Donald Trump’s wall is meant to divide the U.S. and Mexico. Sustainable, pretty, and subversive designs won’t remedy that.
As Donald Trump’s call to build a border wall has gone from long shot to probable reality, architects across the country are grappling with their role in building it. And a handful are coming to a specific kind of conclusion: subverting what many in their profession view as an ugly reality by making it pretty.
In early March, Politico Magazine wrote about Miami design firm DOMO’s (since-abandoned) proposal for the wall: a “big, beautiful, sustainable” mixed-use development made up of recycled shipping containers. “One of our goals was to not be like the Great Wall of China or the Berlin Wall or any of those typologies that represent division,” principal architect Francisco Llado told the magazine. “Our design is not about division but about unity of sense and sustainable functionality.”
The firm landed in hot water for the proposal on social media and in some media outlets (The Miami New Times called them “boneheaded” and “remarkably misguided”). When I called last week seeking permission to use renderings for this story, they declined and said this was a “side project” that the firm would no longer be pursuing.
But they aren’t the only ones to consider something like this: Last week, Wired ran a story listing “6 ways to sneak subversive design into Trump’s border wall,” using ideas by architect and researcher Ronald Rael of the University of California Berkeley (Rael has since clarified to CityLab that these ideas were not referencing Trump's border wall specifically, but instead the 650 miles of wall already in place). They included a “cactus wall,” a “xylophone wall” and a “field of dreams” (a sort of fenced-in baseball field attached to the wall at the Arizona border).
Subversion is an admirable goal, but a difficult one to achieve. Indeed, “remarkably misguided” might be the best way to describe a plan to install a baseball field in an area where border patrol agents have shot and killed young Mexican boys for throwing rocks across the fence.
So I put the question to the experts. I sent the article about DOMO’s proposed mixed-use, sustainable wall to architect Teddy Cruz and political scientist Fonna Forman and asked what they thought. Cruz and Forman are researchers at the University of California San Diego; back in January, CityLab talked to them about their border wall visions. Our interview has been edited and condensed.
CityLab: Let’s start with the most basic thing. What do you both think about DOMO’s idea for the border wall?
Teddy Cruz: Before getting into that, I think it would be prudent to frame the conversation in the context of our own position about the wall. What we've been conveying is that we don't want to participate whatsoever in the construction of this new border wall. We're making a call to the architecture profession, and obviously the public at large, that they take a position in denouncing such an act. I briefly read the article you sent. The partner of the architect [at DOMO] said that he did not want to talk about politics. And this is the main problem with the situation in architecture right now: To remain politically neutral in the context of these injustices is to be complicit with institutions that have perpetuated what is ethically and morally wrong.
Fonna Forman: Soon after Trump was elected, the American Institute of Architects reached out to the new administration, offering to participate in building billions of dollars of new public infrastructure. And we were opposed to capitulating to that request without knowing a whole lot more about where the funding for that infrastructure would come from, how that infrastructure would be distributed, and so on. So we've been skeptical of these attempts to participate in this administration’s projects when the underlying motivation for a lot of them seems to be loaded with an anti-immigrant, anti-public, anti-integration agenda.
CityLab: So you’re opposed to DOMO’s proposal because you’re opposed to architects’ involvement with the wall in the first place?
Cruz: It’s a little more complicated than that. For us it's definitely not a question of “what should the wall look like?”, because we are taking a more definite position in denouncing the wall in the first place. But at the same time, the question of “what does the wall do to the region?”—that’s an important one.
As one resident at the border region said to us a long time ago at a workshop for our non-profit Casa Familiar: If the wall is going to be there, why does it have to be so stupid? And by that I mean, why does it have to be this stupid artifact that truncates and interrupts the environmental shared systems between border cities?
It really undermines the fact that the destiny of Tijuana and San Diego, and in the larger context, of the U.S. and Mexico, are intertwined. The issue is that, in the minds of many architects that are trying to respond to this reality, their active intervention in the construction of the world is just simply through aesthetics, meaning it's just a way of beautifying that artifact. And I think that's not enough.
Forman: We've been arguing that beautifying an inherently unjust structure simply naturalizes it and legitimates it and somehow cools down public guilt about fortifying it. And what we've really been arguing for is a change in our public vision. We need new political leadership that understands that, in regions like this, sustainability requires cooperation and regional thinking, not artificially bifurcating the region through additional structures.
CityLab: So we should be thinking about new ways to connect both sides of the border, not trying to make a huge wall prettier.
Cruz: Exactly. Sometimes we've criticized our own profession of architecture because, in the last years of economic boom, architecture simply became a tool to camouflage the injustices of social inequality through beautification. And so I think it’s not enough to think of this problem only architecturally.
I think this is part of a larger problem around the way we think not only of the wall, but of our cities at large. The future of cities is not really about buildings, but about reorganizing social and economic relations. To think of the border just architecturally is to really ignore the fact that border regions are made up of many other things: social, economic, environmental flows and relationships. So even though we are taking a political position against the wall, we understand the urgency of reimagining political borders as more than just barricades, but instead as hopefully smarter, more inclusive, ethical frameworks to elevate and support the cross-border dynamics that make these environments incredible zones of the urban and political creativity.
CityLab: What is the ideal outcome here? That no architect gets involved and the wall doesn’t get built? Or that a smart architect tries to create a project that does border regions some good?
Cruz: Again, this is a very, very difficult question. I hope that there is a way of contextualizing what we are saying. On one hand, this is a moment for institutions to take a political position, to denounce what is going on.
Obviously, architects involved in this want to contribute to beautifying the project. But we would say that is not enough. In the context of the mixed-use proposal [from DOMO] that you sent us, the steely rendering that they have of these shipping containers with mixed uses just shows the naivete and silliness of architecture that ignores social, economic, political, and environmental logic.
There is a naivete about this mixed-use development. Who is going to pay for that? How is it going to operate in the middle of the desert? Fonna has a stricter position on this.
CityLab: What’s your view on it, Fonna?
Forman: The idea is essentially this: if the wall is a steel kind of penitentiary structure, which is the way it looks in most places now, then let it be that. Beautifying it, making it more aesthetically pleasing in any way, simply camouflages the political content and the many injustices that it inflicts. A lot of people in this region have been pushing toward lightening the border infrastructure and making it more porous, figuring out ways to make it smarter. So the idea of fortifying it while at the same time beautifying it is going in the absolute wrong direction for us.
Cruz: Obviously, we want all of these these projects or these artifacts to be better-looking than awful prison-like walls. I think our critique is against just camouflaging exclusionary agendas with aesthetics. I think it's not enough. So if any architect out there is going to be involved in this, they have to see it more than just an act of beautification. It has to be deeper than that. It has to really raise questions about infrastructure, about revenue, the types of revenues that we would make. It’s a cross-border, regional question.
CityLab: Looking to the future, what do you think will be the role of architects and researchers in border regions?
Forman: From our perspective, universities that are located in border regions along the U.S.-Mexico border in particular are really well positioned to engage creatively with these problems. Not even just the border wall specifically, but thinking of creative ways to transgress the border through technology, to create porosity that might not be obvious.
And we've committed our own university to invest in resources that create opportunities for students on both sides of the border. We have produced a network of university-based field hubs throughout the region, some on the U.S. side, some on the Mexico side, where students circulate back and forth. So there's knowledge moving back and forth. And we've been really interested in understanding ourselves as a region defined by regional interests and aspirations that transcend the border.
Cruz: As we’ve said before, we think border regions are laboratories for political and urban creativity. So the border needs to be rethought. It’s less an artifact, more a cross-border collaboration in synergies and across institutions. In our case, our role here has been to act as facilitators of those cross-border situational synergies.
CLARIFICATION: Ronald Rael's border projects were designed for the areas of the border that already have fences, and were not proposals for Donald Trump's border wall.