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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


Möbius Strip, Borders and Frontiers: Jerusalem’s urbanism revisited

By Camillo Boano, on 10 December 2010

Some years have passed since my last visit to Jerusalem. At Tel Aviv airport, the usual aesthetic rituals of control formally welcome me in a sophisticated landscape of conflicts, borders, fences and checkpoints where everyday life is fragmented in what Wendy Pullan recently called a “frontier urbanism”.

Before returning to London following a brief period of research and analysis of the Security Barrier (the wall) and Palestinian Refugee Camps, I captured an image that has been used to introduce lectures at UCL on contested urbanism and the critical dimensions of architecture and design, and later forcefully relegated to my desktop.

Paradoxical landscape, At Tur, Jerusalem, @Boano 2008

Conflicting emotions touch me when looking at it, as the production and reproduction of Jerusalem, and possibly all of the West Bank landscape, is for me emblematic of a magnificent and paradoxical post-modern urban present. The complexly layered narratives and plethora of contested spaces and territories has resulted in an urban archipelago that is simultaneously fascinating and frightening, clear in its vision yet obscure in its pattern, rich and wretched, beautiful and revolting.

Last week I attended Wendy Pullan’s Lecture at City University in London, when she and Mike Dumper discussed some findings from their ongoing research on Conflict in Cities. It was very interesting, longitudinal, interdisciplinary and comparative research, well positioned in the current academic and policy debate over the need for a more comparative urban perspective.

Though the debate was centred on a quest for confirming the validity of the notion of frontier urbanism and what differentiates the “frontier” from a “border”, the central ideas were well presented around urban space and its structures employed to promote contestations and asymmetries, dichotomies and oppositions in the vertical as well as the horizontal dimensions.

The debate was unpacked around borders and boundary-making processes grounded in the general theories of social and symbolic boundaries, urban sociology, theories of the social construction of urban space and its representational force and cultural significance. In the specific case of Jerusalem, contests over space are not merely conflicts between exchange value and use value, productive capital and collective consumption, but rather are a paradoxical quest over ethno-national identity, sovereignty and the sacred. It is a contestation on the recognition of the “Other” in a Foucaultian sense. Or, as Nir Gazit points out in his article on Divided Cities in the Middle East in a special issue of City and Community, boundaries simultaneously include and exclude.

Boundary-making is a dialectical process between self and other, not only based on a continuous process of reclaiming natural and altered landscapes, but also entailing a reorganisation of the discursive field according to the imperative or normalization: as Samman (2006:213) posits, “The Wall that runs through Jerusalem is not simply erected on a naturally marked border, but is itself constructed in order to naturalize an otherwise artificial division”.

It depicts the essence of an overall system comprising a dispersal of fortress‐like spatialities, enormous concrete barriers guarded by watchtowers manned by machine‐gun crews, connected by special routes and bypass roads, military convoys, patrols and checkpoints, all forming a complex multiple space of “hollow lands and vertical geopolitics” (Weizman 2007). The latter is a quotation that I found strangely absent from all the detailed literature and research in Conflict in Cities as it stands in a very interesting stream of research on architectural/political relations and the  “arena of speculation” that incorporates varied cultural and political perspectives on space and architecture in West Bank.

The Separation Barrier, Abu Dis, Jerusalem, @Boano 2008

To me this presumes, from an architectural perspective, a bio-political practice in which the territories are inscribed. However all of the thoughts above, and specifically the City University in London lecture, seems to me incomplete without touching and recognising the theses on biopolitics outlined by Michael Foucault (2007) which have profound architectural significance as they revolve around the notion of cultural representation.

In that respect biopower and biopolitics are categories by which Foucault characterises security as a dimension of governmentality, where population or the statistical description of population is an object from which technological and administrative protocols are extrapolated. Stemming from this specific point of view, the paradigmatic case of Jerusalem could also be instructive if read through the lenses of Giorgio Agamben (1998). His theorization of topologies of exception, if conceived as open and closed and at the same time producing not only a rational management of the population or instrument of corporeal punishment (the camp), but a diagram of inclusive exclusion (or exclusive inclusion) producing and reproducing an ever-moving state of fluidity and contingent spatial arrangements.

Excep­tion has transcended the camp as a paradigmatic notion, and following its own principle of operation, has extract­ed itself out into the open landscape (Agamben, 2005:18). This rupture of clear limits in favor of a blurry, continuous state of lines in movement works by grabbing the entirety of space, “ruling over what it is capable of interiorizing” (Deleuze and Guattari, cited in Agamben, 1998:18). A brief detour to Deleuze and Guattari might be also useful as they consider this spatial tension as a struggle between smooth and striated space (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987). The transition between one and the other occurs through a cycle of deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation; spatial meanings are destroyed or emptied and then substituted.

Such a vision is thus consolidated in an uncharted geography, as once the notion of the territory ceases to be a bounded location, “the dialectic of inside and outside has been replaced by a play of degrees and intensities, of hybridity and artificiality” (Hardt and Negri, 2000:187-188).

While surely all of this literature and the Jerusalem case do need to be checked with cautions, it seems to me that the frontier is the antithetical political space and could be conceived as a space of flow in its elastic and shifting geography, a boundless border zone that could never be represented by drawing static lines at the risk of simplifying its spatiality and its “thickness” – Attempts that Petti, Hilal and Weizman recently made in a highly provocative and interesting manner their recent exhibition “The red Castle and the Lawless Line”, which I think complements very well the debate enriching an architectural political vision.

Like the two sides of a Möbius strip, in any point along its length what seems to be happening is that both the camp and the Utopia become visible poles of antinomy where the ambivalent logic of inclusive, biopolitical exclusion portrait a “neither leave nor enter” logic. As biopolitics begins its work of normalisation, the Utopia and the Camp align and the no-man’s land that separates them disappears.

But the wall, as an apparatus of division is conflictive with itself as an object that solidifies an otherwise fluid barrier. The fluidity of the line (materialised with the wall) is actually it is strongest and most lethal characteristic. As the wall clearly marks the physical limit of one country and the beginning of “another”, it simultaneously plays against Israel’s most sacred military tool: the lack of transparency and clarity about what constitutes the boundaries and precision of the law- it clearly maps where the white, grey and black zones are.

The frontier and the barbed wire, or the Wall in its manifestated thickness is then internalised, materialising the Mumford prophecy of being the earliest manifestations of cities as well as one of the most prominent features of the city” (Mumford, 1961, p. 63). The fence/wall/frontier is now everywhere, forcing us to think urbanism where the “paradigm is not the city —not even the exclusionary neo-liberal city— but rather the state of exception” (AlSayaad & Roy, 2006:18).

AlSayaad, N., Roy, A. (2006). Medieval modernity: On citizenship and urbanism in a global era. Space and Polity , 10 (1), 1-20.
Agamben, G. (1998) Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life, translated by Daniel Heller‐Roazen, Stanford, CA Stanford University Press.
Agamben, G. (2005) State of Exception. K. Attell, Trans. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Deleuze, G., Guattari, F. (1987) A Thousand Plateaus. New York: Continuum.
Foucault, M. (2007) Security, Territory and Population, Lectures at the College de France, 1977‐1978. Trans. Graham Burchell, ed Michael Senellart, New York: Palgrave McMillan.
Gazit N. (2010) Boundaries in Interaction: The Cultural Fabrication of Social Boundaries in West Jerusalem, City & Community , Vol.9(4), pp: 390-413.
Hardt, M., Negri, A. (2000) Empire. Cambridge: Har­vard University Press.
Mumford, L. (1961) The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. Orlando: Harcourt.
Samman, K. (2006) Cities of God and Nationalism: Mecca, Jerusalem, and Rome as Contested World Cities. Boulder: Paradigm.
Weber, M. (1978) Economy and Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Weizman, E. (2007) Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation. London, Verso.