Fault Lines: The City of Jerusalem
and the Architecture of Division
Adviser: Edward A. Eigen
Jane B. Dobkin
“As with so many amazing things, the perfect topic for my thesis arrived almost by accident. I was on a tour of the city of Jerusalem ...”
It would seem that the ideal place for a rising senior architecture major in search of a thesis topic would be Barcelona. And there I was in Barcelona, interning at a very small architecture firm in this architecturally rich city, yet the whole summer I was unsuccessful in finding a topic that was truly inspiring. When I returned to campus to begin my senior year, I was at the same place with my thesis as I had been at the end of my junior year—not started. As an architecture major, I had a required course in the spring of my junior year that was supposed to be a “pre-thesis” class—the semester-long assignment was to research and develop a paper topic that might possibly be turned into a thesis chapter the following year. But I had a problem; I couldn’t commit to a topic. I was having trouble getting excited about any topic and I began thinking I should switch majors. In fact, I came back to campus after spending the summer in Barcelona ready to switch majors, no matter what I had to do to make the switch.
In the midst of all this though, I started some preliminary research and came across the work of Bruno Zevi, an architecture theorist who was on a committee whose mission was to replan Jerusalem after the Six Day War in 1967. Right away I was struck. I started learning more about him and the Jerusalem Committee and thought to myself, “Wow! How amazing would it be to think about renovating and redesigning a city with so much history? Jerusalem has to be one of the oldest cities; how did this committee even begin to think about what to do with it after such a climactic and almost immeasurably consequential war?” I didn’t know I wanted to study architecture when I entered college. It wasn’t really on my radar. When I think about it now, I realize that my interest in people and history was at the center of my interest in architecture. It wasn’t until I discovered this human and historical angle that I could find my bearings and get excited that I found something that would inspire and guide me. Even Barcelona for all its beauty was not enough; I needed this extra element of the human and the historical that I wasn’t able to find there.
When I finally figured out my topic, I knew I had to get to Jerusalem. I applied for funding from the Office of the Dean of the College before I had a real topic; before I had even met with my adviser. Once I did meet with my adviser, we talked a bit about Zevi and the committee for replanning Jerusalem. We revised the topic and worked through it, and it seemed that each week when I went to his office, the topic evolved and changed.
The semester was drawing to a close and my departure to Israel was impending. There were people I wanted to meet, places I wanted to go, and questions I wanted to answer. No matter what happened there, I knew I had to go to do the work that had become central to me. And maybe it was then that I understood for the first time the meaning of a senior thesis.
I landed in Israel terrified about what I was doing there, feeling as though I hadn’t done enough research and my trip was going to be wasted time. But, as with so many amazing things, the perfect topic for my thesis arrived almost by accident. I was on a tour of the city of Jerusalem, and our tour guide described a line that had been drawn on a map by Moshe Dayan and Abdullah al-Tal in 1948. The two generals conducted secret meetings throughout the Israeli War of Independence. They sought to create a boundary line that both sides would agree on, a line that would create peace rather than division. Our guide described how when the line was drawn, it was done quickly as the two generals thought it was going to be a temporary demarcation, one that would only last until the end of the war. Because of this, they did not take into consideration that they were drawing with thick, grease pencils on a large-scale map. The consequence of this careless drawing was that when this map became more permanent and soldiers and mapmakers on either side had to define where the boundary line was, large areas of land fell within the width of the line. And we were all made to wonder, who owns the width of a line?
I returned to Princeton and this question stayed with me, but I guess I didn’t know just how much. I diligently completed my Dean’s Date work on the topic my adviser and I had discussed earlier. Sometime shortly after I returned from my trip, I met with my adviser, Professor Edward Eigen, repeated the story my tour guide had told me, and asked him the question, “Who owns the width of the line?” Professor Eigen knew right then that I had found my topic and he helped me to see that this was the perfect topic; this was the intellectual project to which I was prepared to commit myself. I was ready to spend most of my waking hours thinking about, writing about, talking about, and my not-so-waking hours dreaming about it. Although I didn’t know how, I knew I wanted to devote my thesis to trying to answer the question the tour guide had asked us. I had created more work for myself in changing topics again, but that was okay, because the work was a pleasure.
Over the next couple of months, as I learned more about the subject, I became more excited about the direction in which my thesis was headed. I was surprised that I could spend hours and hours reading about the subject and writing about it and still be excited about it after so many months of doing work on it. Sustaining such excitement was itself something I never thought I could accomplish.
When I look back on it, as clichéd as it sounds, I realize the thesis was my greatest experience at Princeton. I probably wrote more pages in e-mails to friends complaining about the entire process than ended up in the final product, but I could not have been more proud of what I accomplished in the end. The thesis differed from doing well on an organic chemistry exam or writing an “A” essay because this was something that I had conceived from the beginning to the end. The thesis was truly mine. Yes, I talked about it and was inspired by many people—my friends, my adviser, my family—but it was something that, through hard and sometimes lonely work, I had done on my own.
One point I make in my thesis is that architecture does not allow for ambiguity—it is a precise discipline where lines are carefully measured and drawn. Construction lines are used in beginning drawing stages to make sure everything aligns, the way an architect holds his pencil is a skill, the technique that is used to create an even line has to be learned. What all of this precision amounts to, in my view, is that the basis of all architecture is the line; the carefully considered and executed line. Not just the final product, but all of the work involved in creating the line. Princeton is very much like architecture—you have a rather structured course load, and in your final paper for each class there is usually some sort of prompt or requirement. However, the thesis is different. It is yours. It allows and indeed requires you to engage with all sorts of ambiguity. Sometimes a line breaks and sometimes it will lead you all the way through.
Writing my thesis was both nerve-wracking and exhilarating. It was a lot of work, but it was work that I was willing to do because I enjoyed it. My senior year is filled with memories of sitting in the library goofing off with my friends and trying to decide what fun things we were going to do once our books were handed in. These moments, along with the trip to Jerusalem, the meetings with my adviser, and, of course, the final hard-copy volume that is my thesis, all contributed to the Princeton experience and made my senior year at Princeton one of the greatest years of my life.
Fault Lines: The City of Jerusalem
and the Architecture of Division
Jane B. Dobkin
Edward A. Eigen
Assistant Professor of Architecture
“As adviser, it is my job to ensure that the thesis gets written, preferably safely and on time.”
It might come as a surprise to some, including some of our own students, that seniors in the School of Architecture write a thesis. Why not a design project? After all, what makes a school of architecture such a particular, and arguably peculiar, learning and living environment is its design studios. A place and a thing, occupying an incomprehensibly large chunk of time, studio, as it is affectionately and not so affectionately known, is nominally a course where and in which students learn what it is like to be an architect. Presumably they also learn something about architecture. But again, it is not like other courses or classrooms on campus. How many courses begin in deadly earnest with a discussion of first aid and safety procedures? Lack of sleep and X-ACTO knives make for more than wounded feelings when, bivouacked in the studio, students build scale models for the next day’s (or is already tomorrow?) “pin-up.” In the idiom of the studio, these feverish hours of working under deadline are known as a charrette, from the word for the wheeled cart on which students at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris packed their finished drawings for “transportation to the judgment seat.” Historically, the word charrette was also used for the tumbrel that conveyed the condemned to the guillotine. But I digress. While students regularly meet with their studio instructors at their drawing boards for one-on-one “desk crits,” or critiques, their projects are ultimately reviewed by a “jury” of in-house and invited critics. The final review is a rewarding public ordeal, which is fitting given that so many of our students are attracted to architecture because it is the most public of arts.
So why is the senior thesis not a capstone project? Having responded to the programs set by their instructors—the program being an architectural pedagogy distilled into an enumerated set of functional requirements, site conditions, analytic and representational methods, and cultural, social, and institutional ambitions—why not let the students pursue a studio project according to their own design? The answer, in some large measure, derives from the conviction that the education of the architect does not end in the studio, nor for that matter does it begin there. The School of Architecture seeks to provide students with a firm foundation in the liberal arts, seeing as both the theory and practice of architecture draw on and contribute to so many varied fields of research, learning, and endeavor. Such awareness might even make the student impatient with such facile notions as a capstone project and foundation work, or perhaps jealous of guarding them. They are among architecture’s many real and conceptual contributions to the edifice of learning. With the thesis, each student adds to it his or her own story.
That’s where I come in, persistently but unobtrusively. As adviser, it is my job to ensure that the thesis gets written, preferably safely and on time. But what’s the worst that can happen—a dangling modifier, tears of frustration, a paper cut? Welcome to my clinic: the thesis-writing seminar. Guiding students through the initial (mis)steps of their most sustained piece of independent work can only be regarded as a form of preventive care. (It should perhaps be mentioned that my mother’s favorite joke is, “My the son the doctor, but not the kind who can help anyone.”) And when the students hit a wall, rich as that writerly dilemma is in architectural implication (cf. “Bartleby, the Scrivener”), I remind them that it’s only a thesis. Get over it! Which is a very different matter from telling them how to get it done. It was in this high-stakes setting—as if in a pin-up, the students are compelled to state their prospective topic in front of their friends and neighbors from studio—that I started working with Jane Dobkin on her many theses. Let’s just say that Jane was unafraid to abandon one topic in favor of another more promising one, and not just once or twice. It was when Jane finally settled on a topic that the story of her thesis really begins. So let’s get on with it, for there is a real story to Jane’s thesis.
While fitting together the pieces and fragments of a complex historical situation—the consequences of the 1949 Armistice line, the so-called Green Line—Jane gracefully insinuated into her thesis the narrative of her own purposefully wandering path(s) of discovery. Beginning with her only superficially benign observations on the genre of the walking tour, the all-too-familiar script of which her research amends and rewrites, she developed her own point of view and critical appreciation for her topic (topos). The narrative impulse made evident and urgent the need to get the story straight when so many versions of it have been told, because in fact there is not merely one version of it to tell. In researching the post-independence history of the state of Israel, Jane identified just so many points of contention, divagations, errors, and omissions, finding anything but a continuous line in and through the terrain. For one example, her discussion of the Museum of Tolerance project, to be built on the grounds of an old Muslim cemetery in the Mamilla neighborhood of Jerusalem, excavated the rarely undisturbed stratigraphic layers of history.
A student of architecture, Jane recognized that drawing a line represents an initial and initiating act, one that provides the possibility for order and its other(s), for demarcations of property and place and with it the potential for struggle and strife. Her thesis explored the irreducible area of confusion and conflict that emerged within the very medium of division and separation—the Green Line itself, hastily drawn by Lieutenant-Colonel Moshe Dayan and Lieutenant-Colonel Abdullah al-Tal. The planning for Jane’s thesis began with a reading of J. Hillis Miller’s Reading Narrative, with its plea to consider the “middles” of stories in some special and separate way from their necessarily fictional beginnings and endings. Miller asks the reader to consider the form, contour, and shape of narrative lines, the most lively (and potentially deadly) of them departing the furthest from the straight and true; the latter are like the lines laid out on the drawing board with the architect’s T-square. Through careful reading of experimental artworks, standard works of historical reference, local legend, and ancient and modern theories of place and space, Jane arrived at her own understanding of where the indistinct Green Line lies. Keenly sensitive to how lines can draw parties into opposition, she expanded the notion of rules and rulings to include menacing problems of self-definition. Thus, in a final chapter on the Kotel (the Western Wall), she showed how the mechitza (a partition in Jewish places of prayer used to separate men and women), though flimsy in architectural terms, proves to be unremittingly divisive, and potentially more harmful to the notion of tolerance and self-possession than any external threat.
While keeping track of her story, even while visiting Jerusalem, it is possible that Jane never really left the studio. Typical of students in the School of Architecture, her thesis is as much the product of research, and yes a piece of writing, as it is a work of design. From the graphic “fault line” that runs through its pages, to the photo-essayistic narrative that complements the text, the intention was for meaning to be communicated through the layout and composition of the thesis. The result is a highly original document on a topic about which so much has been written and said without, however, bringing about a commensurate gain in understanding. The realities and perceptions addressed by Jane take new form nearly every day in alternately hopeful and tragic newspaper headlines. Hers is a telling account of how the story might be constructively and compassionately retold. It was truly a pleasure working with Jane. But her work is not done. Sorry, Jane. In the words of a long-ago student at the École des Beaux Arts: “Charrette! Charrette! It is finished, yes—but there is a deep underlying satisfaction in the thought—it is never finished.”