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Building the Moroccan Court At the Metropolitan Museum of Art


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In 2011, the Metropolitan Museum of art opened a new gallery     for its department of Islamic art. As  curators, we wanted to give  our visitors an experience of space and architecture and to show something of the living traditions in the Islamic world.  The result is the Patti Cadby Birch court, a Moroccan court built inside the metropolitan museum over several months in 2011. It  took a team of experts; from curators and historians, to designers and craftsmen to make the Moroccan court, using traditional methods that go back to the 15th century.

Our work began with a journey to Fez. The  world has changed so much and traditional crafts are dying out very  fast. But  to the credit of the Moroccan government, they’ve taken this so seriously over the years that they’ve managed to preserve, in Fez and other centres, the traditional methods. Being  so close to the moment of creation is something that has an incredible power and is something that profoundly moves you as a curator.

In  Fez, there were 40,000 craftsmen. We met with many guilds, many groups, and we did find potential to work with a number of different people. However,  when we met  the Naji family craftsmen,  run by four brothers and their father, and then they have several workshops in Fez itself. At  one point Adil picked up Mohammed’s hand and  said, “look, this is my brother’s hand”. We  looked at that hand, and it was the hand of a craftsman. It  was rough and callused, and it had plaster all over it. He’d  been chipping away since the age of 14. It was one of those moments when you just felt this was the right partner for you. Adil Naji, who is a member of the Naji family craftmen, said, “we are seventh generation in this business, but for me and for my family, it is unlike any other project that we have ever undertaken, because this will serve as reference for scholars to learn more about Islamic architecture”. Nadia Erzini, who is a historical consultant, comments “I  was employed as an art historian consultant to the project. I  suggested having a medieval style courtyard. I  have a very personal reaction to  cut-tile mosaic, or Zillij. Morocco, North Africa, is burning hot for so many months of the year. Visually, it’s such a comfort to see blues and greens and cool colours evoking nature and gardens and water. Perhaps  it’s because I grew up in a courtyard house with traditional decoration,  I can remember, you know, walking barefoot on tiles”.

 In  the Islamic city context, there is no façade. Houses  are all stuck together, the streets are very narrow. The courtyard is the focus. it’s in fact the façade, but it’s on the inside, and it’s  very private, unless you’ve got access to it . The Moroccan inspiration for the courtyard is the Madrasas of Fez, and they are perhaps the best symbol of the intellectual and cultural life of the medieval western Islamic world. The  Madrasa was a resident for a student who formed the backbone of the education and political life, which will then serve to maintain the urban civilization as they know it.

 Achva Benzinberg Stein, who is a designer comments, ”as a designer and a landscape architect, I  deal with outdoor space. When Avina came to me, she said, “do you think we can do a nice Moroccan courtyard?” and I said, “by all means.” most people who go to Morocco and look at the Moroccan architecture, they look at the court in terms of objects; the beautiful tile, the beautiful wall, but they don’t look and see the space, the outdoor space, and the meaning of the void and the mass. You  see how elaborate it is, but how simple it is”. Obviously, traditional Moroccan architecture in general consists of a pretty formulaic set of materials that go from floor to ceiling. There’s usually a marble basin, tiles surround on the floor, that extends into stone, and then you reach the walls, and the walls have a detailed level of tile work, followed by elaborate carved stucco work, and then it goes and meets  woodwork ,and after the wooden ceiling, it culminates in a set of green roof tiles. What  precise patterns and designs and colours do we put into this formula, and how do we adapt the scale of these courts that usually go on for three stories into our very intimate setting without losing the spirit of the court.  Erzini said, “what we’ve done is combine elements from the Madrasas and houses of Fez and, from Islamic Spain, houses and palaces of Granada. At  that period, you can look at western Islamic world as one cultural unit in craftsmen, which move around between cities. So  we looked at a tile panel from the Alhambra, which was exhibited at the met in 1992. It’s  very bold”.

 If we were to adapt the scale exactly, we would end up with very big stars all over our walls, and we found that in general, the scale in Moroccan monuments is much smaller than the Alhambra patterns. So  the challenge was: how were we going to reduce the width of that wide strap work to make it suitable for our scale? The  incredible thing we learned is that if you add a millimetre of width to your wide strap work, your stars become huge. If  you take a millimetre away, .they become small. It’s incredible how much effect the width of the strap work has on the overall pattern. In  the end, we were all in Morocco, in the workshop ,trying desperately to make this work out. The craftsmen themselves wanted to make it smaller .I was holding out for as much white as possible, and not able to do it on the computer, we tried painting it on the wall, we tried printing it out in various stages . In  the end, Achva Stein, our designer, took scissors and cut pieces of starred strap work out and physically created a pattern to shown us how the scale could be adapted. It  was a very medieval solution in the end. And  it was a very, very exciting moment of the whole thing.

 Stein said, “you had to see the totality;  the shape, the form, and the location. When  you look at the wall, you see there are 70 different distinct pieces like a puzzle fitting into each other to create the design”. Naji adds, “We were working in Morocco for almost six months in which we fabricated all the loose tiles for the Zillij. The  wood was carved in Morocco out of cedar from the Atlas mountains of Fez . We used some of the best wood carvers in the city, and it was very difficult in terms of the intricacy of the pattern”. Hence, we were convinced that the only way we would do this project was if the craftsmen actually came here.

We  wanted a direct relationship between the craftsmen and the walls of our metropolitan Museum. Naji said, “For us, we were transported back to the year 1300. It  was clear to my team that we had to use only the elements and the tools that have been used for centuries. For instance, the plaster on the walls, they were smoothing it with their hand. When I look at this court, I see hands everywhere. Everything  is touched by hands”. The  Moroccan court exists in many contexts in Morocco; in a domestic setting, in a religious setting, and in a public setting as well .The inspiration came from all of these different types of courts coming together. Without  making historical reproduction, we wanted to be historically authentic. We  had to do things very close to the original way. So  we had to scale things down very precisely so that your eye wouldn’t feel that things were wrong. Your eye has to have a sense of complete harmony when you look at these elements.

The government of Morocco for our project released a special kind of stucco, which they don’t normally export. It’s got a wonderful reddish hue, and you see this reddish colour in Marrakesh particularly. Through the process of carving, they have to keep it moist, and it retains a soft and malleable quality for months afterwards. In fact, it’s very fragile until it completely hardens. What’s  incredible is that if you make a mistake or you want to change something,  you can just slap some more plaster on and shape it and carve it. It’s got a kind of soft quality, and then at the same time, it hardens just enough so that when you need to get your chisel in there and make it into definite shapes, you can do that as well. Then  they have a series of tools, some of them as fine practically as tooth picks. With  these tools, they apply themselves to carving the surface of the stucco, based on stencil designs that they have applied.

 There  is a movement to the whole nature  of the carving. They’re able to create effects of leaves going over vines, under other leaves. They  are extremely sculptural. It’s an arabesque almost in three dimensions. Naji said, “living in New York for them was a challenge. I  took them on a tour of the Museum, and I  took them to places to see what has been done before. The  routine for six months was Monday to Saturday, and Friday,  we work until 3:00 p.m.,and then they go sightseeing”.  It’s easy to recreate medieval designs, but difficult to get them in proportion with the rest of the space and relative to the other elements. “We  had to act with extremely high patience. We had to do things very close to the original way. In  the old days, creation of these wall patterns would have been done with a lime-based mortar, then done directly on the wall. But  it burns through the skin and causes horrible injuries. What they generally do now is create intricate mosaic tile pattern on the floor, upside down, basically .The surface of these shapes is coloured, smooth, and brilliant, but the reverse of these shapes has to be cut into a particular bevelled style so that they interlock well with each other. And  then they pour into a concrete base mortar, which allows it to get completely solid”. Naji said, “we had to get some variation of colours. For  instance, three shades of blue, there are two shades of green. So  it has the characteristic of an ancient antique panel”. We  matched the colours right back to the authentic palette of the 14th and 15th centuries. Erzini comments, “ There seemed to be a standard type of ceiling that was used for the Madrasa courtyards of Fez. We  thought that worked because it was so three-dimensional and exciting, has those projecting corbels to really add a bit of life to the surface although  of course we’ve had to miniaturize the whole thing because we don’t have much space. Stein adds  “ It’s a completely different scale. We  needed to make the room in the proportion that will be adaptable to human scale. Yet,  hint at the grand Moroccan Andalusian style. Naji  said, “ when the New York times wrote about us, they were carrying the newspaper with them every single day. They became celebrities, and definitely was giving them this fuel to go above and beyond their capabilities”. At  certain points, they actually departed from the design because they were so inspired to do better. Mohammed  just said, “I’m  going to leave the design aside”and i want to do something for you “that i’ve never done before.  ” That’s going to be freehand drawing,based on a historical precedent. “they have to have mastery.  Over  the symmetry and the geometry of these patterns,  and it’s the interloping, interlocking of these simple forms that leads to the complexityof the surface decoration that you see. Very  mesmerizing, actually. No  matter how stylized it is, there is an underlying logic that does not break down. That’s an important part of the heritage that they are keeping alive.

 Most  craftsmen all over the Muslim world tend to be Sufis . Much of the work that they doreflects a kind of devotional spirit. For  example, the craftsmen actually stylized the veining of the leaves to reflect the name of God, “Allah” in Arabic script is written essentially in a series of vertical strokes, terminating in a rounded form, very understated element in the decoration, but if you want to see it, it’s there. 

To  acknowledge that these spaces and this work have a spiritual dimension to it only enhances it, and makes us understand how human beings are capable of doing things that require such dedication. Erzini said, “ I think it’s wonderful that people can visit a recreation of a medieval Moroccan courtyard without having to go there. It  is a real privilege for us as Moroccans. Naji adds, “ this place is a constant reminder of harmony between two different cultures”. Stein said, “ the strength of the Moroccan design is to understand the beauty of the simplicity of the old world”. Thus,  the Moroccan court will join a family of great spaces in the metropolitan Museum, spaces that offer an area for contemplation, that transport the visitor to a completely different part of the world, and to do this at the highest possible level with the greatest sensitivity to the surroundings and the masterpieces of the collection. It’s  an historian’s dream, a chance to actually be part of the act of creating something wonderful.