Rayan Embarch of Dar Gonzo
Interview by Scott A. Sant’Angelo
Photography by Alessandro Casagrande & Scott A. Sant’Angelo
Dar Gonzo is an idyllic, remote and serene location in Morocco between the “Pearl of the South” and the Atlas mountains. The resort is an oasis for relaxation and recuperation that is a mere 25 minutes drive south from Marrakesh and its International airport.
Approaching the resort along the wide and spacious driveway, the visitor passes through a green oasis whose paths are fringed by luscious green lawns, palm trees and dense hibiscus hedges. This coupled with the aroma of citrus fruits, figs and dates generates a pleasant microclimate and exotic atmosphere.
Scott A. Sant’Angelo (SAS) – Explain the pace and rhythm of Northern Africa, how has being born and raised in Morocco shaped you as a person?
Rayan Embarch (RE) – Well, for a start, Morocco has a unique multi-cultural identity. The landscape of the entire country is so different. There are tall, snow-capped mountains and oceans of sand in the desert, tropical paradises and beautiful beaches. The country remarkably kept the balance between its old, traditional patrimony and its modern buildings and activities. Whether you go to Sahara Desert to the North, to the dramatic Atlas Mountains, to Agadir beaches or to Jamaa el Fna (Square) in Marrakech, you would be positively surprised by the authenticity of this beautiful country. I’m not exaggerating but there are plenty of things that you can only see in Morocco.
Born and raised in the different parts of the country, I witnessed it’s immense cultural diversity and rich history. I was brought up exposed to the cocktail of civilization that has previously inhabited this beautiful corner of North West mother Africa, deeply influenced by it’s colours, sounds, patterns and architecture.
(SAS) – Dar Gonzo is a very unique property and project, tell us what the owners set out to accomplish with the property? Has that initial idea changed over time or remained consistent?
(RE) – In the beginning we were a 120 year old house and a few dying Ficus Carica and Olea Europaea on an arid and almost abandoned property. Such beautiful mud houses and trees that characterise the Mediterranean and fulfill the needs and occupations of everyday life. Decision made, contract signed, property acquired. A romantic story of the area, the plants, and animals began and continue to this very sunny day in Marrakech.
Many people from all over the kingdom came here and devoted their precious time and hard work to participate individually by making many partial but visible changes or by creating new fields, patterns, combination of colors, shapes and forms. These men and women endured the heat and cold to continue to form an ongoing and living project in their hearts and minds. There are very deep feelings that bound and rooted them with earth, and whose creations in their decorations allows a wide scope of endless creation to design and build. They have personified the long established bond with our physical environment.
An Arsa, Jnan, Agdal, Orchad, Moroccan garden, Mediterranean garden, a Marrakesh garden, a universal garden, is it a park, or a botanic garden? No matter what word we attempt to use, we never find Le Mot Juste.
Let us call it Gonzo Garden, a reminder of our loving cat. Also a reminder to everyone of us who cherishes ecological heritage with an inestimable value for plants and animals alike. But the Dar Gonzo project too is a sequence of green landscape and responsible architecture, perhaps it is more to understand the experience of Marrakech in the field of garden and architecture art and manage to draw some lessons from it. The project should allow us to shed new light on how living more responsibly with nature and our surroundings will ensure a harmonious life for the future. Such is the height of our idea of the love of nature that we refused to give this name to any feeling, any instinct which would be made only of the desire to breathe rural perfumes, to hear streams to gather fruits from the bushes, in a word, to delight our senses with the pleasures of the countryside and its gifts.
(SAS) – The property is home to many cats, dogs, peacocks, chickens, ducks, swans, lizards, frogs and countless bird species, was it always in the plan to be a sort of animal sanctuary just outside of Marrakech?
(RE) – Animals have been present on the property before our arrival in 2006. Since then we have added to the landscape hundreds of trees native to the country such as Phoenix Dactylifera, Ficus Benjamina, Jacaranda, Melia Azedarach, Argana, Pinus Pinaster to name a few, and thousands of shrubs and bare-rooted herbaceous plants with the idea on mind to share a common precious space.
This plan has aimed at the creation of a larger wildlife on a small scale. Having a combination of taller more structural bushes and trees in one spot for example has provided shelter and nesting sites for birds and mammals. But also introducing lower flowering plants and shrubs, and patches of uncut grass and wildflowers has furnished an important source for ground cover as well as food for birds, bees, butterflies and other insects.
To pollinate the year-round colorful nectar-rich flowers, we brought beehives, who have been very generous with their hardwork and delicious honey. Yet, they have been attracting other wildlife such as merops apiaster who enjoy sitting on a tree and do what nature made them do.
In 2018 we added a new large pond and more small water features to the landscape to provide a safer home for a big range of wildlife, from the insects and amphibians that directly use it as a home, to the birds that simply visit it to feed and drink while on their way elsewhere.
Furthermore, we made sure to source plants of local provenance which compliment local habitats, or those who adopted Moroccan climate as a new home such as Eucalyptus or Brachychiton to provide shadow for those who needs it, and shape for the eyes for relaxation. In this saga for absolute integration with nature, we have considered time by selecting flora which blossom, seed and bear fruit at contrasting seasons of the year to give year round benefit for the different animals which made their home in our gardens in many different ways.
There are lots of things we have done and still can do, from planting to maintenance, that will make everyone as welcome as possible.
(SAS) – Dar Gonzo is near Marrakech however it sits somewhat alone aside from a few small villages and the desert. I imagine the difficulty of creating an estate like yours when you have to develop everything from scratch. Structures, plants, irrigation to electrical connections and so on. How long did it take to reach today’s result and what were the most challenging aspects of development?
(RE) – The major challenges we faced were training our team, and, more importantly, traditional farming practices especially overwatering the land and over drafting. The former does not benefit the plants and leads to loss of water due to evaporation, the latter decreases subterranean reservoirs. To overcome these issues, it has taken more than two decades of consistent work with myriad of locals and international talents. Such as engineers, farmers, students, artists, architects, local authorities and valuable interrelationship’s with research centres in MIT, the Fletcher School or by us having close ties with University of Oxford to finally reach the stage where Dar Gonzo is today. It is a micro-system model for collaboration that we test daily and we are welcoming every guest and visitor to enjoy our cosmos.
(SAS) – Having just finished a residency at Dar Gonzo myself, I can say that the property offers more then the obvious freedom and sense of escape from city life. It provides inspiration from the calmness and comfort of the surroundings. I see others coming here to write, think and create work, was that part of the purpose when developing the environment?
(RE) – In 2017 Dar Gonzo was proud to host participants of United Nations Climate Conference on Climate Change. Globally the conference proved historic, as a legally binding target was agreed by all 196 member parties with the aim of capping climate catastrophe. We were lucky because it enabled us to get in touch with people whose prime work is environment and the expertise with which we can improve our life style. The conference gave us framework to continue our efforts and share fruits with others. One of the ideas that came after conference is to start a botanic garden. We embraced it, and we have been documenting our plants to start displaying them in an online and on-site form in January 2020. This project is overseen by writer & artist Rita Kallerhoof, who is our artist in residence, and whose art is on display throughout resort. It reflects the metamorphosis of abundance driven colorful visages of Moroccan and African life. ‘Everything is mixed up: old and new, Northern and Southern. Everyone is very open and quick to adopt creations from other place and combine them with Moroccans own’, she always notes.
We plan take it one step further and invite artists from all mediums to stay on-site and respond directly to the unique architectural features and create a series of works inspired by space or time.
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