Morocco

Cool on the Hill

Writer

Alia Gilbert

Photographer

Dan Glasser

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If you happen to be an intuitive wanderer, a two-hour drive south of the bustling city of Marrakech to Morocco’s pristine Ourika Valley could lead you off the main route and onto a particular, unassuming road that snakes between fragrant pine and almond trees.

Easily missed, this road winds its way through rolling foothills in the shadow of North Africa’s tallest mountain range until it opens up to reveal the deep, earthy red walls of a home emerging from the ridge up ahead. This house – dubbed Villa E by its architects at Studio KO – blends in so well with its natural surroundings that a hasty eye could easily miss it. But Villa E is not to be overlooked.

Our idea was to make the house a container of the landscape

From the designers’ hyper-local approach to the building’s materials, vegetation and construction methods, to the refreshing interior that provides a comforting balance of both modern lines and traditional Moroccan influences, Villa E exudes a deep sense of reverence for the land upon which it sits.

Architects and founders of Studio KO Olivier Marty and Karl Fournier, along with Villa E’s project manager Nabil Afkiri, took great care to reflect that reverence from the first blueprints to the finishing touches of construction.

When he first set eyes on the site, Afkiri felt that it was special – sacred, even. Nestled on a spectacular ridge, the remote location of the prospective villa was no ordinary plot of land. Any building there, he thought, had to reflect the landscape’s majesty while not imposing on it.

‘The first thing I thought of was that it would be a really big responsibility to design something there,’ Afkiri says. ‘The land was here before us. We have to be inspired by it so that the project will blend in with it, rather than stick out like a statue on a pedestal.’

The local Ourika red stone used for the construction – found only in this particular valley – allowed Villa E to merge with the ridge gracefully and without pretension. The entrance to the house cannot be seen from afar; a special panel overlaps the main door so that, from a distance, the building appears as an impenetrable stone wall. ‘We wanted to give the impression that the land was limitless,’ says Afkiri.

It took a little over six months for three local Berber men to collect the stones from the valley. Every day, two baskets on either side of their donkeys groaned with the weight of the red rocks as they climbed up and down the hilly path.

In the mean time, Afkiri, Marty and Fournier took time to observe time-honoured construction methods in the neighbouring village, like the traditional ‘tree trunk’ technique of creating doorways and windows, or the best way in which to set the Ourika stones.

‘We looked at how they built homes here before we did. Our main concern is to always work within the context,’ Afkiri says. ‘We don’t see the work of an architect as work that comes from the outside, but rather work that comes from the land itself.’

The house was originally planned to replicate a kasbah – a kind of traditional Arab fortress or group of smaller stone structures surrounded by high walls. Monolithic in appearance and dimension, kasbahs dot the hills surrounding Marrakech – some recently serving as hotels, others much older structures. With massive rectangular floor plans and looming towers on all four corners, for centuries these strongholds both protected their inhabitants while exhibiting the wealth within.

Rather than design a home that directly copied architectural endeavours of the past and overpowered its surroundings, as a citadel would, Studio KO decided to do something that had never been seen before: reinterpret the Moroccan kasbah in a way that would honour ancient customs while creating a modern, Moroccan-inspired living space.

According to Afkiri, stepping into Villa E is ‘like entering a cathedral. The ceiling is so high that the first reflex you have is to look up.’ The second, he says, is to take a deep breath – or two. Eight-metre tall ivory walls give an unexpectedly spacious welcome and stand in stark contrast to the darker stone outside.

Afkiri adds that even the act of entering the house is an essential part of its composition: the heavy wooden door is ten centimetres thick and requires the force of both hands to be pushed open. ‘It’s a physical experience, entering the home,’ he says.

Modern amenities like an infinity pool, solarium and entertainment centre are neatly hidden throughout the space, and every corner and crevice evoke a deep sense of reflection. The use of raw materials, whether local walnut wood or simple rough concrete, work together to replicate the outside terrain and simplify the inner space. ‘Our idea was to make the house a container of the landscape,’ Afkiri says.

Raw local cedar was used to craft all of the doors and wardrobes, while rich, varnished walnut lumber (also local) was used for tables and some of the walls. Untreated materials were utilised as much as possible throughout the house, which has two floors, seven bedrooms, a courtyard and a terrace.

Finding a balance between letting in the Moroccan sun’s hot summer rays and showcasing the remarkable views was a tricky task. But skylights flood the inside with natural light, while prism-like cuts into the structure open all of the windows in a southwest and southeast direction, without allowing direct heat from the sun to enter.

Afkiri says that the climate and time of year not only influenced the initial design of the building, but continue to do so. In the Ourika Valley, where these elements can shift day-to-day, it seems that the inspirations shaping Villa E’s blueprint do too.

‘While you’re on the ridge, the centre of gravity changes. When it’s really foggy, the centre of gravity is where you stand – the top of the hill. When it’s winter, gravity is drawn towards the view,’ says Afkiri.

‘The second time you go to the house, it’s even more spectacular,’ he adds, smiling.

This article can be found in Brownbook’s September/October 2014 Issue.

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