The latest addition to Casablanca’s skyline is a real showstopper. A glistening, rocket-shaped structure with a crown for a roof, the Casablanca Finance City (CFC) Tower in the business district recently became the first-ever African building to be nominated for the prestigious International Highrise Award.
The skyscraper marks a new chapter in the Moroccan city’s fascinating, complicated history of construction. Old meets new here in a mishmash of styles, shapes and sizes – there’s simply no better place in the world to go for an architecture tour.
“Walking around Casablanca is like an architecture lesson,” explains Lahbib El Moumni, a local architect, professor and member of Casamémoire, an organisation that fights to preserve the city’s architectural heritage. “Not only do you have one of the world’s biggest collections of Art Deco buildings, but there’s also Neo-Moorish, Neo-Moroccan, Modern, Brutalist and Postmodern architecture all mixed together. People are always amazed by just how many styles there are here.”
The foundations of Casablanca’s unique appearance were laid by a man called Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey during the French protectorate era. In 1914 Lyautey, the first resident-general, turned to French architect Henri Prost to match his vision of turning the city into an economic powerhouse.
While Art Deco – the style du jour – played an important role in the transformation, local design was not abandoned. Instead, the French-colonial look was merged with traditional Moroccan and Neo-Moorish design to form a wonderful Franken-style called Neo-Moroccan.
Casablanca has remained an architectural laboratory ever since as other styles like Brutalism, Modern and Postmodern have been given a Moroccan makeover on arrival in the city.
Stepping back through time
To appreciate just how many architectural types are crammed into Casablanca, you need only walk down Boulevard Mohammed V, where Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Neo-Classical and Neo-Moroccan all rub shoulders. A left turn into Rue Mohammed Al Quorri takes you to one of the city’s most famous Art Deco structures. Built in 1929, Cinema Rialto is not only a movie theatre but also played host to celebrated singers like Edith Piaf and Josephine Baker.
From there, head south to the Bank Almaghrib branch (completed in 1920) on Boulevard de Paris – a building that, with its Neo-Moorish carved stone facade and Art Deco interior is perhaps the best example of the Neo-Moroccan style. Across the road another Neo-Moroccan gem – the Central Post Office (opened in 1937) – has a stunning blue-tiled entrance that’s thoroughly Insta-worthy.
A quick stroll down Hassan II Avenue, which runs off Boulevard de Paris, takes you past a building that epitomises Casablanca’s bold approach to architecture. The Wilaya (town hall), which opened in 1937, is a veritable museum of styles, featuring a Venetian-inspired clock tower, Andalusian courtyards and columns covered in traditional Moroccan zellij tilework.
From there, Avenue Mers Sultan and Rue Hadj Omar Riffi take you down to Immeuble Liberte (Liberty Building), an imperious monument to the Streamline Moderne, a style inspired by a luxury ocean liner. When completed in 1951, the 17-storey high-rise was the tallest building in Africa.
Fighting for the past
While these extraordinary structures are now valued and protected, it wasn’t always the case. For years, many of Casablanca’s 20th-century buildings were seen as reminders of a colonial past and a hindrance to property developers. After some iconic structures were demolished – including Cinema Vox, the largest movie theatre in Africa upon its completion in 1935 – Casamémoire was born in 1995 to safeguard architecture in the city.
“It was a huge battle for us to raise awareness that 20th-century architecture is part of our heritage and is something that is Moroccan, because it was done in Morocco,” says El Moumni, a driving force in the organisation.
As part of its campaign, Casamémoire launched annual “heritage days” – week-long celebrations of local architecture that include guided tours of buildings normally closed to the public and a cultural programme. The organisation continues to lodge applications with the Ministry of Culture for buildings to be preserved, with 116 structures receiving protection so far. It’s just a drop in the ocean for Casamémoire, though.
“In Casablanca we won’t tolerate any more demolition. Now there is a preservation plan and we have drawn up an inventory of more than 4,000 buildings that need to be preserved,” says El Moumni. “The heritage in Casablanca will now be maintained.”
One of the biggest stumbling blocks for Casamémoire is the accusation that it is blocking investment in the city. El Moumni points out, however, that the buildings they preserve aren’t empty shells but become functional, living structures – like the Sacre-Coeur cathedral that, post-restoration, has become an exhibition centre.
“Preserving the building is not the whole mission,” he says. “The second mission is that the buildings remain alive. It has to be lived in, whether it’s a hotel or a cultural centre. We are not against investment, but are just trying to preserve what we have. Those who invest often see an empty piece of land where they want to put a hotel and they don’t see a historic building standing there. Our message to investors is: it’s great that you want to invest but you can do this while also preserving the historical building, maybe by adding more floors or adapting things in a way that’s allowed by the authorities.”
One of Casablanca’s iconic structures getting a new lease of life is on Boulevard Moulay Rachid in the Anfa district. Now the swanky Paul restaurant, Villa Zevaco (also known as Villa Sami Suissa) was built in 1947 by architect Jean-Francois Zevaco as a mansion for builder Sami Suissa. Nicknamed “the pagoda” or “the butterfly”, the structure became a standout feature in the area, something architect Andy Martin was well aware of when his firm AMA was asked to oversee a restoration and conversion of the whole site, which included adding a new basement.
“We approached the project with the utmost respect for the existing design, working with local authorities to achieve the least compromised solution with a workable commercial programme,” says Martin, who had to find space for three kitchens, dining spaces, a patisserie and function areas in the three-bedroom house. “The architecture of the villa is seen as a timeless capsule, a sensitive container for enjoying the perfect dining experience.”
Beautiful buildings like Villa Zevaco go beyond their primary function to become bona fide tourist attractions. Another towering example can be found on Boulevard de la Corniche. Seemingly rising out of the Atlantic Ocean, the spectacular Hassan II Mosque has a 210m minaret, making it the tallest structure in Casablanca.
Its construction history is the stuff of legend. Commissioned by the late King Hassan II – and inspired by the Quranic verse “the throne of God was upon the water” – it was built between 1986 and 1993. Around 6,000 of Morocco’s best artisans worked day and night, using the finest materials from across the country, including cedar from the Atlas Mountains and marble from Agadir.
An architectural marvel, the mosque has a 200m-long prayer hall that can accommodate 25,000 Muslim worshippers, central heating and a retractable roof. The minaret, which is equipped with a rapid lift that can reach the top of the building in less than a minute, has a laser beam with a 30km range oriented towards Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the holiest city in Islam.
Building the future
Offering spectacular views of the mosque, the nearby Casablanca Finance City Tower boasts its own set of impressive architectural facts and figures. Coming in at 121m tall, the structure is a new benchmark in sustainability and is wrapped in a brise-soleil system that protects against the sun. According to design firm Morphosis the facade “draws inspiration from traditional geometric patterned mosaics and intricate wooden latticework screens characteristic of Moroccan architecture”.
Located in a district that aims to be a financial hub connecting Africa and Europe, the tower is a futuristic structure that sits comfortably among traditional buildings in a city that’s always welcomed innovative architecture.
“What’s interesting about the building is that the designer, Thom Mayne, didn’t think about doing a trade centre that is all glazing, but made it with a skin that will protect it from heat,” says El Moumni. “It represents how architects should work in all of Morocco, not just in Casablanca. I don’t mind if a new building is something interesting that doesn’t touch the architectural heritage directly. If we can get people to come and see the high-rise but at the same time go to the historic structures it would be great. After all, Casablanca is a city that evolves without ignoring its heritage.”
Next up: An architectural guide to Amsterdam