Award of Excellence

Catalytic Integration: Redefining Desert Tourism

You-Been Kim, Student Affiliate ASLA and Matthew A. J. Brown, Student ASLA, University of Toronto
Faculty Advisor: Aziza Chaouni

Project Statement

This project introduces a new concept for sustainable tourism in remote desert locale. Through the collaboration of Architect and Landscape Architect, this design exhibits new program that capitalizes on local resources and context while also providing a new hotel typology that weaves seamlessly into the existing village, oasis and surrounding context. The result, a desert golf tourist development that has minimal environmental impact, enhances local culture and program, and improves local economy and revenue.

Project Narrative

Goal and Objective

Merzouga is a small village in Southern Morocco that was created for its strategic location along the beautiful Sahara Dessert dunes, called Erg Echebbi. These spectacular dunes are 50km long, 5km wide and over 350m in height and attract tourists from around the world. These dunes, more specifically the tourism surrounding the dunes, create the majority of revenue and industry for the village. The problem is that the village of Merzouga lacks environmental sensitivity and awareness. Merzouga is plagued by continuous resort development at the edge of the Sahara, having little consideration for its given context. The current development model of these resorts ignores the hazardous flood plain, the scarcity of water in the region and the need for local program and employment. The premise of this studio project was to work for the Ministry of Tourism to provide ideas for a new resort location, typology and program (specifically golf as it is the most lucrative sector in Moroccan tourism).


A week long site visit to Merzouga, sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism, allowed for an in-depth understanding of the village in regards to both the socio-economic structure and environmental opportunities and constraints.

The majority of the population of Merzouga is employed in the tourism industry, working in hotels and camps, renting camels and off road transportation equipment or acting as guides for the area. The problem with the current form of tourism is the lack of variety and diversity in program. The average tourist will visit Merzouga for a one to two day period, trekking the dunes, watching the sunset and then leaving for larger centers such as Fez or Marrakech. Upon site analysis, it was indentified that the landscape surrounding Merzouga is extraordinary providing oases, wetlands, agricultural fields, smaller dune sites and rocky black plains that provide an exquisite juxtaposition of color and topography. In addition, there is a disconnection between the tourist and the village center. The resorts are built along the dunes, far from the village center, causing no real interaction between local and tourist. The challenge became obvious, how to integrate program into the many different unique landscapes, while also building a sustainable hotel typology that will act as a catalyst for development in the village center and promote interaction between the tourist and local.

The main environmental constraint for the site is hydrology. Firstly the current model for resorts is to build along the dune edge, which lies within a flood plain. Flash floods during storm events have in the past destroyed many hotels and caused many deaths. In addition, the water found on the site is extremely important for agriculture and should be conserved for this purpose. The exploitation of water for the use of pools or golf is ignorant to the fact that the local population needs this for the production of the oasis, and thus food. Therefore the design must have minimal environmental impact and use renewable sources of water harvesting and energy.


Integrating Site
This design uses the program of desert golf to link the 6 very unique landscapes offered in the region. The six unique landscapes are identified as Tan Dunes, Dessert Wetland, Agricultural plains, Quarry, Oasis/Tamarisk Transition and the Sahara Dunes. Through designing a set of 3 holes of golf that seamlessly fit into each of the unique landscapes, the tourist is provided with the ability to explore the region through program. In addition, the space located between each set of golf is identified as a transition zone and provides opportunity to capitalize on a unique local culture and experience. The transition zones include things such as rebuilding the dam wall for the use of hiking and kayaking, building covered paths along water canals for shaded walking, camel treks through local areas, local clay brick quarry tours and touring the dune edge by solar power golf cart. Both the golf and transition programming allows for more interaction with local landscape and improves opportunity for local employment and economy. The unique part of this design is that the tourist is able to decide whether they wish to take part in golf, transition programming, or both. There tourist now has the ability to create their own unique experience of Merzouga.

Redefining Golf
It is important to understand that golf has been modified in order to fit the context of Merzouga. The amazing and unique landscapes of Merzouga are conducive to golf, in that the majority of the design becomes defining the edge. The edges of the golf hole in this site are created with natural and local materials being either clay brick seating walls, land imprinting, diamond dune protection systems, shist rock mounds or tamarisk groves. The unique clay sand surface in the area is appropriate for golf play, thus not requiring the expansive grass fairways typical of 18 hole golf courses. The only portion of the golf course that is green is target fairways, and the putting greens. These areas of grass are irrigated through the use of aquatrap technology. Clear tarps cover these green areas in the evening, catching condensation and re-distributing it over the green, thus requiring no municipal water sources.

Redefining Desert Hotel
The hotel is strategically located at the edge of the current village center, outside of the flood plain in order to stimulate growth and development in a safe zone. In addition the hotel is built to act as a connection between the oasis and the village, as well as central node for tourist program. The hotel is informed by a banding pattern found throughout the Merzouga Oasis. Long narrow buildings dissolve the hard boundary initially found between the oasis and the village, allowing for a seamless connection. This banding technique also allows for the creation of courtyards that are much needed in the hot, humid climate. A pedestrian street is provided between the hotel and the village allowing for tourists to experience local culture and promote opportunity for local market and business.

The hotel also interacts with the existing landscape. The main areas of the hotel are located next to the pedestrian street acting as a gateway into the village where as the rooms are designed to fit into the Oasis. The rooms, also known as eco-lodges, are designed using 3 typologies that relate to their specific locating in the oasis. The eco-lodges make use of the shade, vegetation and crop and are elevated in specific areas to provide expansive views of the Sahara Desert. This provides an interesting contrast of desert and lush vegetation. In addition the eco-lodges are self-sufficient using solar power and aquatrap technology to provide both water and power. The grey-water from the eco-lodges is then recycled back into the Oasis for irrigation creating a closed loop hydrological system. The materials of both the hotel and eco-lodges are all local, meaning that they are completely sustainable and have little environmental impact on the surrounding context and region.


It is through the collaboration of architect and landscape architect that this design is successful, connecting built form with landscape. Each component of this design is performative and together works to create more opportunity for the local population. The hotel capitalizes on the unique position of the oasis and is designed in an environmentally responsible manner. The result of this project is re-envisions the future development of desert resorts in order to capitalize on existing conditions and creating built form and landscape that is responsive to context and sustainable.

Team Description

This project was completed as a pair, one graduate level landscape architect, and one graduate level architect. The entire project was collaboration, making sure that all areas of the project were discussed as a pair in order to have the most cohesive and well thought out design. The success of this project is the result of a continuous discussion between team members, brainstorming ideas and reworking the design.

In terms of roles, we viewed this project from the standpoint that we were both designers, trying not to distinguish ourselves by the stereotypical definition of landscape architect and architect. In other words, this project was not about the architect designing the hotel and the landscape architect designing golf and program, but instead two designers trying to learn from each other and combine our talents to come up with a feasible solution to a very complex problem. Therefore, every concept and design was done through charette sessions, and only the production of drawings was done separately. Even then, drawings and graphic style were discussed and reviewed by the other in order to achieve one design.

This project and experience was extremely valuable in understanding the unique abilities and opportunities of our professions. As landscape architect, the architect’s attention to detail and knowledge of materiality in structure was extremely interesting to work with. The profession of architecture is continuously researching materials and technologies that will improve the efficiency of built form. As architect, the ability of the landscape architect to view site in relation to surrounding context and regional scale was innovative. Landscape has great potential to be per-formative and functional. Therefore the combination of detail, materiality, technology and landscape informs and produces excellent design. The marriage of architecture and landscape is really the marriage of design at all scales from region to precise wall detail.

The most valuable part of working in a pair like this is the ability to solve problems. At numerous stages of the design, challenges became apparent and it was only through the conversation between landscape architect and architect that a creative solution was realized. Being able to have a broader knowledge base allowed for more in depth conversation about how built form and landscape could merge to be more environmentally sensitive and more productive in nature.

Additional Project Credits

A special thank you to our studio instructor, Aziza Chaouni, who continuously provided encouragement, criticism and support. In addition thank you to our course advisors Robert Wright and Liat Margolis and golf advisors Neil Crafter and Scott Covell. A thank you is also required for the Moroccan Ministry of Tourism for their warm hospitality, especially Youness Kharchaf.