Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


From the very first glimpse of the Atlas Mountains from an airplane window, Philomena Merckoll knew that she was going to fall in love with Morocco. She and her mother discovered the country together eight years ago [2005] and were instantly seduced by the energy and atmosphere of Marrakech, taking the decision to find a home here soon afterwards. Riad Mena, on the outskirts of the medina, is the result of many years of work and a good deal of imagination, blending traditional elements and contemporary touches in one cohesive and elegant whole.

‘I loved Morocco from the very beginning,’ says Merckoll, who grew up in London before studying in Dublin, Berlin, Paris and New York and now works in the field of contemporary art. ‘It all clicked very naturally and this riad was one of the very first houses that we saw. The others that we went to see didn’t have such a nice feel and would have needed a lot more work. What I love about the riad is that it has this amazing harmony to it. It’s very special and very relaxed.’

The location of the house – arranged around a central courtyard garden with mature palm and orange trees – was also a big attraction. The riad sits on the edge of the old town, but is easily accessible by car or motorbike, unlike so many other traditional houses at the heart of Marrakech that can only be reached on foot. The position also means that the house is quiet and calm, with little noise or dust in the air from the world beyond the walls.

Having bought the house, progress on updating and modernizing the house was slow for a number of years, while Philomena and her mother, Barbara, worked with a number of local architects. Then they had the good fortune to meet French designer Romain Michel-Ménière, who lives and works in Marrakech. They saw a contemporary house in the countryside that Michel-Ménière had built for himself, as well as a newly built kasbah hotel in the Ourika valley that the designer had also worked on. They were captivated.

‘With Romain we were on the same page from the start,’ says Merckoll. ‘We all got along really well and that’s why we worked together so well on the riad. Sometimes we screamed and cried at one another but it was only the way you would with someone in your family and then you make up and move on.’

In the courtyard, Michel-Ménière rearranged the layout of the paths, replacing an awkward series of octagonal planting beds with a more linear pattern. He also added a modest fountain at the centre plus smaller palms and greenery alongside the mature trees, making the garden more verdant and lush. The woodwork and shutters leading into the various living spaces around the courtyard were painted a soothing green grey – specially mixed by a specialist painter – and contrast with the creamy white finish of the exterior walls. At ground floor level a number of rooms around the courtyard were knocked together to form larger spaces, including the kitchen-dining room, with its bespoke units and shelving. Here the floor tiles were inspired by a design found in an adjoining annexe to the riad. Despite often being a hidden afterthought in Moroccan homes, the kitchen is one of Merckoll’s favourite spaces in the house.

The two bedrooms on the ground floor were given en suite bathrooms, using contemporary Duravit fittings designed by Philippe Starck. The crisp white of the bath and sinks stands out against the rugged patina of the grey bathroom walls. ‘Originally the bathrooms were going to be more traditional but a friend suggested we use Starck and it does give the bathrooms a real twist and makes them more unusual in this traditional house,’ Merckoll says. ‘It’s a great contrast, although installing everything was quite difficult.’

The main living room is another soothing space, with a fireplace at one end and a banquette at the other. Merckoll and Michel-Ménière sourced the furniture together, trawling the souks and flea markets of Marrakech for suitable treasures. ‘We would zoom around the souks on Romain’s motorbike with everyone shouting after him, because they all know him so well. We found everything for the house in the souks and flea markets.’

Upstairs, the changes were more dramatic. Here, Michel-Ménière designed a new suite for Philomena Merckoll’s mother along a former terrace to one side of the house. The suite is crowned by a window seat overlooking the courtyard and also includes its own private sitting room. Across the courtyard, in front of Merckoll’s own bedroom, they added a new gallery – a sheltered space ideal for shaded seating on hot days, looking out onto the branches of the trees sprouting from the garden below.

‘Actually, we talked about the gallery for ages,’ says Merckoll. ‘It was quite controversial. When I look at something I can see whether it works or not but I’m not good at visualizing how things are going to look when they are done, so I was worried about it and had some reservations that it might change the sense of harmony. But now it’s there it feels as though it’s always been there – it doesn’t feel like a new addition at all. It looks very natural.’

Now Merckoll and Michel-Ménière are working on the annexe, which will include a swimming pool, a dining room and two further bedrooms. They are also working on a separate project in the Ourika valley – a modest countryside retreat. Merckoll is looking forward to spending more time in Morocco, now that the riad is finished and she has other projects to keep her busy.

‘I’m really happy that we have some more time now to spend in Morocco,’ says Merckoll, who also hopes to rent the house to occasional guests. ‘The house is now at the point where it really needs to be lived in. It really is very special.’

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