Thirty years ago, President Ronald Reagan stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate, in Berlin, and declared: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” His history-making 1987 plea to dismantle the Berlin Wall to “advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace” contrasts starkly with the current administration’s pledge to “build a great wall” along the U.S.–Mexico border. Despite the dissimilarity of intent, both appeals employ a built artifact to make a far-reaching political statement. In short, they politicize architecture.

As one of the oldest and most elemental forms of construction, walls carry both literal and figurative meaning. Walls subdivide spaces into two zones, for protecting one side from another. Yet a wall’s presence represents more than its corporeal reality; it can also signify power, isolation, and restriction. In most cases, such as a building façade, walls express a relatively harmless functional purpose. When it comes to transnational borders, however, a wall’s oppositional character is inescapable. As philosopher Noam Chomsky explains, “The U.S.–Mexican border, like most borders, was established by violence—and its architecture is the architecture of violence.”

Courtesy Ronald Rael

This subject is the focus of an intrepid new book by Ronald Rael, an associate professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. Borderwall as Architecture: A Manifesto for the US-Mexico Boundary—slated to be published in April—takes on this controversial topic, exposing the wall’s lamentable history while offering alternative solutions for its future. Despite its clear subject matter, the book is not one-dimensional. Part historical account, part theoretical appraisal, and part design manifesto, Borderwall as Architecture is reminiscent of Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York in its sweeping assessment of both the sociocultural peculiarities and outlandish possibilities represented by a prominent structural element.

In addition to a series of essays by Rael and guest contributors Teddy Cruz, Marcello Di Cintio, Norma Iglesias-Prieto, and Michael Dear, the book includes a generous collection of historical analyses and design speculations entitled “Recuerdos/Souvenirs: A Nuevo Grand Tour.” The ingenious conflation of fact and fantasy invites careful perusal from readers unfamiliar with borderwall history, as if to emphasize that truth can be stranger than fiction.

For example, in some parts of the lower Rio Grande region, the US–Mexico borderwall shifts significantly north of the transnational boundary, effectively placing U.S. residents within Mexico territory and confining them behind Border Patrol–controlled motorized gates. Rael also discusses the unfortunate history of Friendship Park, a symbolic meeting place inaugurated by First Lady Pat Nixon in 1971 as an expression of international goodwill, whose U.S. access is now severely restricted due to increased militarization. Other stories are more fanciful, such as David Smith’s record-setting human cannonball launch—passport in hand for U.S. Border Patrol officials—across the Tijuana border in 2005.

Friendship Park Fence on the U.S.-Mexico Border
Courtesy BBC World Service via Flickr Friendship Park Fence on the U.S.-Mexico Border

Interspersed throughout this unreal history are thought-provoking design responses generated by Rael’s firm Rael San Fratello, which he directs with his wife, Virginia San Fratello. These proposals seek to address both sociocultural and ecological problems, as well as opportunities presented by the borderwall. Rael highlights the critical wildlife corridors and species—such as jaguarundi, turtles, and newts—whose migratory ranges and water sources have been threatened by the wall. This problem inspired the concept of a modified barrier that permits drinking on both sides, as well as a proposal for an elevated walkway for human occupants to view wildlife sanctuaries. Other designs transform the borderwall into an armature for environmental remediation—such as a "greenhouse wall" to grow winter vegetables, a "wastewater treatment wall" to purify polluted waterways and power local streetlights, and a "solar wall" that can generate electricity for 40,000 households at the same cost as an existing wall of nearly the same length.

The most poignant schemes are those that treat the wall as a site for facilitating human interaction. Some designs involve food, such as the "burrito wall"—a fence with a built-in counter, grill, and benches to support transnational meal-sharing. Others are based on play: the "xylophone wall" consists of resonant metal poles that function as outsized, vertically oriented xylophone keys for binational musical performances. The "swing wall" features enclosed boxes suspended from a high beam where visitors can enter from either side and swing into each other’s national territory without leaving the secured boundary. One of the most intriguing schemes is called a "house divided." Based on the prevalence of what architect Teddy Cruz, AIA, calls “zero setback” dwellings, or houses built directly against the wall on the Mexican side, this project proposes zero-setback residences on the U.S. side as well. In this design, residents share a common home in which the dining table, living room, or bedroom serve as transnational interfaces—borderlands encapsulated within an intercultural domestic environment.

Swing Wall
Courtesy Ronald Rael Swing Wall
Burrito Wall
Courtesy Ronald Rael Burrito Wall

Borderwall as Architecture presents a compelling tableau of physical and spatial ideas occurring at the meeting place between two neighboring countries. Situated within the delicate political and environmental circumstances of the U.S.-Mexico boundary, the schemes vary in their intent: some proposals are clearly polemical while others are intensely practical. However, out of this collection of inventive ideas and bizarre stories emerges an unnerving realization: borderwall architecture only treats the symptoms of binational incompatibility—not the problems themselves. In his essay “Why Walls Won’t Work,” urban planner Michael Dear describes the ways in which “border communities suffer the wall’s daily disruptions and indignities, intrusive practices of security forces, ubiquitous infrastructures of control, and a pervasive miasma of mistrust and danger.” Dear’s solution is to remove the wall altogether, effectively undermining the book’s architectural premise.

However, this contradiction is intentional: Rael’s Nuevo Grand Tour is not so much a catalog of stories and solutions as it is an odyssey of comprehension. At every turn, as Rael captivates readers with bittersweet tales and imaginative futures, he invites them to realize the deeper implications and contradictions of the borderwall itself. “If the wall were implemented as an important investment both in place and in immigration reform through the act of architecture, the conceptual basis for its existence would be effectively dismantled,” he writes. By empowering the reader to think like a designer, Borderwall as Architecture unravels the thorny, multifaceted nature of binational conflict embodied within our most politically polarizing architectural feature. “If an appeal is being made to tear down this wall,” Rael writes, alluding to Reagan’s three-decade-old proclamation, “…then what will replace it in the future must absolutely be designed now.”