Walking Tour: Central Casablanca
- Start Cathédrale du Sacré Coeur, Blvd Rachidi
- End Place du 16 Novembre
- Length 3km; one hour
Central Casablanca has a rich architectural heritage dominated by a style of architecture commonly known as Moorish (Mauresque in French). Developed in the 1920s and 1930s, this blend of French-colonial design and traditional Moroccan style was heavily influenced by the art deco and art nouveau movements – hallmarks include ornate wrought-iron balconies, rounded exterior corners and decorative facades and friezes. These were incorporated alongside traditional Moroccan features such as arches, cupolas, columns, mashrabiyas (wooden-lattice screens), muqarnas (decorative plaster vaulting) and richly coloured zellige (geometric mosaic tilework).
Sadly, most of the city's Moorish buildings are in an atrocious state of disrepair. Others have been demolished in recent years to make way for the huge development projects under way across the city centre. This walking tour identifies some of the most notable examples in the downtown precinct, along with a few art deco and art nouveau gems.
Start on the northwest edge of the Parc de la Ligue Arabe at the unusual white Cathédrale du Sacré Coeur, an extraordinary architectural meld of the art deco, Moorish and neo-Gothic styles, with twin towers that resemble minarets and decorative aperture-style windows. Walk around the building to see the cathedral's buttresses and spires in all their glory, peek inside to admire the massive stained glass window and then continue southeast along Blvd Rachidi to Place Mohammed V, which was being redeveloped at the time of research. This is surrounded by impressive administrative buildings, with the 1930s Wilaya (old police headquarters, now governor’s office) dominating the south side. Though topped by a modernist clock tower, the upper-storey detailing of the Wilaya has pronounced Gothic and Islamic echoes, making it a true architectural oddity.
The nearby Tribunal de Premiere Instance (palais de justice or law courts) dates from 1925. Its huge main entrance, with its stucco and tile detailing, was inspired by the Persian iwan, a vaulted hall that opens into the central court of the medersa (school) of a mosque.
On the northern side of the square is Casablanca's main post office, built between 1918 and 1920, fronted by arches and stone columns and decorated with richly coloured art nouveau–style mosaics. The carved stucco on the facade of the nearby Banque Al Maghrib on Blvd de Paris, and the ornate main door with its mashrabiya-style detailing, reference traditional Moroccan architecture, although the building's form is decidedly modern.
From here, walk east on Rue Driss Lahrizi, where impressive facades line both sides of the street. The most striking of these is La Princière Salon de Thé, with its huge stone crown on the roofline.
Next, turn right into Rue Tahar Sabti, which is lined with colonial buildings that are now apartments, hotels and offices. The most impressive of these is the art deco Hotel Amouday at No 51, with its distinctive ocean-liner-style design. Further on are two striking art deco bars and the handsome empire-style BMCE building.
Take a V-turn left into Rue Colbert and look for Hôtel Transatlantique, a handsome building dating from 1922. The filigree-like detailing surrounding the main entrance is quite striking. Then turn right into Rue Abdul Karim Diouri to find Hotel Volubilis with its recessed balcony, burnished-gold detailing and art nouveau signage.
Turn left up Rue Ibnou Batouta and continue to the corner of Blvd Mohammed V. Next, turn left and look out for an array of wonderful facades along the street's south side. The Central Market Post Office, with its delicate motifs, and Le Matin/Maroc Soir, with its classic style, are two of the most impressive.
At the end of this block, on the corner of Rue Mohammed El Qory, is Petit Poucet, a bar-cafe once frequented by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Édith Piaf and Albert Camus, but now sadly dishevelled. Turn left here into Rue Mohammed El Qory to find the Cinéma Rialto, a hardly changed art deco gem where Michael Curtiz' 1942 film Casablanca is still occasionally screened. Continue south to the junction with Ave Houmane El Fetouaki and turn right to reach Place du 16 Novembre, home to plenty of art deco buildings.
For more information on Casablanca's 20th-century architectural heritage, see www.casamemoire.org or the Casablanca Histoire et Architecture Facebook page.