Obituary: Michel Pinseau

Douglas Johnson
Tuesday 28 September 1999 23:02

MICHEL PINSEAU graduated from the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts as an architect in 1956 and began to take part in the building frenzy that marked the beginning of the so-called "30 glorious years", the years of prosperity. In Paris there was an instant need for new offices and, in the Paris region, a great demand for housing.

He found a more testing ground in the department of Savoie. The construction of a hydroelectric plant in the valley of the Isere and the creation of a lake at Chevril had necessitated the evacuation of the tiny village of Tignes and the establishment of a new centre at a higher altitude. The changes attracted an increased population to the new sites and Pinseau was one of the architects involved.

Pinseau's career changed completely when he made the acquaintance of the King of Morocco, Hassan II. The King was negotiating with Unesco headquarters in Paris for money to save some of the old religious buildings in Morocco, particularly in Fez, and was already employing a French-born architect, Jean-Paul Ichter. It was by coincidence that Pinseau's venture into Morocco (which was to last for some 20 years) coincided with a crisis amongst architects when responsibility for architectural policy was transferred to the Ministry for Public Works and when an article in Le Monde (24 June 1976) carried the title "Architecture, annee zero".

There were three problems for Pinseau in Morocco. The first was to save and recover the old buildings in famous religious centres. Fez was a good example of this, with the largest medina in North Africa, still encircled by its walls, and with its extraordinary treasures, such as a 14th-century water-clock. But one reason why Fez was in danger was because of the pressure of population, so the second problem was to build new towns which would be able to house this incessantly growing population.

The third problem existed because of the King's ambitions. He wanted to be a traditional monarch, but at the same time he sought to represent power and prestige in the modern world. Therefore he wanted new buildings which would be associated with his name. Some have said that he was sufficiently well-acquainted with the Paris of Presidents Pompidou and Giscard d'Estaing to understand how heads of state sought to gain personal prestige by planning new buildings that would be associated with their names.

As the royal architect Pinseau worked vigorously to carry out these projects, although he was obliged to give priority to the construction of the new rather than the restoration of the old. Some of his most important work was as a town planner, building new districts in towns like Fez, Meknes, Casablanca and Marrakesh. Perhaps the most remarkable achievement was the building of a new town, at Sale, only a few kilometres from Rabat.

He also designed several royal residences, notably the palace at Agadir; there is the university at Ifran and a number of administrative buildings in Casablanca. The Moroccan pavilion at the 1992 Universal Exhibition at Seville was hastily designed and built under Pinseau's direction after a sudden royal decision.

Michel Pinseau's most famous creation is the Grand Mosque at Casablanca, the largest mosque outside Mecca and Medina, intended to be the modern wonder of the Islamic world. The first stone was laid in July 1986 and it took 35,000 workmen 50 billion man-hours to construct the building, which was completed and dedicated in August 1993.

The style is traditional, but the size is amazing. Covering some 12 hectares, parts of its foundations are in the Atlantic. The marble minaret, 172 metres high, is taller than any other in the world. The whole of St Peter's, Rome, could be placed inside the mosque. Twenty-five thousand worshippers can be present in its main hall, and another 75,000 outside. It is equipped with sophisticated public address systems, whilst, outside, a laser beam illuminates the sky for 35 kilometres and can be directed towards Mecca.

With this mosque Hassan II wanted to demonstrate his modern power and to re-affirm his commitment to Islam. The trouble was that the colossal expense of the building caused widespread public resentment, which was expressed by Abderrahmane Youssoufi, a socialist politician who became Prime Minister in January 1998.

Having to make a gesture toward this opposition, the King suddenly dismissed Pinseau. His return home was thus both difficult and sad.

Michel Pinseau, architect and town-planner: born Paris 1926; married (three children); died Paris 15 September 1999.

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