Marrakech is known as the red city and is not hard to understand why, when you see the colour of the building exteriors as you walk through the old narrow streets. Almost about every old building in Marrakech seems to be like a fortress with very few ground level windows (that always have metal grilles over them) and solid steel front doors. The buildings appear to rise up like solid defensive pillar-boxes out of the ground. There aren’t very many clues of what the interiors are like other than a few colours around the doorway that act as a decorative prologue to the story inside.
When I was in Morocco, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that the Moroccans must have felt under threat from marauders. The streets are so narrow, and all the ground level entry points have been strengthened. I can imagine how difficult it would have been for people trying to attack a Moroccan town when every house is a stronghold. Any marauders packed together in narrow streets would’ve been pelted with rocks and arrows from the flat rooftops above. Just like shooting fish in a barrel.
Not only are most of the houses built with defense in mind, but they are also act as peaceful sanctuaries from the hustle and bustle of the outside world. Walking through the typical Moroccan town is similar to being a rat in a high walled maze. Kilometre after kilometre of high walls and steel doors. To me the whole country seemed to communicate through its architecture that strangers were not welcome. There is a definite sense of the difference between the life lived indoors to that experienced outside in Morocco.
Either you are part of the close family that resides safely in cool courtyards behind thick fortified walls, or you’re the stranger that is kept at arm’s length, outside and vulnerable in the labyrinth.
Another thought that occurred to me when I was in Morocco was how people who live close to the land, will when they have enough money, change their environment so that it stands in contrast to what occurs naturally.
In Morocco only poor people’s houses are the colour of locally available materials. Many of us who live in the cities of the developed world have romanticised ideas about people who live on the land and how they are in harmony with the environment. Truth be known, the people who work on the land tend to be in opposition to the land. For example, many farmers see trees as things that need to be cleared so the land can be made more useful.
As soon as Moroccans get enough money, they will paint their houses in brighter colours such as blue or pink. Here in the more developed the parts of the world, I suppose because bright colours and shiny surfaces are the norm, we tend to value more natural textures and colours.
Several hundred years ago in Europe, thin tanned people were not considered to be beautiful and painters like Paul Rubens idealised pale, plump women. Nowadays, in the developed world thanks to our sedentary lifestyles, obesity is common and pallid skin is the norm, so the uncommonly thin and tanned are deemed to be beautiful.
We mostly see blue skies during the day and yet for about 15 minutes we have red and orange sunsets, which so many people seem to enjoy and would describe as being beautiful. We humans hanker after the uncommon. We often ascribe great value to rarity, and we quite often feel that rare things are beautiful.
The concept of chiaroscuro enters my mind nearly every day as I think about the things we enjoy and value. I wonder why we like them. I’d say that we tend to want things that are different to what occurs most of the time in our lives. Perhaps there is an inherent desire for contrast in our avaricious little hearts. When we live in the natural world we lust after the unnatural and the new. We are so like the Satin Bowerbirds, surrounded by nature in the forest but are besotted by a bright shiny bits of blue glass.
Conversely, we who live in the developed world, that is full of bright shiny things, surround ourselves (if we can afford it) with natural textures such as distressed timbers, quarried stone and antiques.