A House in Tangier Untethered From Time and Place
IN THE COLLECTIVE Western imagination, Morocco is arid and desertlike, the clay-walled labyrinths of Marrakesh’s medina standing in for the …
IN THE COLLECTIVE Western imagination, Morocco is arid and desertlike, the clay-walled labyrinths of Marrakesh’s medina standing in for the entire country. But Tangier, 350 miles to the city’s north, at the edge of the Rif Mountains where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean, is humid: Torrential rains fall from New Year’s to Easter, and then sporadically the rest of the year. Wallpaper bubbles, paint flakes and shoes left in the back of the closet turn green with mold. In summer, plumes of fog hover over the Casbah, the city’s historic walled fortress.
Despite its unpredictable climate, Tangier, an hour by ferry from Spain, has long been home to a community of anachronistic, aesthetically minded Europeans. Between 1923 and 1956, it was governed as an international zone distinct from Morocco — a country then controlled by the French and the Spanish — that attracted diplomats, movie stars, writers and spies, a generation of European residents drawn to the city’s laid-back cosmopolitanism, as well as to the architecture, which combined the filigreed arches of the Moorish culture with the pared-down curves of Art Deco.
That singular aesthetic is partly what drew Christopher González-Aller, a Spanish American dealer of old masters paintings. González-Aller, 59, grew up mostly in Manhattan, near Washington Square Park, but he came to know Tangier through his mother, who frequently visited the city. In 2017 he bought a squared-off three-story early 20th-century house near an old weather tower on a small pedestrian street that hugs the hillside along the Casbah’s walls.
Whitewashed in typical Tangier style with a wide, squat black door, González-Aller’s airy, unpretentious 1,900-square-foot house is set back from the street, barely visible behind a neighbor’s two-story structure. The previous owners, an American couple, had updated the original warren of rooms with track lighting and attempts at modern Moroccan detail. At first, González-Aller tried to redo the place on his own, picking up furniture from the Charf, a low-lying neighborhood where local craftsmen weave cane grass into lampshades, chairs and sideboards. But after the dealer brought his friend the Casablanca-based interior designer Marie-Françoise Giacolette to visit the house, he knew he’d found the right person to reimagine it.
GIACOLETTE TAKES inspiration from the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, who revived interest in traditional and sustainable Arabic architecture starting in the 1960s. Over the years, she’s developed a practice that marries her sensibilities with her clients’, a collaboration defined by Giacolette’s native intuition.
“She knew I wanted my Tangier house to be like Greenwich Village in the 1960s even before I did,” says González-Aller. These days, his residence is arrayed with a collection of carpets and Moroccan objets, but there are also allusions to bohemian mid-20th-century downtown New York: In the dining room, Noguchi paper lanterns hang above a bété wood table of Giacolette’s design; nearby, salvaged iron grates act as room dividers. Instead of the old masters González-Aller sells, there are unrestored oil portraits in simple gilded frames hung on the pale violet walls. To replace the modern plumbing fixtures that the previous owners had considered an upgrade, he went to Casabarata, the famed flea market, to find vintage Roca sinks and basins from the 1940s and ’50s.
The designer made structural changes, as well, rebuilding the central staircase and removing the corridors so that rooms open directly onto one another. She gutted the house’s interior, leaving intact two load-bearing walls, then reconfigured the space on each floor into a large central chamber flanked by two smaller rooms — a layout that allows for natural light and air circulation. Giacolette then had new exposed columns built with handmade bricks called macizo (from the Spanish for “solid”), produced in Ksar el-Kebir, 60 miles away; from May to October, artisans there power their kilns with eucalyptus wood from the previous season’s harvest. The use of such local materials and techniques is integral to her work: Instead of the ubiquitous cement that has coarsened new construction in Tangier, she uses a mixture of limestone, water and polvo — a pulverized gravel from nearby quarries — to produce a base coat for the stone walls that suits the city’s humidity. These walls are covered in a lime wash tinted with powdered pigments such as sienna, cadmium and cobalt. Elsewhere, the interplay of tile work and textiles — in the kitchen, wavy zellige tiles produced in Fez using a 10th-century technique; in the living area, banquettes upholstered in embroidered gold-and-black cut velvet — create a layered effect that feels simultaneously ancient and contemporary.
From the rooftop garden, planted with mimosa, rosemary, purple succulents and waxy broad-leaved farfugium, the view changes with the weather. Sometimes, you can see the Spanish port of Tarifa across the Strait of Gibraltar; other days, the mountains, crowned with mist, seem to recede into the distance. For most clients and designers, the project would be complete, but Giacolette and González-Aller still meet most weeks, adjusting surfaces and rehanging textiles, replacing a vase with a pitcher or refreshing the fabrics. In the heat of the summer, the painters will return, and there Giacolette will be, mixing pigment with lime, making sure the color is right. Some of her collaborators have taken to calling her mâallema, an Arabic word reserved for master craftswomen — but also, more literally speaking, “she who knows.”