Romain Michel-Meniere on Designing for a Modern Morocco

Among peaceful olive groves on the outskirts of Oumnas, a small Berber village nestled in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, lies a hidden oasis; the Berber Lodge. This midcentury-chic-meets-traditional-Moroccan hotel is the latest project from Franco-Swiss architect Romain Michel-Meniere.

Just over thirty minutes outside the bustling streets of Marrakech, guests at the Berber Lodge are invited to slow down with seven hectares of idyllic gardens, a 50-foot pool placed in the center of a lush olive grove and private terraces overlooking the Atlas Mountains. Nine cottages, each with their own private garden, pay homage to Morocco’s natural materials with walls made of clay from the garden and rooftops constructed using palm and eucalyptus wood from the surrounding region. Rooms are purposely small in length to pay homage to typical Berber design standards that prioritize function.

Meniere both honors and elevates traditional Moroccan design; simple adobe structures and hand-made Berber rugs are modernized with mid-century lamps and wardrobes–some of which Meniere has handcrafted himself. Other pieces in the Lodge were made exclusively for the hotel by local artisans. Even the Moroccan-Mediterranean menu offered at the hotel restaurant has been thoughtfully curated by Meniere and produce is sourced from the backyard garden. In our conversation with Meniere, he describes everything in the Lodge to be of Berber inspiration. He assures us, “this is only way to approach a country house in Morocco.” His latest design creation embodies the true essence of the Moroccan countryside; an appreciation for a calmer pace of life and living modestly off the earth.

This is not the first time that Meniere has designed in Morocco, having left Geneva for Marrakech some 15 years ago. Following an early education in Paris, Meniere went on to study in Switzerland, where his Swiss grandfather owned a small renovation company. “I had difficulty living in Switzerland after many years of happiness, I was looking for a change.” Meniere found himself drawn to Morocco’s climate and close proximity to Europe. He fell in love with a Riad that needed renovation and the rest is history.

It’s no surprise an architect would find a new home in a designer’s paradise like Morocco. For architectural inspiration, he admires the Ben Youssef Madrasa, Morocco’s largest Islamic school, and the Musee Yves Saint Laurent, a museum dedicated to the work of the legendary fashion designer. Not to mention he has the magnificent Atlas Mountains, Mediterranean Sea, Agafay Desert and the Medina of Marrakech at his doorstep for creative stimuli.

Over the past decade, Meniere has developed a style that is uniquely his own; traditional Moroccan design combined with mid-century minimalism. Take for example the Riad Mena & Beyond, a hotel he designed in collaboration with Philmona Schurer Merckoll. The six-room Riad is characterized by high ceilings and clean neutrals, modest furniture with the occasional splash of color, making the space an airy refuge in the heart of the busy Medina of Marrakech. Meniere has applied the same design sophistication to Kasbah Bab Ourika, a tranquil retreat located in the Ourika Valley overlooking green fields, river streams and the snowy peaks of the Atlas Mountains. In typical Meniere-fashion, the 15 rooms have been adorned with textiles, colors and patterns that uphold traditional Berber aesthetics.

Meniere’s past works speak to his character as an architect who honors tradition while appreciating modern design; an approach that he thinks is currently lacking in Morocco’s design landscape. “Most of the time, projects are searching for something that has no relation with the past and the history of Morocco. You can’t create something new if you don’t know what was done before,” he says in describing his design philosophy. Meniere’s architectural approach is perhaps also explained by his personal preference for the aesthetics of an earlier time, “I think the old design was more chic and interesting”.

With over a decade in Morocco, a practice of sourcing locally and a consistent use of traditional Berber designs, it is clear that Meniere grounds his work in a deep understanding of the place in which he builds. Yet despite his dedication to respecting local culture and traditional customs, he manages to create spaces that are distinctly contemporary. Guests of a Meniere masterpiece are invited to indulge in a modern interpretation of history. Somehow Meniere has crafted a recipe for success where everyone involved wins; the tourist, the local and the architect.

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