Last Year’s Model

The Cinema Rif is the most beautiful building on Tangier’s Grand Socco, the great sloping plaza where the inhabitants of this northern-Moroccan port city gather every evening like grains in a convivial sieve. Built in 1938, the landmark theater is at the crossroads of the colonial-era European downtown and the medieval Arab medina. Its boxy facade, decorated with Islamic-style latticework, shoots up from a scalloped asymmetrical awning. The theater saw its heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, when Tangier enjoyed a cultural cross-pollination that included local musicians and storytellers, and Western rock stars and Beat Generation writers. By the 1990s, as the city’s cultural life atrophied, the Rif fell into disrepair and became a smoky all-male venue that showed little besides Bollywood films.

But the theater was recently the object of a radical renovation that managed both to modernize the Rif and to celebrate its past. Tangier is a nostalgic city: it hasn’t forgotten its reputation as a rendezvous of spies, smugglers, artists, and eccentrics. In keeping with that spirit, the architects of the new theater—Jean-Marc Lalo, based in France, and Jaouad Khattabi, a Moroccan—decided to keep the facade and the vast sloping screening room. But around these two lushly restored main elements they added an array of smaller interconnected spaces. What was once an alley—and open-air toilet—became a glass-ceilinged corridor leading to a second screening room and spaces for film production.

Whereas the old Rif’s entrance had been shabby and functional—a forgettable space traversed in a few strides—the new design creates sociable pockets where moviegoers can linger. A boat-shaped coffee bar is the focal point of the foyer, and café tables line the hallway, spilling onto the Socco. Yto Barrada, a local artist who led the project, describes the theater as “a collective work by the Tangier artistic crowd.” The common areas were decorated with old ­furniture—bright-red leather barbers’ chairs and tarnished mirrors—from Tangier’s flea markets. Unusual light fixtures, each a stylized metallic little cosmos, were salvaged. Barrada’s husband, the actor and screenwriter Sean Gullette, of Pi fame, designed bubble-shaped lights that hang in glowing clusters and beckon through the glass doors.

The Rif’s rebirth comes amid Tangier’s general resurgence. In the last few years, the city has been booming—luring tourists, attracting investors, and basking in the patronage of Morocco’s young king, Mohammed VI. Not only has the Rif garnered paeans from the Moroccan press, but it’s a leading member of a network of new independent theaters, fostered by the nonprofit Arte East, that pool their resources to promote cinema in Arab countries. It has also become a model in Morocco as well as the Middle East for how to breathe new life into architectural patrimony. “It wasn’t a restoration,” Barrada says. “We broke what we didn’t like, and kept the spirit.”

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