboo, how the Japanese laid the logs of his little dwelling house, how ”inside” and ”outside” were composed, how the ”natural space” was the main theme in the design of houses and urban communities.
That was in the 20’s.
Travelling south to French Morocco today, to study primitive masonry architecture, is not a journey of discovery to find new things. You recognize. This is how Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses in Taliesin must seem. Dissolved in the same way, and with the same roughness in their material structure. And this is how Mies van der Rohe’s walls must be. The same character of endlessness. And here is Le Corbusier’s poem of the terrace and the roof in the modern city plan. It has, in short, become required reading. A means to penetrate deeper into an understanding of modern architecture.
And the primitive seems as clear and logical in its structure as nature itself. It is blissfully free of speculation. Here is how they plan and build their towns.
"Travelling south to French Morocco today, to study primitive masonry architecture, is not a journey of discovery to find new things. You recognize."
Along rivers and oases there are fertile areas in the desert. The soil is cultivated as far as the river can feed the fields with water. The tilled earth is so valuable to the inhabitants, that they build their little towns and communities in the desert sand a little way away from the cultivated fields.
There are no roads in our understanding of the word, as they do not use wagons. The desert plain carries all traffic between the towns, as an ocean carries all traffic between islands. The natives leave the oases or the towns on their camels and donkeys, following the stars and the sun. And the towns get their particular expressions from the rhythm of this traffic. Their form is absolutely free, not given by their relation to a road, as our towns are. And the theoretical limits of their expansion are as vast as the desert plain itself.
A section through the town tells us the following. At the outskirts, low enclosures for animals, then small storehouses for the animal feed. The dwellings are grouped in the core of the town. Ground floor is for storage, or it is used as a workspace for the Arabs in the summer when the heat and the light become too strong. These rooms are cool, because the walls are thick. On the first floor the food is usually prepared, and if there is a second floor, this is the sleeping- and living room. The rooms are practically unfurnished.
"Ground floor is for storage, or it is used as a workspace for the Arabs in the summer when the heat and the light become too strong. These rooms are cool, because the walls are thick."
When you go to bed at night, a straw mat is rolled out for you on the floor, and you are given a blanket for cover.
If you are eating, you take off your shoes, sit down on the mats that are laid out, and a small, low table is brought in with the food. The furnishing is mobile. When the whole eating ceremony is over, the room is empty again. Something of the mobility of a nomad culture remains. It feels like our own ”Breakfast on the grass”.
You suddenly feel that the purpose of walls is not just to carry a roof or to ”make” a house, but that in one moment they are made to create shade, the next to be your back rest, in the autumn the rack for drying dates, in the spring a blackboard for children to draw on.
It is the same with the roof and the floor. All the different parts of a house are objects for use.
All these elements join in a free, rhythmical dance around the open and the closed spaces. They move around you as a spatial sculpture. This has nothing to do with naivism, with Henri Rousseau. Nothing European, where the house poses in the consciousness like some creature. Where the roof is a hat, the windows are eyes and the door a mouth. Arab children were never able to make a drawing of the house they lived in.
Here is a regional use of materials. The houses literally grow out of the ground they are built on. For example: The desert town is built in the sand. To the sand is added a certain quantity of water, and then it is pressed into a standardised wooden mould for a few days, and then the sun does the rest of the work. And this wooden mould is the module of the town. Its dimensions are given by how quickly and practically this cube of wet clay can dry. When using such a building method, a house is never technically a finished entity. It can bee extended in all directions at any time.
"All these elements join in a free, rhythmical dance around the open and the closed spaces. They move around you as a spatial sculpture."
With its single material, this architecture has no other ”effect” than the eternal shifts of light and shadow. The colour of the town is the same as that of the earth. The only thing that makes us notice the houses at all, is that they form another angle with the sunlight than the ground they are standing on.
The mountain town is made by following the same regional principles as the communities in the desert. But here, the ”Natural space” is different, and the ground is stone and rock. This changes their character completely. As the walls of the house are laid, stone upon stone, their rhythm by necessity conforms to that of the mountain.
You can compare primitive and modern architecture. You can look at it as a subject in its own right and analyse it. It seems clear and simple. But why? When it exists in a culture that seems so vastly removed from ours.
If you sat in southern Morocco for two years, blindfolded, just listening, feeling the scent of the nature and the people, and then took off your blindfold, you would have learned nothing.
You would be just as much of a stranger when the Arabs sit quietly waiting for the sun to dry the water out of a river after a shower of rain. It will still be a riddle to you why no one lays down a few planks so they can walk across.
You would still wander unaffected through the listening crowds of a market, and see men gripped in a ridiculous ecstasy by a primitive music, some dancing until they foam at the mouth.
You could admire the beauty of their clothing. Their masterly treatment of the fabric, but if you were to wear it yourself, you would feel uncomfortable because you would know that it makes it impossible for you to run fast.
"The only answer to the clarity and simplicity of the architecture, is that it exists in a culture that seems timeless to us."
And when you walk in the valleys at sunset and hear the hoarse cries of a holy man kneeling at the highest roof of the town, you would think: I know nothing about this.
The only answer to the clarity and simplicity of the architecture, is that it exists in a culture that seems timeless to us.
Architecture works towards ”perfection”, because it works in a timeless space. Its signature is ”Anonymous”, for it is nature itself.
English translation by Ingerid Helsing Almaas