Jerusalem Stone: Stereotomy or Lobotomy?

Jerusalem. View East from Chezkia’s Tunnels.
Credit: Liba Kakoun @building.jerusalem

Nadi Abusaada’s recent article in the Architectural Review claims that the use of Jerusalem stone is a means of “the colonial erasure of Palestine.” To justify this statement, he assumes that Jewish Israelis have no legitimate cultural link with Jerusalem, and that stone is of no significance to their culture. While Mr. Abusaada references the city’s diversity superficially, he consistently promotes one narrative as paramount: “Carving Israeli history into Jerusalem’s rocky topography is paralleled with an active process of colonial erasure.”

In fact, Abusaada’s statement is the act of erasure. He claims that Jerusalem stone, its techniques and materiality, is the exclusive birthright of the regional Arabs, entirely ignoring the importance of stone and building to Judaism. Even Hashesia, the stone that lies in the place holiest to Jews, the stone from which the world’s creation began, is insignificant. The stone beneath Jacob’s head is a fairytale embellishment. Abusaada holds no regard for the tablets of stone inscribed with G-d’s commandments, and, unlike generations of Jews, he has never studied the Talmud’s elaborations on the significance of the stone details of the Temple’s windows, or marveled at the magnitude of the work of the shamir. Never has he mourned the walls of Jerusalem, rebuilt under Ezra’s leadership, only to be destroyed again. All these elements of stone are unimportant to Abusaada, because they are a Jewish legacy.

Abusaada describes himself as “viewing Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.” This limited perspective is his weakness. Urban planners of Jerusalem must hold many perspectives in their heads simultaneously. I am not quick to sing the praises of the Jerusalem municipality’s planning department, but I recognize the complexity of the challenges they face. As Abusaada notes correctly, the law requiring heavy use of white stone to clad Jerusalem buildings originated in a British colonial urban planning effort. However, he fails to recognize the fraught history between the Jews and the British, not just in Mandate Palestine but throughout the centuries. The law regarding stone use is not perpetuated out of shared identity with the British, nor does it carry over British colonial sentiments. After all, such sentiments were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews.

The issue of Jerusalem stone is a remains a hotly debated topic in the field of Israeli architecture. Mr. Absaada criticizes the Israeli “misuse of stone” as though this is a novel commentary that has never occurred to an Israeli architect. In fact, the question of the use of stone cladding that is divorced of the material’s structural qualities has been covered to death, in and out of schools, from boardrooms to drawing boards. Local Arabs can take credit for some of the finest quarries from Beit Lechem to Hevron, but they do not have a monopoly on arguing about architecture. Two of the buildings with which Abusaada finds fault are the Supreme Court building and the new National Library building. I have already elaborated on said faults, in a previous article on this column, and on the @building.jerusalem Instagram. However, the most interesting application of the Jerusalem stone question is in the case of the high-rise buildings that are beginning to form a ridge through the city center. It is difficult to balance the weight of stone with the aspirational nature of towers.

Abusaada also discusses an interesting case study of the St. Mary Resurrection Abbey extension. There are several companies in the region exploring use of composite stone techniques, with great environmental, structural and aesthetic prospects. The work of AAU Anastas has potential for widespread application in the area. Architecture and construction is one of the many fields in which the diverse cultures of Jerusalem have opportunity to interact with mutual benefit. It is unfortunate that Abusaada’s article seeks to divide at this critical point where common interest encourages collaboration. Instead of recognizing potential for partnership in the field, he decries “…Israeli attempts at appropriating the stone’s long-term trajectory in Palestine to serve their own ideological end” and argues that “Zionist architects have treated stone as an instrument to claim their rootedness in the ‘Promised Land’,” assertations that hold weight only if Jewish ideology is of no import, if Jews have no roots.

The Jewish connection to the Holy Land does not begin with the casting of concrete in Tel Aviv. As a Jerusalemite, I know the importance of understanding diverse cultures and preserving their history. As an American, I cannot condone efforts to further divide the city by race or religion. Nuance and sensitivity are essential to foster positive multicultural interactions in Jerusalem, and the city’s architecture can facilitate. At the drawing board we can consider multiple narratives simultaneously, with mutual benefit. This is not a utopic claim, rather a defense of the only way forward.

About the Author
Liba grew up in New York, thinking of Jerusalem as a far-off place to visit in prayer. Today, she practices architecture in what she now knows is a very real, contemporary city, with all the potential in the world. Liba encourages discussion about architecture in Jerusalem @Building.Jerusalem on Instagram.
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