Can Architects Come Up With a Better Border?

A competition that touches on Donald Trump's proposed “border wall” could open up a more substantive conversation about the border itself.

Image Build the Border Wall
Build the Border Wall

John Beckmann would like to start the conversation over.

Earlier this month, using the usual channels, he began to promote the design contest that he is managing: Building the Border Wall. That would be the border wall, the one that Republican presidential candidate and frontrunner Donald Trump proposes to build along the entire border between the U.S. and Mexico.

The response from the design community was swift—and harsh. ArchDaily, a site that hosts the go-to bulletin board for the architecture field, appended several urgent updates to the competition announcement before yanking it. Commenters called it a bad joke. Architecture Twitter rebelled.

“We’re going to change the title to ‘Building the Border Wall’—question mark—competition,” Beckmann tells CityLab.

The first draft didn’t go over so well online. But Beckmann, who is himself a New York–based architect, says that it’s all a misunderstanding. The contest, which was organized by a new collaborative called the Third Mind Foundation, is hoping to take a much broader view of security and immigration.

“There’s obviously a real problem. We’re trying to encourage an open competition—it could be architects, designers, sculptors, artists, conceptual artists, activists, you name it—to re-conceptualize the border itself,” Beckmann says. “We’re politically neutral on the subject.”

At first glance, a design contest that grants that fixing the border (whatever that means) is an urgent national priority would seem to accept Trump’s premise. And illegal immigration from Mexico is, in fact, declining. Beyond the debatable neutrality of the contest, there were also signs that it might be a hoax or a gag: Jury members listed on the site, for example, include Buckminster Fuller, Rosa Parks, Frida Kahlo, John F. Kennedy, and other long-dead luminaries.

Then there is the broader fantasy of a border wall itself. For diplomatic, financial, and environmental reasons, it would be virtually impossible to build a wall along the U.S.–Mexico border. The contest site even acknowledges some of these problems up front. “Are these challenges insurmountable?,” the design challenge reads. “Is the idea patently ridiculous on a purely practical basis?”

Both of those questions raise another question: Is anyone supposed to take this design contest seriously? Absolutely, Beckmann says. He says the cash prize is legit ($5,000, which will be subsidized by the contest’s $50 entrance fee). The jury will be real, too, although he didn’t name any confirmed members. It’s like any other design contest, he says: The goal is to get people talking.

At least 34 entrants have registered so far, he says. Given the implausibility of building an actual border wall, and the rollout of this contest—including revisions made Tuesday to make it a little less partisan-seeming—some of those submissions may prove to be less than traditional. Beckmann is counting on it.

“We’re not encouraging people to build the wall. We’re not saying you’ve got to complete the wall. We’re not saying to take down the wall,” Beckmann says. “We’re just trying to set up a venue for people to rethink the wall, to rethink the border situation.”

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a writer at CityLab. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.