‘I call architecture frozen music…; the influence that flows upon us from architecture is like that from music,’ are Goethe’s words and a concept that seems to be beautifully understood by French architect Guilhem Eustache. He has designed the majestically modest Fobe House in Marrakech, Morocco for Belgian producer/director Dimitri de Clercq. When we spoke to them while they were in an autumn-tinted France — 8930.70 kilometres away from a sunlit Cape Town — they took us on a symbolic journey to Northern Africa and showed us inside the proudly African stronghold with their words. Cordially, they opened up our minds to the intricate influences and connectedness of ‘mother architecture’ to the rest of the art world and human beings. According to Eustache, architecture exudes a mood, rhythm and, above all, a narrative that puts you — the protagonist as well as director — at the heart of it. But first we speak about emotion, atmosphere and perspective in the Fobe House. Here’s Part I of our interview, come on in…

 Picture 1 - by Jean-Marie Monthiers

Picture 1 – by Jean-Marie Monthiers

What mood would you like people to be in once they enter the Fobe House?

Guilhem Eustache: I would like people to feel satisfied and liberated.

If the Fobe House was an emotion which one would it be?

GE: The house can’t be reduced to one emotion in particular because it’s the individual who is at the centre of the project. The house can allow the person to live fully and in a very serene manner — and that entails all sorts of emotions. You could easily imagine going to this place for an introspective retreat. But it’s also the kind of place where you could imagine crazy parties and all kinds of events. I really think that the house adapts to all kinds of situations and to each person’s character — regardless of their age.

So did you do anything specific, architecture-wise to create an atmosphere?

GE: The ultimate atmosphere that I created wasn’t necessarily defined in the beginning. It was achieved through the research that was done and during the different phases of construction. The way the spaces are organised and interact with the particular surrounding landscape is the result of an addition of ideas and events that unfolded while construction was underway. So, the overall atmosphere was mainly created throughout the principal phases of construction. The first phase concerned the main house, situated in the centre of the land. Then the second phase — two, three years afterwards — concerned the other buildings: the garage, the guard’s house, the totemic fireplace and the three white stelae that mark the entrance to the property. I feel that as the construction evolved throughout these different phases, it was very much the project itself that fed the project. And a lot of small details that created specific ambiences, like the stairs that come out of the end of the swimming pool or the pool at the main entrance of the house, for example, were created at the end of the project.

Picture 2 - by  Jean-Marie Monthiers

Picture 2 – by Jean-Marie Monthiers



You said that you ‘played with light and shadow to enhance and strengthen the volumes.’ Can you give us some examples?

GE: If you overexpose a human face, the shadows as well as the perception of the nose and other facial details will disappear — with architecture it’s basically the same. I add elements, which define as well as differentiate the volumes from one another and create depth of field through the shadows these elements create or the light they let through, and thus reinforce perspective. An example for this is what I call the effect of the railroad track. If you are in the middle of the desert, without any other visual reference around you, you won’t have any notion of distance or scale. If you add a railroad track that runs towards infinity to this landscape, the question of scale and distance is resolved. And thus, the notion of true perspective appears. This principle has been applied in the design of the garage (see picture four below). When you’re inside the garage and you look toward the caretaker’s house you see 36 square openings in the ceiling, which project 36 squares of light onto the ground. Through doing that I reinforce the perspective within the space, which otherwise would seem flat.

Let’s look at the phonetics of space – aural architecture. Some research I have found states that “sound has the potential to define space, to create metaphorical walls. Sound ‘happens’ in space; its waves traverse a distance from source to ear. Furthermore, both sound and space have a structural design, an architectonics”.  I would like to ask you about this, in terms of your own designs, has this element of architecture played a role?

GE: I feel that all the arts are very much related, but music, cinema, dance and architecture have two important things in common. It’s the time factor (the duration of the sequences) and, of course, the notion of rhythm. These are things that you don’t have when you look at a painting, for example. Of course, you can take your time to look at it but that process isn’t really about time. But music and the other aforementioned art forms really play with the notion of time.

Like in music and in film, you have rhythmic dynamics — moments that are slow, moments that are faster — and architecture can do the same.

Picture 4 - by  Jean-Marie Monthiers

Picture 4 – by Jean-Marie Monthiers

So when it comes to designing a home is it more important that it’s functional or aesthetically pleasing? And would that be different if you had to design, say, a shop or some other place nobody’s going to live in?

GE: Of course at the beginning of a project you first have to answer and respond to a programme that has been established with the client. For me architecture is above all narrative. It has to bring sense with it. Like German philosopher Hegel said that architecture is the first of the arts. It’s a universal language. If you have nothing to express, you shouldn’t consider yourself an architect. In that sense it’s very close to the art of painting, you have to have something to say.

Architecture really begins once you have successfully answered all these pragmatic aspects.

And, of course, it would be very different than designing a shop, for example, because the house is a place where somebody lives and that’s extremely important. In a house the individual is at the centre of the project. For me the house is the noblest subject in the history of modern architecture. The greatest architects of the 20th century — and you could go further than that — have done that with success. You could look at Frank Lloyd Wright‘s masterpiece ‘Falling Water’ or the Maison de Verre (House of Glass) in Paris, for example. But today many architects don’t seem that interested in the exercise of the creation through the house. I think it’s not serious because it really is the essence of my work as an architect.

So are you saying that architects nowadays are seeing architecture as less of an art form?

GE: Yes, a lot of people don’t see it as an art form any more and use it for the sake of commerce. They are just interested in building these huge towers.

Once you consider yourself an artist, commerce should be secondary. It’s not about the quantity because you don’t measure the quality of a sculpture by its quantity.

Another good example is the Villa Malaparte in Italy on the island of Capri. It was built by its owner and just one mason, and is considered one of the masterpieces of architecture of the 20th century. The theme of the ‘house’ is central to the architecture.

Villa Malaparte - Image by red2malaparte.blogspot.com

Villa Malaparte – Image by red2malaparte.blogspot.com



Can architectural design reflect a person’s character and does your design reflect your character?

GE: Yes, of course. It has to reflect the character of the client. The project is the client’s initiative, the initial programme is his but what comes afterwards is conceived in relationship to his needs and desires. During all the preliminary meetings and the phases of drawings I was trying to get to know Dimitri better and understand him to identify with him somehow, so I could respond better to his needs and desires. I feel that the house is very much haunted by the client’s character.

DdC: The client is also present (laughs). When I saw the house take shape, I realised to what extent Guilhem had understood many things about me. And the spaces and objects that he created are very much me. It’s a little bit like spending hours and hours with a psychoanalyst but in a much more abstract way — in a non-verbal way. This is very interesting about architecture, it’s a very non-verbal art form. Cinema still comes down to the words because few films work without them.

And architecture functions without words but it still has a narrative.

I was very surprised at how much I saw myself in this space.

So for you it’s like looking into a mirror.

DdC: Yes, there’s a little bit of that.

GE: My character is also very present in the house. It’s very close to me in the sense that I like to break perceived ideas and go beyond conventions and dogmas. I have a need to feel free and I feel that the house really evokes that. If you look at how the house works in particular, for example. Other houses tell you one thing: you have to go inside this way and not that way. It’s often very strict and very formal. The Fobe House, on the contrary, allows for different narratives: you can enter the house this way but you can also enter the house another way. In that sense it’s a very free space.

DdC: I really feel that the house doesn’t impose on you. The desert suggests freedom and the Atlas represents a journey.

GE: I have always travelled a lot. I have always had that in my character, which I think is very present in my architecture.



I think it has to be — either consciously or unconsciously.

GE: I think a lot of it is very unconsciously.

What’s your favourite thing about Morocco and did you manage to incorporate that into the design of the Fobe House?

GE: I very much appreciate the Berber culture — the music, the way of living, the food and particularly their architecture. I am very conscious about their mud architecture that you see all over Morocco — a lot in the Atlas and even in Algeria. In Morocco a large part of the population is of Berber origin, they were the people who were in Morocco first, and then the Arabs came later. Berber architecture really has had an influence on modern architecture and on many movements…in fact, to me it is the essence of modern architecture, so the idea of being able to design a house there was something very important.

How would you say does Moroccan architecture reflect the Moroccan way of life?

GE: The traditional architecture, notably in the country but also in the ancient cities, is perfectly adequate to the climate and their way of life. You could say, for example, that they invented natural ventilation, which is still used in modern architecture sometimes — these big walls filled with holes that you can also find in Latin America — you can bring all that back to Berber architecture. They’ve excelled in creating gardens and irrigating space. So Berber architecture is very much my ‘food’ — it’s an important heritage. So the problematic thing for Moroccans is to conceive, perpetuate and improve these ancient techniques and ways of life while moving towards some sort of modernity. I trust them to bring the two together.





One thing that I remembered when I went to Morocco is that homes, especially interiors, felt very empty. Although there were decorative features, accessories and design were very minimal. Was this something you experienced too? And is it something that exists in the Fobe House?

GE: Like you I had the opportunity to stay in the countryside and visit farmers’ houses. I was really surprised by the simplicity and rationality in these houses and the little furniture that was present in each room. I felt that I was discovering minimalism in its purest state. It goes back to what we said earlier — and this is one of the themes that you find in the Fobe House, of course — there’s little furniture and almost no decoration, which means that it’s simply the architecture that is put forth. My first goal has always been to remain true to the spirit of the project. I wanted to put forth this simplicity and return to the sources of architecture. Although the house is extremely modern, it’s much closer to the way the Berbers and the people in the countryside build than to a lot of houses that foreigners, who make use of Western technology and modernity, build in Morocco.

You put quite a bit of effort into creating a house that is ‘green’ through, for example, using locally sourced materials. In a country like Morocco where people live on a day-to-day basis, getting by with whatever they can get their hands on, do you think going ‘green’ is a viable option?

GE: To be frank, at the beginning it was more of an economic and a rational choice than an environmental one. At first we privileged local materials. The imported materials from the West were probably too sophisticated. The Western technologies are quite complicated building processes if they are created there and costly as well as time-consuming. So a lot of Western ways of doing things were rejected for those reasons.

So the whole concept of ‘green’ as we think of it in the West would defeat the purpose if it had to be applied in Morocco because techniques and materials have to be imported.

The solutions were to be found in Morocco. And the way that the Berber build is very ecological. Traditional Berber architecture responds perfectly to the notion of green architecture. I’m referring to the traditional mud architecture, the mud Kasbahs. There really is nothing more ecological than that. Everything they’re building with comes from the land. Unfortunately, with the economic development of Morocco and the whole region that way of building is something that is disappearing. Of course, a lot of younger Moroccans want to have the lifestyle and want to adapt techniques that are much closer to those of the West.

Interview by Christine Hogg

Images by  Jean-Marie Monthiersred2malaparte.blogspot.com