Quixotic Ambitions

[This is an account of my thesis writing process at Princeton. It was recently published in Princeton University's annual publication called The Thesis: Quintessentially Princeton]
During my Princeton career, I visited Paris three times. In the summer following my sophomore year, I explored the city with a sketchbook as part of a project funded by the Martin A. Dale ’53 Summer Award. The next summer, I interned at a Parisian architecture firm. Finally, in the winter of my senior year, I visited Paris for thesis research. 
I began to read the city like a text. When re-read, the story of Paris was dissonant. I was struck by stark changes in the landscape as I took the RER train beyond the ring road that surrounds the small city. The dense Baroque façades gave way to scaleless block housing projects situated in empty space, with names such as Les 3000s. There live the poor and immigrant populations of Paris. Every night, they return to its desolation when the city is no longer open to them. And in 2005, the Paris banlieues—outlying towns—burst into violent riots. The rest of the country followed suit.
French social housing has quixotic ambition. Its architecture is idealistic because it seeks to house and “integrate” outsiders. In its successes and failures, it augurs the direction of social housing projects around the world. This is why Paris was a good case study: The volatile nature of the social fabric in this great metropolis was troubling and worth investigating. I visited Clichy-sous-bois, where the riots had begun, and Drancy, the site of a Nazi camp for Jewish prisoners taken to Auschwitz during the Second World War. The housing projects there are now homes for immigrants mostly from former French colonies in North Africa. 
My thesis argued that architecture can mediate the urban and social fabric of the Parisbanlieue. I wanted to take a long-range view and put these peripheral spaces of exclusion in the context of Paris’s social and urban history. As an example, in 1923, the great Modernist architect Le Corbusier predicted that mass-produced architecture would stave off revolution: “The various classes of workers in society to-day no longer have dwellings adapted to their needs. … It is a question of building which is at the root of the social unrest of to-day; architecture or revolution.” Today, the mass-produced house—which he described as “a machine for living in”—has become a machine for social unrest and revolution. Architects have repeatedly introduced formulaic interventions in existing projects but have failed to curtail rising social dissent. It is more valuable, I argued, to study the banlieue architecture in relation to its urban context and to situate it within the longue durée of Paris’s social and political history. My first three chapters identified a challenge and set up a model for what is demanded of low-cost housing architecture. My final chapter analyzed a range of projects to identify specific ways in which architecture had achieved these goals. In other words, I argued that architects should learn from the successes and failures of the past.
At the beginning of the thesis process, I was paranoid. I had heard that the thesis is supposed to be the culmination of a student’s Princeton career. It had to be perfect—the best thing I had ever written. That was a paralyzing thought. To overcome this paralysis, I tried to focus instead on what made me study architecture in the first place: the notion that architecture as an art has the ability to give expression to emergent social and political ideas. It gives these ideas a tangible expression when they can find no other confirmation in reality and, by so doing, it can mediate society.
My thesis adviser was Professor Esther da Costa Meyer. Though she is in the art and archaeology department, I knew I wanted to ask her to advise me as far back as my sophomore year, when I took her class on modernism in architecture. Her lectures were spellbinding. Her enthusiasm for architecture was remarkable and contagious. The energy her lectures exuded inspired me to study architecture and to travel to places like the Dessau Bauhaus and the Athenian Acropolis. Later, I took her seminar on 19th-century Paris, which gave me a strong background for my thesis project. Her thorough critiques and insights helped me to find a specific direction and enabled me to have faith in my own abilities. 
Professors in the architecture department inspired me as well. Professor M. Christine Boyer, who graciously accepted my request to serve as my second reader, taught a class on cities of the 21st century. The class gave me an appreciation of the challenges that we as architects have a responsibility to address in our work. I took a seminar with Professor Edward Eigen on architectural theory, which introduced juniors to the joy of learning for learning’s sake. In his class, I could afford to indulge in deep study without looking for catch-all solutions for the world’s problems. This allowed me to situate my work within the context of the field of architecture.
I began writing early. By the winter of senior year, I had 20 pages of coherent text, and pages and pages of related ideas. Those 20 pages were probably the best-written part of my thesis. They also allowed me to step back, reflect, and return to it regularly. But the winter was a time of stasis. While wandering Paris’s narrow streets and over hot dark chocolate crêpes at the Beaubourg, I discussed my thesis with Andy Chen ’09, who visited the city with me. Over the course of those weeks, I realized that explaining my thesis to someone outside the discipline actually helped me understand it better. I returned to Princeton revitalized, but still unsure of how to proceed. After much consternation, I realized that my thesis was essentially four 20-page papers that were coherently linked, and that each of these constituted a chapter. This was a great relief.
The weeks flew by. I was running out of time. I tackled this by working every night. Some nights, I would just do more research or write a preface. I would walk down Nassau Street or McCosh Walk muttering details to myself. I would put chapters in my adviser’s box and would get them back promptly with detailed notes. I could tell that she was genuinely interested in my work. Professor da Costa Meyer was critical, and her questions were challenging. She appreciated my interest in historicity and wanted me to develop the work on 19th century and early 20th century further. But I wanted to press ahead and look at recent developments: After all, my starting point was the rioting of 2005. 
We ultimately agreed that it was important to connect theory and history with architectural practice in a way that would address both academic and pragmatic concerns. So I left the computer cluster and buried myself in architectural journals from the decade leading up to the winter of 2005. I was astonished and happy to see how Michel de Certeau’s theories of the individual’s agency in designed space began to manifest themselves in the technical drawings from the projects I uncovered. I also included a film from 2008 (Entre les murs) to the two canonical mid-century films I already was analyzing. All this added a new dimension to my work, which answered Professor Jeffrey Kipnis’s question about my earlier research: So what?
If I could give one piece of advice to a future thesis writer, it would be this: The thesis is an opportunity to live the experience of your academic work, obsess over it, and make it the focus of your life. You will think about it in the shower and in that nebulous zone between sleep and waking. You will begin to see all kinds of connections and leads from the unlikeliest sources. In the last few weeks of writing my thesis, I realized that I needed an example of successful early modern social housing architecture outside of the trodden path. On a whim, I took New Jersey Transit to visit the Avery Library at Columbia University. I was surprised to find that they had a whole collection on Sadrach Woods, an American student of Le Corbusier, who also had built in thebanlieues
As an architecture student, I was allowed to design the layout and cover of my thesis. I spent the last few days making sure that the tone of the typography and the starkness of the cover reiterated my message. Finally, it was done. After a year of research and contemplation, months of obsession, weeks of painful writing, and several nights without sleep, three copies of the book arrived from Allegra Print (freshly baked) at 2:30 p.m. on Monday, April 12, 2010. 

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