Atlantic Cities

Why Would Anyone Want to Cover Marrakech's Beloved Open-Air Market in Concrete?

Jamaâ el-Fna in Marrakech is one of the most incredible public squares on earth. By day it's a maddening frenzy of chatty locals, dazed tourists and young boys who put monkeys onto tourists (with or without their consent). At night, steaming food tents pop up as the square morphs into a gigantic open-air market, where the hungry can champ on delicacies like steaming bowls of snails and sweet lamb udder.

Here it is in the evening:


(Cait_Stewart on Flickr)

The place oozes charm, no doubt why it's mentioned on UNESCO's World Heritage List as a "true open-air theatre that always amazes visitors." So I'm a little at a loss to understand why somebody would want to cover it up with a gigantic slab of concrete.

This boldly dubious proposal, called the "Revised Pantheon," comes from Portuguese architect Felipe Paixão and design team Fala, the latter being the guys who envisioned putting schools on top of Manhattan skyscrapers. The Moroccan proposal seems just as serious as the wacky New York idea, as it would encapsulate the beloved Jamaâ el-Fna in a stone cocoon much like the sarcophagus shielding Chernobyl. Nevertheless, the proposal won an honorary mention in last fall's Circos international architecture competition in Tokyo – proof that any project can garner accolades if it's eccentric enough.

As to why they want to turn the bustling square with its views of the stars into a gloomy underworld as scenic as a parking garage, the architects explain on Designboom:

the strength of the monolith only makes sense for the beauty of its exception. by proposing a massive concrete structure that creates a shadow on the market, a tent in the square, a force would try to impose an abstract order on the site. product of a simple geometry, the site is 100 meters long and is oriented in north-south arrangement. the slab is supported by a regular grid of concrete columns; where at the core there is a light source that gives the whole a reason to be remembered.

That "core" at the center really is the most delightful feature of this architectural jackalope. If any market visitors want to access natural light – say, to see if what they're eating is a crunchy meatball or actually a lamb's head – they have to congregate in a packed herd under an opening slightly larger than a doughnut hole. If they're lucky, peeping up they'll see the shadowy figure of a lonesome sweeper who patrols the top of the slab:

Prime real estate inside the "Pantheon":

The befuddlement from above:

Architectural images courtesy of Felipe Paixão and Fala.

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

Join the Discussion