Amsterdam-based architect uses old “medina” as inspiration for social housing issues in Morocco

An alternative perspective towards social housing is the focus of Amsterdam-based, Moroccan-born architect Abdessamed Azarfane, whose graduation thesis attempts to shift the current trend of low quality housing in Morocco.

Entitled “Bayt”, the project transforms Casablanca’s biggest slum into a new “medina” (a distinct city section found in many North African cities). The development aims to return to the romance of these old cities, inspired by the ingenuity of the slums and the efficiency of western urban planning.

Azarfane’s aim is to change the current building trend that focuses on mass low quality housing in Morocco, a trend, he explains, that has no relevance to vernacular principles.

The project has been nominated for the Archiprix NL award for Best Graduation Project in Architecture, Urbanism and Landscape Architecture.

From the architect: 

The motivation behind this project is fed by fascination and frustration. A fascination for the historical, cultural and local urban planning and architecture in Morocco which is slowly disappearing into everyday streetscapes. On the other hand, a great frustration towards the current way of building in Morocco that essentially has no relevance within the centuries-old tradition in urban planning and architecture, leading to a gap between the living environment and the people living in it.

Today this gap is reflected in the way the lower social class (including slum dwellers) are relocated to so called “new towns” outside the city, in settlements built and subsidized for the poor, under the guise of an improved living environment. To what extent is a better living environment the case when segregation and discrepancy are a result? To what extent is this “improvement” really contributing to a better living environment? The country is facing a problem in which politics, strategy and design are mingled.

The shantytown, and the new towns are both extremes on the scale of housing. One is illegal, uncontrollable and unsafe. The other is very strict and rigid, large-scale, controlled, but physically contains a great quality when it comes to the built accommodation. One is the opposite of the other , and neither contribute to a sustainable solution for the (re-) housing problems.

From the government’s perspective the bidonvilles are the big problem. Eradication is seen as the great solution for the city. But when looking at the history, the shantytown is not so much the real problem, but a result of the rapid and ongoing migration to the city combined with the shortage of affordable housing. This is a problem that until this day remains current. The severe shortage of affordable housing in Morocco is growing by 2% each year. The average annual growth of shanty towns is approximately 4%. Simply getting rid of the bidonvilles does not solve the problem, but shifts the problem, in most cases elsewhere, or to the future. Informal housing will continue to grow as long as the shortage in formal housing keeps increasing.

Bayt presents a different view on the current social (re-) housing policy in Morocco. The possibilities for rehousing slum dwellers in the city are shown through a case study set up in Casablanca. Traditional urban planning and architecture are the inspiration for the new (urban) design. Herein, the structure of the medina plays an important role. The district (Houma), the neighborhood (hay), the cluster (Derb) and the house (bayt) are re-introduced in a renewed form as urban elements.

The project site of the shantytown is divided into three districts fitting within the boundaries of the zoning plan for social housing. Each district has a heart, containing a public square, the mosque and other public functions. The souk / shopping street run like economic arteries through all districts and connect neighborhoods to each other as well as to the central market.

In the transition from public to private the plan scales gradually from the city to door. Transitions are carefully designed and felt in the atmosphere of the streets, changing the function and character of the different street-typologies. Wandering from district to cluster, the streets narrow and transform from wide and functional roads to a collective car-free pedestrian area. A healthy and above all safe environment for residents is ensured, which refers to both the car-free streets of the medina as well as the great collective character of the streets in the shantytown.

In a good living environment public spaces, greenery and in the case of Morocco, water are indispensable. The districts are situated around an old stone quarry which is transformed into city park. This is the green oasis for the city. Like the neighborhoods, the public space is also re-scaled from the front door to the city park.

The higher public spaces in the neighborhoods act as collectors for the city park. Rainwater is collected on various squares in the rainy months and descend through waterways into water tanks on different levels in the district. These water tanks relieve pressure on the sewer during rain peaks, and are used in dry seasons to keep the public space and the city park green all year.

An important element in the process is the participation of (future) residents. Unlike other new districts, they have a major role in the realization of the project and the quality of life. The shantytown has been the inspiration for this.

Low budget, few materials and lack of (large) building equipment make the homes compact, simple and sometimes very inventive. Ordinary people, ordinary materials, ordinary construction and yet very particular homes. Because diversity and identity are difficult or almost impossible to design, this plan provides resources. Construction plans include various housing types, a variety of options for window openings, doorways and details. Residents can use these at their discretion, capital and need, to build their own home (under supervision).

The public spaces can also be used at their discretion, in consultation, for example as a laundry-place, playground, or extension of craft workshops around. The result is a dynamic neighborhood that will grow in time into a fully fledged and qualitative habitat.

The new-age medina shows a combination of the social and cultural characteristics of the old medina, the inventiveness of the slum and efficiency of western urbanism. It is a place where people and the environment are matched, an environment inspired by the local force, an environment which slowly forms and grows, and a final image does not exist.

This plan marks a possibility. The ability to think differently means to break new ground and work on sustainable solutions for both residents and the government. A results-oriented plan for a lasting relief of the ongoing migration to the city. A milestone on the road to sustainable urban development in Morocco.

To view more work by Abdessamed Azarfane, visit:

Most Popular