With offices in Fez and Toronto, Aziza Chaouni Projects (ACP) is a multidisciplinary firm that works with NGOs and government organizations to improve the built environment across the globe. We asked founding principal Aziza Chaouni about her firm’s international research collaborations and the importance of understanding local cultures.
1. ACP has been selected to rehabilitate the Qarawiyine Library in Fez, Morocco. How important is this project to Fez?
This project is important for both Fez and for Morocco because it is the oldest library in the country: it was created in 859. It holds manuscripts that are more than 10 centuries old. Until today, it was not opened to the public, only a few researchers had access to it. One of our key roles, beside rehabilitating the stacks, reading room, and manuscript restoration laboratories, is to introduce exhibition rooms that will showcase, for the first time, manuscripts to the public as well as the history of the Qarawiyine complex, which used to include a mosque, a university and a library. Today, only the library and mosque remain. Moreover, a café will allow visitors, researchers and library staff to mingle in one of the library’s courtyard.
2. Along with Europe and North America, ACP likes to do research collaborations between Latin America, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. Do you feel that in the past, research from these latter regions were not given the same credence as those in Europe and North America?
Architectural research by scholars on regions of the global south have mainly occurred in the past century through the spectrums of Orientalism (as defined by Edward Said) and colonialism. In the past decade a resurgence of research, studios, exhibitions etc…has occurred in both academia and practice, often in collaboration with local schools and/ or architects. In turn, local architects were given a platform to express, discuss and share ideas beyond their countries’ boundaries, on the international arena. However, this model is not without drawbacks. Urban, architectural and landscape problematics remain framed from a ‘western’ perspective, as is demonstrated by the most recurrent research theme: informal settlements. Those are indeed an important issue in need of solutions, but by no means do they capture the wide range of challenges faced by developing cities and rural regions today.
I am interested in breaking this latter research model, that has the tendency to romanticize informality and poverty, and rather tackle a wider range of issues that are endemic to the developing world at large (sustainable social housing models, peri-urban parks, performative water infrastructure etc…). To do so, a South-South collaboration is often very fruitful since strategies and experiences can be more readily exchanged, and new ones developed in parallel.
3. As someone whose young career seems to be devoted to the ethical and ecological practice of architecture, what do you make of the sudden trend over the last few years towards Public Interest Design and sustainability?
Sustainability has been a long-standing theme in the architecture discipline, yet it has come to encapsulate today many – often contradictory- definitions. I believe that the general precepts of sustainability (such as minimizing energy and water use, integrating passive systems etc…) should become fully integral to the practice and education of architecture. In addition, I think that sustainable goals and strategies should be specifically defined for each project and for each site.
Regarding PID, its emergence has helped define the role of the architect as a designer activist or a designer citizen. In fact, many of us designers today have become moderators of a kind of social transformation that views architecture and landscape architecture as an instrument with ongoing effectiveness to make better places, respond to the needs of the less privileged and integrate design with social, political, economic and environmental processes.
4. At the Harvard African Development Conference in 2012 where the theme was “Rethinking development in Africa” you gave a presentation on your work in Morocco with your co-founder of Bureau E.A.S.T., Takako Tajima. What are the common misconceptions about development on the African continent?
One of the most common misconceptions is that Africa is a homogeneous continent, with development problems that are comparable in type and scale, and hence, similar ready-made design solutions are considered as desirable. The reality is that every country, every region in a country even, is different. Each has its own socio cultural landscape, ethnic groups, historical background, climate, geography, political system, modernist architectural and urban heritage, vernacular architectural typologies, etc….All of these element form a complex socio-economic landscape that begs for specific development solutions whose success is embedded in a thorough multi-disciplinary on site research approach.
5. Rethinking the role of the architect seems to be a popular discussion point at the moment. For the Fez River in Medina, you said for the project to be successful, you had to “reimagine the role and agency of the architect.” What did you have to change?
My previous partner Takako Tajima and I had to engage in disciplines we were not familiar with at all, such as micro-economics to better understand the changing dynamic of leather workers; environmental science to grasp the mechanisms of water pollution; history to comprehend the cultural significance of the river; sociology in order to lead interviews of local residents…We were lucky to be able to collaborate with great experts, many of them volunteered their skills and expertise, which we integrated in our design.
In addition, at the very start of the project, we had to act as activists to convince stakeholders that the river rehabilitation could have a significant positive impact on the medieval city of Fez, called the medina.
6. In your opinion, what will happen to cities of the future if equitable living is not taken into account?
My response might sound a bit dystopian but without equitable living, cities will be organized into wealthy gated communities and informal, under equipped ghettos. Sadly, many cities around the world have already fallen into such binomial model.
7. You travelled through the Sahara alone, conducting research on the possibility of ecotourism in arid climates. What did you learn and what was that experience like?
The experience was life changing: I learned how dwellings and landscapes could be designed in areas with no infrastructure, a very harsh climate and very limited natural resources.
In turn, it made me realize how wasteful we are in North America, how detached and unaware we are of the effects of our building culture on the environment, and how our definition of sustainability is still very timid in many respects.