Architecture: A Love Story
Son of a master mason and site manager, Chabâa was born with a highly developed sense of space. His interest in architecture took shape with his first job after leaving the École des Beaux-Arts Tétouan, in the architecture department of the Ministry of Youth and Sport. Although he was originally employed as a designer-draftsman to work alongside the French architect in charge of building projects, he was rapidly promoted to the role of manager of ongoing works. In this position he soon learned the basics of architectural design and developed a taste for it. During his employment, Chabâa gained an understanding of the complexity of the architect’s role: imagining a building, sketching it out, drawing up plans, working out the technical problems linked to its realization without neglecting the aesthetic aspect. A few years later he obtained a place to study at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Roma, choosing interior design as his specialty. It was at this point that his interest in spatiality came properly to the fore.
In addition to the introductory course on the Bauhaus Chabâa attended after beginning his studies in Rome, he was also exposed to the architecture of the Italian Renaissance—which had retained an elevated status, its superiority to the other arts being based on its incorporating all forms of plastic expression within a single unity, as Vitruvius had noted long ago. To his delight, Chabâa discovered Rome was an open-air museum: sculptures, paintings, engravings, and many other forms of artistic expression were openly on display, fully integrated into architecture and urban space: piazzas large and small, churches, avenues, inner courtyards. The architectural lessons of the “Quattrocento” and the Baroque were everywhere. Certain Baroque buildings, where the art of ornamentation might be said to have reached its peak, reminded him of palaces and traditional houses in Morocco, where sculpted and painted wood, carved plaster, multi-colored glass and mosaics made of zellige tile (traditionally handcrafted and made of non-refined natural clay from the Fez region in Morocco) are deployed in abundance, enhancing the sensorial impact of manmade space.
Chabâa’s discovery of Western art in the new milieu of Rome opened up new avenues of thought, the lesson of Rome architecture as an inter-medial enterprise resonating with his own nascent ideas. Here was one possible model upon which to base his developing interest in exploring the relationship between art, architecture, and the arts and crafts. He quickly realized that for traditional Moroccan art there was no museum where one could admire the artistry of his countrymen. Moroccan creators did not produce work according to an agreed framework, as was the case in Europe or the Americas. Traditional Moroccan arts are integrated into architectonic space, particularly in mosques, religious schools and palaces, serving both functional and aesthetic ends. Chabâa made what was for him an important discovery: Moroccan artists, he thought, should stay close to architecture, since it is in Morocco’s architecture that traditional skills and a sense of the genius loci have always been and continue to be.
Around this time, Chabâa discovered the work of Pierre Luigi Nervi, an engineer/architect, whose highly technical constructions were truly works of art. By chance he managed to obtain an apprenticeship with this famous Italian architect. This led to other significant training positions that would garner him an indispensable experience of the architect’s.
Armed with his degree, in 1964 Chabâa returned to Morocco, joining an interior design practice. One project he worked on during this time was an assignment undertaken for the Pavilion of the NIO (National Irrigation Office) at the International Agricultural Fair of Casablanca, for whom he designed a mural clearly referencing urban space. Further opportunity to develop his interest in architecture, which by now considered the “mother of all the arts,” came with an unexpected event at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Casablanca, whose teaching staff he joined in 1966.
What happened was this: While preparing an end-of-year exhibition of students’ work, Chabâa contacted the office of city planning in Casablanca to obtain a site plan for the Shrine of Sidi Abderrahmane complex. These plans were to serve as the basis of an assignment involving designing murals for an imaginary tourist complex. Bernard Hamborjet, a young architect working at the time for the Franco-Moroccan Cooperation Program, had been tasked with producing the plans. He heard about the students’ work, was deeply impressed by the final results, and subsequently talked about it to his friend, the architect Patrice de Mazières. Curious to see the work, de Mazières paid his first visit to the school. Chabâa and de Mazières felt an immediate rapport. De Mazières was captivated by the avant-garde teaching method adopted by the teaching staff, which constituted a total break with the French Beaux-Arts tradition previously followed at the school. He also met Chabâa’s colleague Mohamed Melehi, as well as the director of the institute, Farid Belkahi. This was to be a crucial meeting, for it led to a series of collaborations between the architect and the three painters, working together on large public projects. At the time, these painters were working independently of each other on mural panels and artistic projects using existing buildings and architectonic structures. Chabâa sometimes designed ceiling lighting systems inspired by traditional craft motifs, or would write the signage of a place in Arabic calligraphy. The collaboration between Chabâa, his colleagues and the architectural practice Faraoui and De Mazières proved fruitful over a period of years, allowing the artist to realize his dream of working alongside and an architect, within the framework of one of the first attempts in Morocco to integrate art and modern architecture.
Chabâa was soon given a further opportunity to bring together the “3 A’s.” In 1968 he struck out on his own, creating Studio 400, a general and interior design practice. The firm represented a chance to further apply his concepts in practice. Among the many projects undertaken by the studio, Chabâa was careful to include several murals, for which he often referenced the formal language of traditional arts, as well as exploring how to use traditional materials and techniques when creating furniture and object designs. There are numerous examples of this approach in the Studio 400 archives, including work undertaken for the headquarters of the COMANOV company (1968), the National Office of Commerce and Export (1969), the Rabat-Salé Terminal (1969), the offices of RAM in Brussels (1969), and the Hôtel d'Oujda (1970).
Alongside his commercial work, Chabâa launched a series of art shows with a group of painters. Most famous among these is the exhibition he organized at the Place Jamâa El Fna in Marrakech in 1969, and in the Place du 16 Novembre in Casablanca that same year. Further examples include the 1971 open air exhibition at the lycées Mohamed V and Fatima Zahra, both in Casablanca, the show by Moussem d’Assilhah in 1979, and another at the psychiatric hospital in Berrechid in 1981. In addition, in 1987 his office designed several mural projects in Tangiers, which were placed across the city as part of its new master plan. All of these various projects helped to articulate Chabâa’s personal vision of art as something that should be integrated into the everyday life of individuals and made accessible to the greatest possible number of people—a position that went hand in hand with his notion of the urban milieu as a permanent exhibition site.