Majorelle Gardens, the luxuriant, 12-acre cobalt-blue-splashed garden of earthly delights just outside the Marrakech home of fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent, inspired the designer with a blur of French and Moroccan sensibilities. GV’s European correspondent Mike Alexander takes us on a quick tour.
Last week saw the release of the film Yves Saint Laurent, detailing the life of the world renowned fashion designer. Though never big on fashion myself, there are those in the know have assured me that if mud splattered clothing, lightly sprinkled with dog hair ever catches on then I will become an overnight fashion icon. The late great designer and I might not have shared the same taste in clothes but we did have one thing in common: We were both enchanted by the Majorelle Gardens, which lie in the dusty outskirts of the Moroccan city of Marrakesh.
The gardens were originally built in the 1920’s by the French painter Jaques Majorelle. He started out training to be an architect but when he realized his true passion was for water color painting he abandoned architecture and attended the famous E’cole des Beaux-Arts academy. Some time after that, he fell ill and doctors advised him to seek a warmer climate, where the drier air would be easier on his lungs.
Majorelle moved to Morocco and was entranced by Marakesh and he bought some ground with which to build a garden—essentially to provide a landscape for his paintings. He traveled widely throughout the country gathering plants and it is likely that he encountered the nomadic Tuareg tribe, who wore bright blue robes. He began using the color on many of the hard landscape features in the garden and today the rich blue is officially known as Majorelle blue.
By 1947, Majorelle’s ever-deteriorating health and the financial cost of maintaining the gardens forced him to open them to the public. There were few visitors, however, and the gardens gradually fell into decay. It was in this run-down condition that they were discovered by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner and they began a long battle against developers who had their eye on the valuable property. Saint Laurent was final able to purchase the gardens in 1980 and with his financial resources and natural artistic talent the gardens morphed into the jewel that they are today.
They contain a daring collection of nearly three hundred species of plant ranging from bamboo from China to aloes from South Africa set around water features built in a traditional Moorish theme. Bright pots provide the color and all is set against that vivid Majorelle blue backdrop of the architecture. In the hands of another designer the effect could well have been garish but under the skillful control of Saint Laurent the effect is breath taking, especially when one considers the harsh desert conditions that predominate just beyond the garden walls.
In 2001, Saint Laurent created a foundation bearing his name and handed the gardens over to that organization. Today, his beguiling legacy lives on, receiving over 600,000 visitors annually and employing seventy five people in an area where work is scarce (and students from all over Morocco are encouraged to visit for free). Following his death in 2008 the ashes of Yves Saint Laurent were scattered in theses beautiful gardens in accordance with his wishes, so the designer forever remains a part of his work, both in body and spirit.
The following photos all courtesy of Mike Alexander.
Mike Alexander, GV’s European correspondent, lives in Southern France where he manages a large estate garden. A horticulturist for more than 20 years who has professionally gardened in the UK, France and Africa, he writes regularly on gardening, food and environmental issues for magazines and Web sites in the U.S., France, South Africa and New Zealand.