Brutalism in Tangier, Morocco’s most artistic city

Commanding magnificent views over the city of Tangier and the Atlantic ocean, the villa of Berber architect Mokhtar El Boufounas is a surrealist design constructed from reinforced concrete.  In its character, it is a far cry from from the monumental concrete buildings of Auguste Perrot,  Erno Goldfinger, and Swiss architect Le Corbusier, which helped to define the brutalist architectural style popular from the 1950s into the mid-1970s.

Although built entirely from raw concrete and large and dominating,  the building is still far from completion.  It can conservatively be described as having a greater affinity with  Antonio Gaudi,  Salvador Dali or  Pablo Picasso; its definite Spanish roots accord synchronously with its views of the Andalusian Costa de Luz a mere 20 miles away.  Dolphins playfully hug its 4 corner pillars, and a huge concrete crown, eagle and plane sit upon its roof.  Inside there are ornamentations,  cutaways and organic designs which add to its theme of playfulness and lightness. 

A huge staircase winds its way up one side of the structure,  massive windows allow the stunning vista to be seen from most of the inside of the building and, behind it, work is continuing on a swimming pool, where, reputedly, a large boat will float, providing alternative accommodation and adding to the building’s wonders. Two huge sinkholes are being drilled to find water and, so far, at a depth of over 100 feet, no water has been struck and large mounds of earth and mud attest to the depths being navigated.

Unfortunately, the Moroccan authorities have not shared the vision of Mokhtar El Boufounas and, recently,  due to some planning infringements including obstructing the coastal view of other properties, the  crown, plane and bird have been  destroyed by building regulators,  as have the pillars of the large windows overlooking the road on the first floor.  Bare metal wires now abstract from broken concrete,  twisted into their own sculptural shapes and designs,  like a miniature Ground Zero. Workmen have converted smaller rooms into living quarters and their efforts continue at restoring shattered concrete into architectural order,  but the work is slow.

The worker’s foreman,  himself a Berber, explains the difficulties they have faced and the lack of certainty as to when the project will be finished – the debris of the destruction will need to be removed and restored as permitted, the wells finished,  and the interior walls completed.  Huge panes of sliding glass will need to be installed with massive metal designs of rustic Moroccan scenes fitted onto the exterior. A large organically designed bread oven sits on a concrete floor awaiting installation. 

The foreman speaks slowly and eloquently, expressing pride for both the project and his own family – of his wife at home near Fez, and his daughter at university in Spain, a further reference to the symbiotic relationship existing between Spain and north Morocco, where it had a former protectorate role. The foreman does not know (or will not tell) how much Mokhtar El Boufounas has spent on the project, or when it will end.

He does know, however, that it is unlikely to be completed by Spring of 2016, when the villa is due to feature in an American movie production.  Some scenes from the new James Bond film Spectre were shot in Tangier, and local buildings were renovated as part of the overall deal – some Hollywood funding could help to promote its conclusion, and to find some settlement with local planning authorities.

After 12 years of work, the villa is still to be given a name, which, in itself, is perhaps a metaphor for its ongoing development and redesign.  It somehow seems destined to remain uncompleted and, within a world of harsh realities which gives small favour to artistic visions or dalliances,  merely a dream within an architect’s mind, but it is hoped that Mokhtar El Boufounas  will find a way through the bureaucracy of creative vision and planning reality and, ultimately, realise his elusive creation.

Words and Photographs by Geoffrey Billett  Local translation Elizabeth van Roij