Floating in the Blue

Contributor

Reading the Room

Volume 7, Issue 07
April 7, 2022

In the age of image-based social media like Instagram, Chefchaouen—a city painted almost entirely blue—has thrived. Nestled in the Rif mountains of northern Morocco, the city is often referred to as the “Blue Pearl,” and tourism in the city has skyrocketed in recent years. Google the city, and it’s not hard to see why; a palette of blue is deliberately applied to its winding, narrow pedestrian passages, the souvenirs sold, the taxis driven. This endless coat of blue touches everything, from the largest wall to the smallest facade detail, spilling onto the ground and wrapping around the trees, unavoidable.

This concept of a “blue city” can easily be dismissed as a mirage, especially to those who recognize that these sorts of settings are not particularly new.1 Seeing a photo of someone posing in Chefchaouen may elicit a weary response, akin to seeing a gimmicky tourist trap or something gauche. But it would be a disservice to lump Chefchaouen in a similar category, given just how much of its history and character is obscured by the blue. Markers of the city’s heritage—a fortress founded in 1471, a haven for Jewish and Moorish refugees, a short-lived Spanish-occupied city a century ago—serve as a backdrop.2 For most who visit, the city’s urban morphology, geography, and especially the surrounding ecological diversity3 are sidelined in favor of these painted surfaces. Few photos online, if any, will show Chefchaouen as a rural agriculture-based town, mostly producing cereals and cannabis,4 with a rapidly growing new city expanding beyond the borders of the existing old city. Apartments, schools, parks, city-life—gone; the entire complex identity of Chefchaouen is reduced to a color.

When I visited the city in 2019, the aim was to produce an architectural and urban analysis that looked beyond the blue and to study it with the above context in mind. But even with this ambition, the visual allure of the city was quite difficult to ignore, and far too baked into the fabric of the city to detach from completely. Even trying to objectively document characteristics of the city felt dishonest, underrepresenting the sheer physiological effect the shades of blue had on the city’s occupants. As a result, rather than reject the blue entirely, it was far more productive and rewarding to read the city in concert with the color and understand what the blue was adding or taking away.

At a smaller scale—the details and objects that pepper the city’s buildings—the image of the blue as a homogenous blanket is not so apparent and begins to break down. Cracks, peeled paint, and erosion appear at moments of blue; no longer smooth and perfect, the color is instead read through surface imperfections, at moments of imperfect or aged application where the material and structure suddenly become visible. The buildings become stacked layers, a temporal assemblage that can be peeled away, betraying the materiality of the limewashed paint used to produce the blue. Perhaps most exciting are moments where the paint runs thin along the walls, unable to mask the natural material underneath completely.

The city’s architectural elements reflect a rich cross-section of Andalusian, Islamic, and Spanish influences, whether in the arched gateways and geometric imprints that frame the streets or in the low-rise flat roofs and rectangular windows. While sharing this similar vocabulary of design influences, most buildings differ significantly in their materials and construction—doors, for instance, range from steel-bolted wooden frames to heavily ornamented arches to even subtle, almost sculptural cutouts. Despite this, the application of the blue flattens this variation and fades it into the periphery, reducing the city to uniform blocks. This, combined with the closeness of the buildings, makes the structures feel visually, and sometimes physically, linked to each other, stitched together in clusters.

Part of what contributes to the image of a holistic blueness is the very tempting (and assumed) impression that the color is uniformly pervasive across Chefchaouen. However, conducting a survey of non-blue buildings across the city revealed that this homogeneity is weaker than expected. The non-blue buildings that pop up in the urban fabric often comprise special programmatic exceptions or markers—the kasbah in the center, an art gallery, the historic gates, and baths. Walking through the streets, it isn’t uncommon to find awkward corners and protrusions from the ground, or large excavations into buildings and roads deep enough to seem like streets leading away but that are actually dead ends. Terrain is very much baked into the way one weaves around and between buildings: a constant reminder of the surrounding mountainous environment even when visually obscured.

Beyond the built environment, the blue also has a tangible effect on daily life in the city, and on the lifestyles of its residents. The presence of seasonal tourists radically changes how the city is occupied and navigated. Tour guides, clearly understanding their clients, focus less on monuments or historical sites, and more on showing off the best places for photos. I could tell where the so-called “highlights” of the city were by the number of people queuing for a selfie on the street. Most of the residents I talked to didn’t really have much to say on the blue, and yet for many, the color was integrally present in their lives, whether in the clothes and textiles they produced to sell or in their routine of painting the outside of their homes—a fact of life.

Everywhere I went, the blue was unrelentingly present, intrinsically bound to the architecture and make-up of the city. And yet, in these overwhelming, endless scenes of blue, I found myself paradoxically paying less attention to the color as time went on. The blue was simply a part of the city, nothing special or new, and it became far more fascinating to examine other qualities: the shift towards modern building typologies in the new city, the threshold where roads start becoming asphalt, the simultaneous growth and de-densification of new construction plots. Unobtrusive yet ever-present, the blue became an inevitability, a quality of the city that hung in the air, a part of everyday life, inseparable from Chefchaouen’s identity.

Harish Krishnamoorthy is an undergraduate architecture student at Rice, often optimistic but mostly anxious.

  1. Some examples of cities painted specific colors include Jaipur, India (pink); Izamal, Mexico (yellow); and Juzcar, Spain (also blue). Though many have reasons that are historical, several examples, such as Juzcar, were deliberately painted for commercial or touristic reasons. A smaller scale example of a similarly tourist-centered installation would be Paul Smith’s Pink Wall. ↩︎
  2. For a broad history of northwestern Africa, including Chefchaouen, see Jamil M. Abun-Nasr, A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 208. ↩︎
  3. Chefchaouen’s ecological importance, and the city’s embrace of its environment in its policy-making, was recently recognized in its 2020 inclusion into the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC). ↩︎
  4. For more on Chefchaouen’s economic position and a brief overview of the town’s contemporary conditions, see Sobhi Tawil, “Qur’anic Education and Social Change in Northern Morocco: Perspectives from Chefchaouen,” Comparative Education Review 50, no. 3 (August 2006). ↩︎

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Volume 7, Issue 07
April 7, 2022