For such a complex issue, the debate over the United States-Mexico border can feel awfully simplistic. Ronald Rael, the author of a well-timed and inventive new book on the subject, sums it up: “There are really only two sides, right? One side says, ‘We’re going to build a wall.’ The other side says, ‘Down with the wall.’”
In Borderwall as Architecture: A Manifesto for the U.S.-Mexico Boundary, Rael aims to redefine the discussion. By all means, he says, let’s oppose the president’s promise to build a “big, beautiful wall” between the two countries—but it’s just as important to scrutinize what’s been built so far. “There’s 650 miles of wall,” fencing and other barriers already in place, adds Rael, speaking from his office at the University of California, Berkeley, where he’s an associate professor of architecture. “What are we going to do about that?”
To Rael’s mind, this is a question with dozens of answers. He sees the land along the border as a would-be laboratory for experiments that could benefit Americans and Mexicans alike: How about, say, a binational project to build libraries along the existing wall? Or maybe there’s a way to retrofit parts of the wall to gather solar energy? And while we’re at it, can we do something with all that fog? Foggy skies, he notes, are “a problem for Border Patrol agents, especially along the stretch of wall that dives into the humid Pacific coast near Tijuana.” His solution: Mechanisms that would “capture fog and convert it to clean, drinkable water.”
Rael isn’t suggesting that all of his proposals are easily achievable, or even original. Some are inspired by the ingenuity of those who’ve lived near the U.S.-Mexico line for decades; others, like the fog-to-drinking-water idea, are already happening in South America and Africa. But in raising questions that not many others are asking about the relationship between two countries that share 2,000 miles of border, his book serves an important purpose.
Though Borderwall couldn’t be timelier, Rael has been thinking hard about the relationship between Mexico and America for more than a decade. He was a member of the team that designed Prada Marfa, a sculpture meant to resemble a high-end store, which was built near Marfa, Texas in 2005.
“It’s only 60 miles from the border,” Rael says, “and we were often crossing the border back and forth for different reasons.” He saw helicopters patrolling the desert, and was confronted by Border Patrol agents who wanted to know what brought him to the area. As a result, he spent lots of time reflecting on “immigration and the increased militarization of the wall. I just kept following what was occurring in that landscape, watching construction companies importing enormous amounts of steel as if they were going to build skyscrapers. As an architect, that’s interesting to me. But it’s also just astonishing to see that kind of energy and investment in that landscape to building a wall versus something else.”
As the years passed, the border occupied more of Rael’s time. He began talking with students about the ethics of border wall construction, and in 2009 he helped put together an extensive proposal that was named a finalist in a prestigious architectural design competition. While that proposal “challenge(d) the very existence of the wall,” Rael writes, his book isn’t meant “to intervene in the wall’s construction, but instead to consider its transformation.”
This is a debate that not everyone in his field is eager to join. “Many in the discipline,” Rael writes, “suggest that architects should emphatically refuse to participate in the design of architecture that promotes violence.” Why has he opted for a different course? “I don’t endorse the wall or the construction of the wall,” he says, “but I don’t think that simply ignoring the issue is any kind of solution.” The border, he adds, “is a landscape that has been divided by a wall in a very violent way,” and it’s important that “we smuggle design back into the landscape to do something about the consequences of that incision.”
To that end, Rael devotes a big chunk of his book to a series of suggestions that might make the wall feel a little more humane.
Most urgent is his plan for reducing the mortality rate along the border, where hundreds die each year. “Solar-generated electricity could power beacons attached to the wall that inform Border Patrol agents of both immigrants and American citizens who find themselves in danger in the harsh extremes of the southern deserts,” he writes.
Another of his ideas calls for a new arts organization that would serve both countries. Inspired by the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, which sits on the U.S-Canada border, Rael proposes a “Theater Wall”: “Binational performances could take place with talents performing on both sides of the wall, either separately or together.”
Parts of the wall could also be redesigned to serve a variety of uses, from wastewater treatment facilities to backstops for baseball diamonds, he says.
In the meantime, Rael’s hoping that “no more walls are constructed. It’s not because I’m not interested in security and I’m not interested in safety. It’s in fact the opposite. I believe that design can be brought to the border in such a way that would promote safety and security in both countries.”
Rael recognizes that some will criticize his proposed libraries and clean energy plants as “leftwing crazy stuff, but I think that those are the kinds of things that promote safety and security, and are investments in places that allow people to appreciate those places.”