Cultural Ambassador

PROJECT Centre culturel du Royaume du Maroc–Dar Al Maghrib, Montreal, Quebec
TEXT Newsha Ghaeli
PHOTOS James Brittain unless otherwise noted

In the heart of Paris, Jean Nouvel’s Institut du Monde Arabe remains an icon. A product of globalization and an attempt to integrate Arab immigrants into the French metropolis, the building’s intricate façade skillfully combines traditional Islamic ornamentation with contemporary European design. 

A new building in Montreal is trying the same trick. Dar Al Maghrib, or Morocco House, caters to Quebec’s 80,000 individuals who identify as Moroccan. The centre is the first in a series of Moroccan cultural centres planned worldwide– predominantly in French-speaking cities–an endeavour entirely funded by the North African country. Its objectives? To strengthen cultural ties within the Moroccan community and to Quebec and Canada at large. 

The choice to establish the first of these centres in Montreal reaffirms longstanding economic, political and institutional links between Morocco and Quebec. Since the mid-1960s, the province has acted as a major North American destination for French-speaking Moroccan immigrants. The inauguration of the centre by Moroccan royalty in 2012 marked 50 years of bilateral relations between the National Assembly of Quebec and the House of Representatives of the Kingdom of Morocco. 

Designed by Montreal-based architects ACDF, Morocco House sits rather unassumingly on the northern edge of the city’s historic Old Port district, on a small piece of land owned by the Moroccan monarchy. The project is an expansive renovation of a four-storey, 1960s structure where very few cuts and modifications have been made to the building’s exterior. Holding the corner of two main streets just a few blocks south of the bustle of the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and the animated crowds of the Latin Quarter, the building overlooks the barren Square Viger that covers the buried Ville-Marie Expressway. A barely visible Moroccan flag waves lazily atop the roof. A rather understated awning adorned with traditional Islamic patterns hangs from the faded stone façade and announces the glass entrance doors to the concrete field across the street. These subtle cues are the only outside indications of the building’s purpose, making one liable to miss it altogether. 

By contrast, upon entering, the building reveals an exceptional interior transformation. Architect Maxime-Alexis Frappier and his team have harmoniously blended a refined contemporary design with traditional elements common within the walls of an ancient Moroccan medina. The program includes all the elements expected in a place of cultural exchange: a multi-functional hall, an event space that doubles as a gallery, meeting rooms and classrooms, a traditionally furnished Moroccan living room and a médiathèque. These are all pushed to the periphery of the building surrounding the existing service core. The design team knew they had to compose the central core to draw the movement of people around it. “This became our base concept,” says Frappier. “So right from the beginning, the core had to be something strong. Something poetic.”

The solution came during a trip to Morocco where the design team was introduced to zillij, a form of traditional mosaic art that has been practiced in Morocco since the 10th century. Small terracotta tiles are set into plaster, creating intricate geometric patterns that cover the country’s imperial cities, from floors to ceilings and fountains to pools. ACDF knew instantly that they needed to integrate this stunning work into the project. They decided to spend a large portion of their modest budget in bringing Moroccan artisans to Canada to embellish the building’s central service core–a decision leading to tradeoffs such as the bashful exterior.

The resulting mosaic tiles that adorn the central heart are rich in colour like a Moroccan spice market, and are arranged meticulously into blossoming circular patterns. Each floor radiates with a different palette: royal red, the colour of the nation’s monarchy and flag; saffron yellows warming to hues of turmeric and steaming couscous; emerald greens glittering like jewels and cooling to an aromatic mint tea; and sapphire blues reminiscent of ancient Islamic pottery glazes. The tiny diamond- and square-shaped terracotta tiles are laid with mathematical precision. The mosaics are crowned by a half-metre-thick trim that forms a continuous band around the core. Sculpted from plaster into an intricate motif, the ornamentation reveals Moroccan stars, fleurs-de-lis, and maple leaves. 

In terms of organization, the compact building is simply arrayed around the core on each floor. The only deviation is a west-facing double-height hall linking the bottom two floors and main programs–the event space and the exhibition room. Directly off the entrance, daylight floods into this hall through newly added windows on the west façade. An ornate laser-cut lattice filters this light, and shifting patterns of shadow mark the passage of time throughout the day. The lattice is reflected in a black, almost mirror-like dropped ceiling, giving the impression of a much larger space. An imposing grand staircase featuring a solid teak balustrade descends through the centre of the hall, commanding attention. The teak continues on the upper balcony railing, folding like a wrapper to its underside. Understated wall treatments grace the rest of the building: arid chalk-white walls evocative of Moroccan stone structures are contrasted by lustrous black doorframes and subtle baseboard reveals. 

Perhaps the most successful aspect of Dar Al Maghrib is the thoughtful coexistence between the traditional embellishments and ornamentations and the sleek functional design. The most calculated attempt at this coexistence is through ACDF’s subtle transitions between the traditional motifs and contemporary finishes. The ornamentation in the building is literally framed within a slender stainless steel border. The zillij and plaster carvings are all supported and protected by this ribbon–as if to preemptively delineate the space within which the Moroccan artisans would operate. The frame is a subtle detail but applies a slight drop shadow that allows the embellishments to glow. 

After three separate visits, however, Dar Al Maghrib seems to be as empty as the park across the street. A year after opening, its website has just come online, and weeks trickle by between various modest events. Unfortunately, the site’s peripheral location between the Latin Quarter, UQAM and the Old Port does not lend itself to casual passersby, reinforcing the importance of site selection for a public building of this nature. Luckily, the careful architectural blend of clean, modern design and ancient decorative traditions ensures a repeat visit once one has discovered the place. The centre’s programming will hopefully soon find ways to fully inhabit this promising building, luring both Moroccan and non-Moroccan Montrealers to venture through the mute façade and discover the oasis within. CA

Newsha Ghaeli is a recent Master of Architecture graduate from McGill University and holds a Bachelor of Architectural Studies from the University of Waterloo. Currently, she is planning a research endeavour called China in Superlatives with a travel and exhibition grant from the John Bland Scholarship.

Client Consultat général du Royaume du Maroc à Montréal
Architect Team Maxime-Alexis Frappier, Sylvain Allaire, Louis-Philippe Frappier, Laurence Le Beux, Laure Giordani, Denis Dupuis, Gabriel Villeneuve, Jea
n-Philippe Parent, Patrick Morand, Véronique Taillefer, Robert Dequoy, Simon Horman
Structural Pasquin St-Jean
Mechanical/Electrical Pageau Morel
Contractor Construction Artco Inc.
Area 2,400 m2
Budget $6.5 M
Completion January 2012