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The wall on the U.S.-Mexico border existed long before Donald Trump promised to build it. As early as 1848, following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo signed by the U.S. and Mexico, fences were constructed along the border to designate territory, control livestock, and ensure security. Under President Bill Clinton, walls and barriers were erected alongside border cities in Texas, Arizona, and California. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the wall grew even longer, and today, walls divide about a third of the border.
This long history of border walls between the U.S. and Mexico provides ample evidence that walls don’t work. Even the secretary of homeland security has acknowledged that a physical barrier will not stop migrants. It is essentially a very expensive speed bump—perhaps only slowing migrants down to allow immigration officers to apprehend them.
The absurdity of a several billion-dollar speed bump is not lost on architect Ronald Rael in his book Borderwall as Architecture. As Rael presents different visions of the border wall in design sketches and miniature mockups with detailed descriptions, his suggestions often illustrate its ridiculous premise: a seesaw wall, a xylophone wall, a baseball field wall, a confessional booth wall (with space for a priest on one side of the border and a penitent on the other). These options, Rael suggests, would be just as effective (or ineffective) at limiting movement as a traditional wall, but with the benefit of facilitating connections between communities in the borderlands on both sides.
According to Rael, the goal of Borderwall as Architecture is to envision ways of transforming the wall, given that its construction seems inevitable. Toward the beginning of the book, he asks: “Does refusing to participate in the design of the wall make architects any less complicit in its horrific consequences than participating in its design?” Rael’s answer seems to be no, and he takes the opportunity in this book to re-envision the architecture of the wall in order to address the histories, environments, and social problems of the borderlands. He suggests a wall that would allow for wildlife crossing, a native cactus wall, a wastewater treatment wall, a solar panel wall, and a hydro wall that would collect rainwater, provide drainage to prevent flooding, and serve as a park. He also imagines a library wall, a wall of mobile birthing clinics (located on the Mexican side but solidly on U.S. soil—the wall is built mostly on the American side of the border—so that all children could be U.S. citizens), and a wall with space for horse racing on each side, inspired by the 1958 race between the Mexican horse Relámpago and the American Chiltepín.
Some of Rael’s designs seem to diminish the seriousness of migration problems along the border. While Rael condemns architect Antoine Predock’s design for the 2006 New York Times border wall design challenge (Predock suggested a hot plate buried in the sand and an earth wall built in the hot sun by “Mexican day laborers”), in his review of Borderwall as Architecture Jeremy Harding wonders whether a cactus wall is any less violent. “Scholars like Rael in ‘receiver’ countries now accept that the militarised frontier is here for the duration and think the best option is to bury the shame of global inequality in a discourse of remedial greening, healthy cycling paths, solar energy and river stewardship,” Harding writes.
However, Rael’s work seems less an obscuring of the violence of the wall and more a foregrounding of the design possibilities presented by a security apparatus that does not really function. Rael does not present immigration policies that would be more effective than a wall. Instead, his designs highlight that, as he writes, “all walls are common walls” and “all walls are temporary.” The border wall is, by definition, experienced by both Americans and Mexicans, so while it is built to separate, it actually creates a shared experience. Both the absurdity and unlikely humanitarianism of Rael’s designs illustrate the possibilities for a wall that could promote justice, rather than the incarceration and death it currently represents. Rael’s designs are not meant to be taken seriously, as they are out of line with the intention of the wall as security. Instead, the wall as architecture illustrates the productivity and ingenuity of the people who inhabit the border region. Borderwall as Architecture celebrates the wall’s subversion by local people and artists, who have inspired many of Rael’s designs. Perhaps more than a design project, Borderwall as Architecture is a historical, anthropological project about innovation in the face of the game, as Rael terms it, of the border wall.
Rael’s assertion that “all walls are temporary” suggests the importance of creating a wall that incorporates its own destruction. Architects do not often create structures with the intention of their eventual removal; they hope their buildings will last through time. But Rael forces the viewer to wonder what the world might look like if the wall was not there. Rather than “burying the shame of global inequality,” Rael offers designs that promote community instead of obscuring experiences across the border. These walls begin the process of tearing down symbols of division altogether. While border walls and separation now seem inevitable, Rael’s subversive designs seem to indicate a way forward: They allow us to cope with the current moment by preparing for a less segregated future.
[Photos copyright Rael San Fratello; used with permission by University of California Press.]
Maya Singhal is a former editorial assistant at World Policy Journal and a graduate student at New York University.