Steven Ehrlich reconnects with a housing project he designed in Morocco fifty years ago; thought to be unbuilt, it was actually realized


Steven Ehrlich reconnects with a housing project he designed in Morocco fifty years ago; thought to be unbuilt, it was actually realized

Sidi Moussa (© Ben Clark, 2023 / Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB))

Nearly all architects have unbuilt projects: Visions go unrealized, designs are halted at the whim of clients, or initiatives suffer from a lack of funds. But not many architects learn a project they drafted fifty years ago, thought to be unbuilt, was actually completed.

In the early 1970s the construction of dams outside of Marrakech, Morocco, forced villagers to relocate. Architect Steven Ehrlich, who was working in the Peace Corps in the country at the time, drafted plans for simple housing developments using mud bricks for the displaced villagers. Several years later, Ehrlich left the region. He recently learned from researchers that his project had been built.

In 1969, Ehrlich was part of the first cohort of architects to arrive in Morocco through the Peace Corps. The group of young designers worked for the Moroccan government’s architecture and urban planning department and were each located in a city where they took on projects. Ehrlich worked in Marrakech.

“The whole experience blew my mind because living in another culture and a whole different way of experiencing architecture, courtyard houses, medinas, lots of beauty and mystery. It was just a wonderful learning experience,” Ehrlich reminisced in a recent interview with AN. After his time in Africa, Ehrlich founded Ehrlich Architects in 1979, and today the firm practices as Ehrlich Yanai Rhee Chaney Architects.

(Courtesy Steven Ehrlich)
(Courtesy Steven Ehrlich)

Over a two-year period from 1970 to 1971 in the North African country, Ehrlich primarily worked on a project known as Habitat Rural, which involved planning a rural village designed to rehouse residents ousted by the construction of dams. Ehrlich, alongside an interpreter and draftsman, researched local housing practices and patterns of living. Through these studies he came up with proposals for rural villages, one located 30 to 40 miles outside of Marrakech, the other in Ouarzazate on the south side of the High Atlas Mountains.

The housing scheme was simple in its design and construction. It proposed using mud bricks to build walls, and a precast concrete roof would top the resulting structure, a new technology and process for the rural region. The project took cues from local Berber vernacular structures.

Skoura II (now Idelsane) (© Ben Clark, 2023/Université libre de Bruxelles [ULB])
“It’s a very low tech, organic construct,” Ehrlich explained. “And that’s one of the beautiful things I learned having lived in Africa for so long is that is that there’s a lot of embedded sustainable wisdom in how people live and build. They work with materials that are found on-site or nearby.”

“I completed these designs, and I was then off to further adventures,” Ehrlich continued. “And I never found out if those projects were built. I tried.”

Sidi Moussa (© Ben Clark, 2023/Université libre de Bruxelles [ULB])
Eight years ago, the architect returned to Morocco where he visited the government’s architecture office to inquire about his past work in the country. The office had no idea what he was talking about. “So I kind of just assumed it never got built,” Ehrlich recalled.

A couple years later, the Getty Research Institute began compiling an archive of Ehrlich’s work, which included his African designs and a collection of photography and other documentation from the region. Maristella Casciato, a curator of architecture at the Getty, was particularly interested in Ehrlich’s work on rural housing developments, and she asked the architect if the projects were ever built. Casciato eventually turned her research into a paper and symposium on urbanism and planning and architecture in North Africa in the 1970s. Ehrlich put her in touch with Belgian PhD student and researcher Ben Clark who was studying the region. It happened that Clark had traveled to Morocco and visited rural villages including Sidi Moussa and Skoura II (now Idelsane). Images of the developments and an aerial view from Google Maps confirmed the designs were Ehrlich’s.

Idelsane aerial view (Map data ©2023 Google)

Upon hearing this news, Ehrlich had a smile on his face for nearly a week, he said. He likened the experience of finding out his long-lost project had been built to “discovering that I can meet children that I haven’t seen or knew existed for 50 years. It’s kind of amazing.”

Ehrlich has yet to visit Morocco since finding out the news, but he hopes to return soon. His original draftsman still resides in the country, and he looks forward to visiting Sidi Moussa and Skoura II/Idelsane himself.

Casciato will present Habitat Rural” Experiments in Morocco: The Matrix and the Pattern, at the Society for Architectural Historians’  76th Annual International Conference, which takes place this week from April 12–16 in Montreal.