Casablanca, the renaissance

Casablanca, the “white house” in Spanish, built by the French on Moroccan territory and rendered mythical by Hollywood in the 1940s, was the theatre of architectural modernity in the 20th century. For more than 50 years, the city stood out as a bustling laboratory for city planning and architecture. The fourth largest city in Africa with, as its symbol, the monumental Hassan II Mosque that seems to float on the ocean, Casablanca incarnates the modern Morocco of yesterday and prefigures that of tomorrow. If many masterworks have been destroyed, today architects and the people have got together to protect and save its buildings and Casablanca is on its way to becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in the world, she walks into mine.” Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), former arms dealer and fighter against Franco in Spain, recognizes Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) whom he loved in the past in Paris. If the actors in Casablanca, the 1942 cult film by Michael Curtiz, never set foot in Morocco, since 2004 the American Kathy Kriger has made the legend real by recreating, down to the slightest detail, Rick’s Café backing onto the old medina of Casablanca. Everything is there: Sam's melancholic piano, a 1930 Pleyel, the arches and the balconies overlooking the barroom, the light creating Hitchcockian shadows on the glasses of iced pastis and neat whisky lined up on the bar… The ineluctable Rick’s Café is strategically situated at one of the entrances to the old medina, the historic heart of Anfa, the former name of Casablanca. Anfa, the hill in the Amazigh language of the Berbers, was a pirate's den that the Portuguese sacked in 1468. In the 18th century, the Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah (Mohammed III) decided to rebuild the stronghold of Anfa to perfect his defense system on the Atlantic coast between Rabat and El Jadida. He named the city Dar El Baïda, white house in Arabic which became Casa Blanca in Spanish. To develop, Casa as nicknamed by the population, needed above all a port and construction began in 1907. At that period, life was still concentrated in the medina, settled since the 19th century by a large cosmopolitan community of 46,000 people: 35,000 Moroccans, 9,000 Jews, 7,000 French, 2,500 Spanish and 2,200 Italians. Today, the medina remains genuine and teems with life. If it looks out over the Atlantic, its character, its atmosphere are resolutely Mediterranean. Partially enclosed by high walls, the successive cultural blending has left it mark on the style of the buildings and contrary to the usual windowless walls seen in the medinas of Morocco, here the multi-storied houses have elaborate windows and balconies. Along a small street, a former consulate stands out, the Residence of France appears, a delightful Spanish church can be made out, ancient mosques or old synagogues rise up… Wool, grains cereals, phosphate… Casablanca quickly became the economic lung of Morocco and the city of mirages. Its commercial boom was such that the city stretched beyond its ramparts and a new discipline would become necessary: city planning. Following the treaty of Fes in March 1912 (making Morocco a French protectorate), Maréchal Lyautey was named resident general of France. Fond of the culture of Morocco and particularly enchanted by Casablanca, he was able to put to work his passion for city planning and bring to life a “Little America” and it was the architect Henri Prost who took on the task. The city quickly became the field of experimentation for a new generation of architects holding diplomas from the Fine Arts School of Paris. All the trends were touched upon: Art deco, Art nouveau, Bauhaus, functionalism, Neo-Moorish, Neo-Moroccan… and if the city's ambition was to compete with New York, it actually inspired the creation of Sao Paulo, Le Havre and even Tel-Aviv. The reinforced concrete experimented with in Casa starting in 1912 permitted the most extravagant audaciousness, sensual curves, ultramodern spaces, balconies and rooftop terraces, and an incomparable quality. Casablanca first developed around the Place de France adjoining the medina, today United Nations Square. The Excelsior Hotel, where Saint-Exupéry stayed during stopovers, was completed in 1916. A stone's throw away, Boulevard Mohammed V, formerly Boulevard de la Gare, has recently become again the pride of the Casablancans. Inaugurated at the end of 2012, the gleaming tramway shares the boulevard with the pedestrians. The Art Deco buildings that line the avenue are reliving a second youth. Lions' heads and angels' heads or baskets of fruit mix with refined lines; the geometric shapes harmonize with the zelliges, the green tiles or the wood balconies. Practically abandoned for a long time, these buildings are much in demand. The two kilometres of the boulevard between the Casa-Voyageurs station (1923) and United Nations Square recount the history of a city, of an era. Across from the Lincoln Hotel, undergoing renovation, the Central Market and its gates, recalling the medina of Fes, come to life every morning; the former stock market has become the Chamber of Commerce; the ABC cinema still shows American films and the Glaoui building, topped with turrets, and the Gallinari, embellished with neoclassical ornaments, provide a majestic perspective of this boulevard. If the effervescent centre of Casablanca obliges you to keep your eyes on the slaloming cars, the city quickly forces you to walk around with your head thrown back. And watch out for a stiff neck! The façades on Avenue Hassan II quickly lead to Mohammed V Square, the city's administrative centre. Here, architectural modernity was largely inspired by the art and know-how of the Moroccans, giving birth to a brand new style of neo-Moorish. The Grande Poste (1918), the Tribunal (1922) and the Wilaya, the former city hall, (1937) are perfect examples. And in the courtyard of the French consulate, Lyautey, upright on his horse, remains frozen in the admiration of these three monuments. A few churches remain from the colonial period, and if the Casablanca Cathedral built by Paul Tournon (1930) has been deconsecrated, it is still possible to participate in an Art Deco mass in the very aesthetically sober church Notre Dame de Lourdes, lit by 850 m2 of brightly-coloured stained-glass windows. To the east, the Alsace-Lorraine, Mers Sultan and Gironde quarters. To the south and west, Gauthier, Palmiers, Maarif and Racine… Names kept from the period and everywhere the innovations in the service of cutting edge comfort with buildings designed by French architects often surpassing in amenities those in Paris from the same era. The luxury buildings, just as the most common, were all equipped with elevators, garbage chutes and parking garages, the apartments all had a bathroom. In 1950, the first skyscraper on the African continent, the Liberty Building, 78 metres high, rose up from the ground. All along the coast road bordering the Atlantic Ocean at the foot of the Anfa Hill, for which the upper middle class of Casablanca has a fondness, the swimming pools line up all the way to the beaches of Aïn Diab and the ultra-modern temple to consumption, the Morocco Mall. Each community, each social class went to its pool. For the Jews, there was the Benaïm beach or the Kon-Tiki pool, but there were many others, Tahiti, Miami, Acapulco, the Lido, etc. The most popular, mainly frequented by the Moroccans, was the municipal pool. If Miami and Tahiti still provide pleasure for the elite, the municipal pool, considered the biggest in the world at 480 metres long, was chosen in 1986 as the spot for the future Hassan II Mosque. Imagined by Michel Pinseau and inaugurated in 1993, this pharaonic monument of concrete covered in zellige tiles prides itself on having the highest minaret in the world (201m) and being able to accommodate up to 120,000 worshipper! Casablanca, always turned to the future, has today the desires of a Dubai. Extending from the Hassan II Mosque and across from the old medina, the project Casablanca Marina is taking shape: marina, shopping mall, convention center, business center, luxury hotel... Completion set for 2015. If Casablanca does not have the Middle Eastern feel of Tangier or the exoticness of Marrakech and if guide books only devote a few pages, the blur of its legend remains intact. Far from any museumization, its exceptional heritage jumping out at every street corner is still anchored in the daily life of its population.

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