On January 15, the American Institute of Architects announced the winners of its national honor awards, considered one of the top accolades for architects working in the U.S. Among the panoply of honorees—including a deconstructivist office-slash-parking garage in L.A. and a model school in Baltimore—an odd coincidence jumps out. Two of the 11 projects are U.S. border stations, a relatively obscure building type compared to schools, offices, and museums.
But maybe it’s not a coincidence after all. For the past two decades, the federal government has been constructing architecturally refined “land ports of entry” (as they’re officially known) along our borders with Canada and Mexico. This effort is part of a larger program in the General Services Administration called Design Excellence, which started under President Bill Clinton and has continued, quietly, through three administrations.
The purpose of Design Excellence is to raise the bar for public architecture, ensuring that federal buildings such as courthouses or agency headquarters are not just functional, but showcase the country’s design talent. At the same time, Design Excellence follows a process that, its advocates say, makes efficient use of taxpayers’ dollars. Interested architects must submit a qualifications package to join a group of approved contractors. Firms without the requisite experience or ability won’t make the cut.
In other words, the program streamlines and narrows the structure of an open design competition—a fact that critics of one controversial Design Excellence project, Frank Gehry’s still-unbuilt Eisenhower Memorial, point to as evidence of the process being a closed shop.
Whatever one thinks about the Eisenhower Memorial, it’s clear that Design Excellence has produced many excellent border stations—more than a dozen just on the U.S.-Canada border, designed by eminent architects such as Carol Ross Barney and the Miller Hull Partnership. One of the stations honored by the AIA this year is the work of Snow Kreilich, a Minnesota firm known for its crisp modernist apartment buildings, offices, and lake houses. Partners Julie Snow and Matthew Kreilich are also becoming experts in border-station architecture, having now designed two stations for the GSA.
Their Z-shaped building on the St. John River in Maine, co-designed with Robert Siegel Architects (another border-station pro), alternates black and transparent panels in a pleasing rhythm meant to evoke the surrounding Acadian forests. Beyond the nice metaphor, this feature has a very practical purpose: It allows staff members to look out and scan the whole site. Likewise, the low mounds of earth around the building funnel stormwater into bioswales while providing extra security, preventing vehicles from leaving the road as they approach. The security requirements of this building type are daunting, making it all the more impressive when high aesthetic standards are met, too.
Three thousand miles away, on the border with Mexico, Jones Studio has expanded and modernized the 1970s-era Mariposa Land Port of Entry, one of the busiest crossings in the country, with 3 million cars passing through each year. Drivers used to wait at the border here for hours, baking in the Arizona sun. The architects smoothed the tangled traffic, setting a 1,000-foot-long canopy over the site to mark out zones for cars, trucks, and pedestrians.
People crossing the border on foot now walk a path framed by lush plantings. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials can take their breaks in oasis-like plazas fed by rainwater. The intent is to reduce tension on all sides and, as a Jones Studio principal told Architect magazine, “shelter people coming in.”
The Mariposa station is a node on the blunt fence separating Nogales, Arizona, from Nogales, Sonora, but its design gives it a very different aspect. It “strives to be a cultural connection—rather than a division,” according to a statement on the architects’ website. Surely this would be anathema to presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has described Mexicans as criminals, accused the Mexican government of deliberately “send[ing] the bad ones over,” and repeatedly called for an impenetrable border wall in his stump speeches; he has also called for raising fees on border-crossing cards and at ports of entry, because “We will not be taken advantage of anymore.”
It’s doubtful the builder of grandiose towers would have anything nice to say about the abstract patriotism of the station design, either (the canopy reads as a subtle gradient of red, white, and blue). Maybe, if elected, he would plaster it with big flags to let Mexicans know who’s boss.
The border stations built under Design Excellence demonstrate a long bipartisan commitment to improving these gateways to the U.S. That’s not because the U.S. government is soft on immigration or especially fancies modern architecture; it’s because the smooth flow of people and goods across borders is vital to the nation’s economy. Canada is America’s largest trading partner and Mexico is the third largest (4 billion pounds of Mexican produce travel through Mariposa alone each year, for example).
Amid fierce political debates over immigration and terrorism, Design Excellence carries on, and with each of the new border stations, the experience of entering the U.S. gets a little better. Let’s hope that continues for another 20 years, whoever wins the next election.