Online | Travel

Cultural Currency

Marrakech, Morocco

Channelling a vibrant hedonistic spirit while also providing a calm away from the chaos of the Marrakech’s medina, Izza is a hotel like no other – with an art collection to rival any contemporary gallery

The ghost of Bill Willis still treads Marrakech. The hedonistic American architect, who died in 2009, shaped the city’s aesthetic from the 1960s onwards, reviving Morocco’s opulent architectural style while adding his own theatrical, decadent twists. From Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé to John Paul Getty Jr and his wife Talitha, his friends were his clients, and the city itself was his inspiration. At Izza, however, a new 14-bedroom hotel in the medina, it is Willis himself who has become the muse.

It took eight years to create Izza; the property consists of seven adjacent homes, so merely acquiring all those pieces of the puzzle was time consuming, with an extensive renovation project following. Architect Amine Kabbaj spearheaded the project, with Malaysian-born, London-based San Yetlee leading on the interiors and overall branding (which is highly detailed, from the bespoke toiletries to thoughtful touches such as bookmarks).

With three courtyards and multiple staircases zig-zagging up to the rooftop – stopping half way at guest rooms on the landings or giving way to hidden rest-stops – getting lost here, and discovering all the nooks and crannies, is all part of the experience. A cosy library, chic spa and 10m pool make it hard to leave, but the souks are only a ten-minute walk away.

Izza’s prorietors also privately own the nearby Dar Noujoum, Willis’ former home; the discovery of a suitcase packed full of letters, drawings, photographs and other personal mementoes has provided the interiors’ finishing touches. The architect’s beautiful room sketches adorn the bedrooms, as do grainy black and white snaps of swimming-trunked young men at their physical peak. Bill’s Bar holds a whole wall of further treasures, including a scolding letter from Yves Saint Laurent refusing to lend Willis any money and chiding him for spending money on his “useless Range Rover” instead of paying off his debts.

Guest rooms are all named after those at the centre of Marrakech’s bohemian heyday: there’s Yves, of course, plus Grace (Jones), Marianne (Faithfull), Talitha (Getty) and Cecil (Beaton), among others. Twentieth-century furniture and lighting have been mixed with traditional Moroccan decor in all its ornate glory – zellige tiles, intricate carved plasterwork and woven-reed ceilings. Willis’ distinctive style is echoed in the tiled staircases (inspired by those at Dar Noujoum), and the black and white floor in the bar, a replica of the architect’s design for Rick’s Bar in Casablanca.

Art is an intrinsic part of the Izza experience. More than 300 artworks adorn the walls, a private collection that represents the best of contemporary art, a lot of it from African artists. NFTs by Ethiopian collective Yatreda line the winding stairs that lead up to the roof; once you get to the top, settle in for a delicious breakfast, lunch or dinner under cooling, shaded terraces, in the company of works from Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado’s Amazonia series. The ground-floor coffee spot boasts a piece by the unmistakable Hassan Hajjaj, whose street-style-inspired work sits somewhere between east London and the colour and life of the souks.

The calibre of the art lets you know that Izza is serious about being at the heart of Marrakech’s creative scene, but the hotel is taking that stance further still. It has mounted an associate artists’ programme that will help develop the careers of 18 emerging local artists, with mentorship opportunities, exhibition space and bespoke events. A link-up with 1-54, Marrakech’s annual contemporary art fair for artists from Africa and the African diaspora, lends the programme further gravitas.

Many of Willis’ highly atmospheric interiors survive in Marrakech, and you can spend a few days walking in his footsteps. Moroccan restaurant Dar Yacout is just around the corner from Izza, and features Willis’ signature tiled feature fireplaces (one an onion-domed confection in orange and mint stripes) and a romantic pool at its heart. Or head out to the Palmeraie on a motorbike and sidecar with Marrakech Insiders, where a three-hour tour includes a privileged stop at the wonderful art deco home of Christine Alaoui, a friend of Willis and Saint Laurent and the mother of the late photographer Leila Alaoui, whose work is displayed around the house.

Leila Alaoui’s best-known work, her life-size, arresting portraits of ordinary Moroccans (Les Morocains), shot in a mobile studio, are not coincidentally one of the first things you see at Izza, as they hang in the reception lobby. These little connections back to the heady days of counter-cultural Marrakech are everywhere at the hotel, threaded together in unexpected ways – in the same way that the building itself is a charming aggregation of separate entities that have come together in one place to create an art and design lover’s slice of paradise on earth.