Tucked into the spaces between older buildings in Morocco’s historic ancient cities, are scores of traditional houses, both large and small, that as recently as ten years ago were decaying and neglected, used for storage and as animal pens. Renovation of these once gracious homes has proceeded apace and they are now highly sought-after properties.
The basic riad floor plan is plain and geometrically precise, consisting of rooms surrounding a central open-air courtyard. If the design is reminiscent of Roman villas, that is because the origins of the riad floor plan are thought to date to Roman times. Roman remains at Volubilis , a Roman administrative centre in Morocco, are often cited as the riad’s architectural antecedent, later adapted for African conditions. The riad layout provides shade and shelter from the African heat and dust, the central courtyard a peaceful oasis, lush with plants and cooled by fountains and pools. The name ‘riad’ derives from the Arabic word for a garden.
With the rise of Islam, the riad design came in useful in another way, providing private family spaces, insulated from the bustle and commerce of the city beyond. The garden provides a contemplative, unspoilt and almost sacred space. The design, with its rows of arches around a rectangular garden, recalls that historically unrelated place, the convent cloister, where the devout could pursue their devotions without the distractions of the world outside.
Yet it is also a social space, the true heart of the home. All rooms in the traditional riad open onto this atrium, and it is where the visitor passing through the heavy, carved wooden door from the street would find himself on admittance. As with the Almoravid architecture of nearly a millennium ago, the plain face that a building presents to the public world gives way to an interior space that is intricately and lovingly decorated. Exterior windows in the riad are small, high or absent, minimising intrusions from the street. It is like passing from a wilderness outside to an inner sanctum that is a showcase for civilised taste, culture and learning. In the heyday of the Moroccan empire, that is precisely what the Islamic cities were famous for. In the earlier 2nd millennium AD Islamic cities across Africa (such as the legendary Timbuktu) were renowned centres of knowledge: in science, astronomy, mathematics, engineering and medicine. The riad seems to be a microcosm of the world in which it evolved.
The appeal of the riad’s inward-directed design for people today, and for contemporary lifestyles and tastes, is clear. Security with style, in a space that combines seclusion with sociability is a winning combination. The courtyard garden organically blurs the boundaries between indoors and outdoors. It is the ideal contemporary garden, a place designed for people as much as it is a place of nature.
The architectural details of the typical riad interior clearly reveal the powerful Islamic influence at work in the design. The elegant archways that flank the atrium echo the mihrab, the prayer alcove in a mosque’s qibla wall (a wall oriented towards Mecca). The arches’ form exemplifies the fusion of opposites in which Islamic architecture excels: straight lines softened by the sinuous curve; or solid, straight mosque walls, topped by domes that seem to rest above as lightly as a hat.