For Art Deco, We’ll Always Have Casablanca!
Morocco is a country of mosques,
medinas and mystery – and the greatest French Art Deco architecture outside of Paris.
Tourists and the travel industry say that if you want to see great Art Deco you go to Miami’s South Beach or Paris, where the term “Art Deco” originated at its 1925 World Exhibition, “l’Exposition des Arts Decoratifs” – hence the name “Art Deco.”
The Art Deco Style
Before we travel anywhere, let’s define the “Art Deco” style. “Art Deco” is the first stylistic movement of the 20th century, replacing the late 19th-century round and curvy French Style, “Art Nouveau” – which in French means “New Art.” Art Deco eschews curves for straight lines and angles, in which squares and rectangles replace circles. Art Deco is a cleaner and sleeker “style” that pervades many creative genres of the early 20th-century lifestyle: architecture, art, fashion, jewelry and furniture – and even furniture containing new 20th-century communication/entertainment – the radio.
It’s always a delight to visit Miami’s South Beach with Art Deco from the mid-20’s through WWII, consisting mainly of low-rise buildings of three to four stories mostly serving the function of hotels and apartments.
However, to see Art Deco on a much grander scale, let’s visit Art Deco’s home city, Paris. Paris’ great Théâtre des Champs-Élysées dates from before WWI, 1913, with Art Deco bas-relief panels by the renowned sculptor Antoine Bourdelle. (It’s also one of the first reinforced concrete structures – unique in many ways.) Other favorite Paris Art Deco buildings are from a later World’s Fair, the World Exposition of 1937, with magnificent buildings such as the Palais de Tokyo, home of a seldom-visited museum, the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art. Nearby, also from the 1937 Expo, is the magnificent Palais de Chaillot, perched on a hill with its dramatic high-spraying fountain creating a sensational framing backdrop for viewing the Eiffel Tower. The Art Deco Palais Chaillot has three more wonderful “undiscovered museums,” the Cite de Architecture, (Architecture Museum), Musee de la Marine (Navy Museum) and Musee d’Homme (Museum of Man).
Art Deco in Morocco
So far, we’ve visited magnificent Art Deco buildings in Paris and an Art Deco section of Miami, South Beach. Now let’s journey to a city that has beautiful Art Deco buildings actually located in Art Deco districts: Art Deco streets, squares and neighborhoods in Casablanca, Morocco’s largest international city in a country that was a “protectorate” (colony) of France from 1912 to 1956.
In 1912, Casablanca was little more than a large village. French city planning of wide streets and squares gave it a unique French style and elegance, with buildings created in the French architectural style of the day, French Art Deco. In many ways for lovers of Art Deco, Casablanca has even more to offer than Paris where Art Deco buildings stand out here and there, embedded in elegant, uniform, tree-lined city blocks created during Baron Haussmann’s total redesign of Paris in the 1850s and 60s. Like Paris, since the French arrived, Casablanca also became a planned city of wide avenues radiating from squares. Casablanca is a planned city with the prevailing architectural style, Art Deco, built in.
A newly planned city needs buildings that serve many different functions including government buildings, department stores (yes, there was even an Art Deco Galeries Lafayette), as well as apartment buildings, villas and hotels. And because it’s the early 20th century – and not Haussmann’s mid 19th century – there are also Art Deco movie theaters and even an Art Deco automobile showroom with the famous “Citroen” sign topping it off.
Total squares were designed by French architects in the Art Deco style, or in a combination style of Moorish (Moorish arches topping windows and colonnades) together with very angular Art Deco called “Mauresque.” Pre-French Moorish architecture was heavily “geometric,” which fit in nicely with the angular Art Deco. The most predominant “Mauresque” square was “Administrative Square” (today’s Mohamed V Square) consisting of the Courts of Justice, the Post Office and the stunning Hotel de Ville (City Hall). Art Deco (with Moorish thrown into the mix) was also the style for utilitarian buildings such as Casablanca’s Art Deco abattoir (slaughterhouse) 1922.
Hotels, Cinemas & Churches
There are other Art Deco squares such as the Place de France (today’s United Nations Square), site of the Mauresque Hotel Excelsior 1914. While many cities around the world have an Art Deco hotel, Casablanca has many, including the Hotel Guynemer, the Hotel LeDoge, the Hotel Lincoln (now under restoration and opening as a Radisson in 2025), the Hotel Volubilis, the Hotel Atlas, the Hotel Transatlantique and the Hotel Imperial, converted from the former Shell Oil office building 1934, and the Hotel d’Anfa.
While many cities around the world have Art Deco cinemas such as Paris (The Rex), New York (Radio City Music Hall), Bucharest, Mumbai and Shanghai, Casablanca has many Art Deco cinemas including the famous Rialto, which featured Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour and even America’s own Josephine Baker. Other great Casablanca Art Deco movie theaters are the Vox, the Verdun, and Cinema ABC.
Just as Charles Garnier, architect of the Paris Opera House (aka “The Garnier Opera House”) was the premier architect of Haussmann’s replanned mid 19th-century Paris, the great but sadly little remembered French Art Deco architect Marius Boyer was the premier architect of the replanned French Art Deco Casablanca, whose outstanding buildings span the years 1916 through the 1940’s. (Boyer was so tied into the Casablanca Art Deco style that he even died in Casablanca in 1947 with his French style boots on – made in Morocco.)
What Conrad Hilton is to hotel ownership, Marius Boyer is to Casablanca hotel design. Marius Boyer didn’t just design an Art Deco Casablanca hotel – he designed many Casablanca hotels. His Hotel d’Anfa 1938, is one of history’s most famous hotels. It’s where the Casablanca Conference of January 1943 took place with Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin – and unlike the Tehran and Potsdam Allies conferences, it also included French General Charles de Gaulle. (Although in the case of the Hotel d’Anfa, history comes first, design second. Boyer’s hotel looks like a Bauhaus luxury liner, a smaller version of a transatlantic luxury liner, giving the Normandie a run, or rather float, for its money.)
In 1943 if you wanted to see a newsreel of the Casablanca Conference – you could have seen it before the movie in Casablanca’s VOX Theater. Yes, designed by Marius Boyer, of course.
Besides being Casablanca’s most ubiquitous French Art Deco architect, Marius Boyer was also Casablanca’s most creative, employing many different types of Art Deco from his Hotel de La Ville in Mohammed V Square (today’s Wilaya Building) from 1928 in the Mauresque Style, in which Moorish arched windows are placed within geometric squares so the arch’s curves are minimalized within the larger square’s angles. However, Boyer’s Levy Bendayan Building 1928 and his Moses Assayag Building 1930, which looks more like a post-WWII large Miami hotel, are his pieces de resistance.
The Levy Bendayan Building 1928 and Moses Assayag Building 1930 have something else in common. They were both commissioned by Moroccan Jewish real estate developers, showing the prominence and respect of Morocco’s Jewish community, which helped to put all Moroccans to work – Muslims and French Catholics. Speaking of French Catholics, just as France is noted for its great Gothic cathedrals, Casablanca has a refined and totally elegant Art Deco cathedral – the stunning white stone landmark, the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart 1930.
While the Levy Bendayan Building and Moses Asayag building were commissioned by Moroccan Jews, let’s also discover buildings actually designed by Moroccan Jews, the Suraqui Brothers, Joseph and Elias. With exquisite Art Deco detailing just below the eaves of the roof, the Hassan de la Salle Building is from 1928. This building shows more than good Art Deco design, it also shows the long-standing respect between the Muslim and Jewish communities, since “Hassan” happens to be the name of the father of the ruling Sultan Mohammed V, “Yousef bin Hassan.”
Touring the numerous old and small synagogues of Jewish Morocco many of which are still in use, shows the great respect Morocco’s leaders have had, and still have, for their Hebrew community. Touring great Art Deco buildings commissioned and designed by Jews for use by all, Jews, Christians and Muslims, shows the heights to which Jews could climb in Morocco. Casablanca’s “Jewish buildings” should be on every Jewish tourist’s itinerary, instilling the pride of accomplishment, something you can’t get by touring just small old synagogues.
As for the great French Art Deco architect Marius Boyer, I hope the folks at Expedia, Booking.com, Trivago etc. will acknowledge Boyer’s outstanding hotel design by mentioning it along with the descriptions of accommodations, service and cuisine, to attract sophisticated, cultured tourists from around the world.
And above all, I hope the UNESCO World Heritage Fund finally designates Casablanca’s great Art Deco District as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, enabling its full restoration and preservation – and increased tourism for generations to come.