Borderwall as Architecture (Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello)
From the curators: Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello, practicing architects as well as architecture professors at UC Berkeley and San José State University, respectively, created the Borderwall as Architecture project to reimagine the design, function, and use of the controversial dividing wall between the U.S. and Mexico. The current border wall is not one monolithic fortification but rather a collection of several physical barriers that stretches across parts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Borderwall as Architecture is a multilayered proposal both serious in its intent to suggest new types of infrastructure that could positively affect the complex issues of immigration control and violence at the border, and also deliberately satirical. The speculative designs include a divider made of solar energy panels that would enforce the border while productively capturing the fierce sunlight native to the region; water collection and purification points adjacent to the wall to give respite to those of any nationality in proximity; a binational and bilingual library that would foster reciprocal cultural understanding; and designs such as the cross-border teeter-totter that highlight the absurdity of a barrier that is both imposing and porous. While there has been an international border boundary line between the United States and Mexico since 1848, construction of the barrier began in 2006, with the signing of the Secure Fence Act by then-President George W. Bush. The project rationale cited a desire to mitigate the flow of illegal crossings and to protect U.S. citizens from drug cartel violence. Over 600 miles of fencing and concrete was installed before the project was halted in 2010 due to excessive costs. As Rael and San Fratello’s provocation highlights, the U.S.-Mexico barrier wall remains hotly contested, as do the politics and policies that surround its design.
When Ciudad Juárez became the most dangerous city in the world during the so called “war on drugs” waged by the now ex-President of Mexico, Felipe Calderón (in office 2006–12), I began to ask myself how it was that those same drugs, the ones that cause such brutal destruction in Mexico, are transformed into objects of (mostly peaceful) commerce once they cross into the United States.
Some days in Ciudad Juárez, on the Mexican border with United States, seven people were killed, other days 15, and occasionally the number was over 20. One night, the same as many other nights, I discovered that I hardly could remember the exact number of corpses I had seen. Nearly the same scenes of murder, of mothers trying to find out if those who had just died were their children, occurred every day. Maybe as a reaction to protect my mind against so much horror and to be able to continue reporting, I returned to my house and I reviewed my notes. I proceeded to write and post in my blog. This was the only space available to me where I could fulfill what I feel is my mission as a journalist: to tell the stories that must be told in order not to become an accomplice of the corruption of power, wars, and unjust political decisions.
I realized, in my beloved Ciudad Juárez, one survives the pain mostly by transforming adversity into strength. A timid smile, a guarded thought, a token of irony, become shields against desperation.
I see the same message in Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello’s Borderwall as Architecture, a project that redesigns the border wall with possible, albeit sometimes fanciful, proposals. Where we observe fences, drones, guard towers, and laser beams, Rael and San Fratello envision better possibilities—just like the people in Juárez—and they do so with both humor and irony, offering a powerful alternative to something that until now has proven ineffective in stopping human beings from hoping for a better life. They design for us a wall that features a life-saving water collection system, a solar farm, a treatment plant for waste water from the New River, a bi-national library, and a food cart.
With their proposals, Rael and San Fratello place a huge question mark on an outdated wall that does not fulfill the function for which it was built: to stop the immigration of those who flee horror and frustration in search of a peaceful and productive future, for themselves and for their families (a goal that is shared by even the most conservative agents in American politics).
Inevitably, their redesign of the wall leads the observer to think about the use of parody as a form of artistic communication. Much postmodern art is devoted to this quest, although it began centuries ago in an obscure corner of Spain: Cervantes’s Don Quixote parodies epic discourses in order to construct new, realistic approaches to the world. Cervantes cloaked his book as a “knight’s tale,” but it was much more than that. It was, in fact, the beginning of modern literature, as many experts have since agreed. Don Quixote became a decisive step in the development of the genre of the novel, and one of the paradigmatic examples of dialogic literary work: within his text Cervantes establishes a continuous dialogue with other discourses.
And he accomplished it, just as Rael and San Fratello have done with their wall, by taking full advantage of irony and humor, framing them with a strong component of realism. Cervantes’s goal was clear, as is theirs: explaining humanity as it truly is, not as some wish it to be.
The world needs not a useless wall, but cleaner water, universal access to education, and renewable energy. This will solve the problem rather than put it into parentheses. Rael and San Fratello know that cruel borders and empty violence must be put to rest. They dream not of a utopia—like the time of Arthurian legends in which Don Quixote lived—but of the end of the absurdity of a selectively porous border that only produces death and suffering. The artistic utopia of the wall converted into a place of light and transparency, without the shadow of hate, shows that another world is possible and invites us to fight for change.
In the meantime, life continues, mixed with death, on the border. It is the cocktail of indifference and impunity, supported by the politics of silence: a strategy of changes only in the public image. Mexico attempts to clean up its bad reputation but not the causes that lead to economic and political violence. Ciudad Juárez is the locus of this living hell. Twenty-one years of missing girls and femicide, more than 11,000 homicides, and 10,000 orphaned children during the so-called war on drugs, in a city of just over 1.3 million inhabitants attests to this. Political decisions of the USA in support of the war on drugs promote even further the destabilization of Mexico and other Latin American countries, prompting more violence and emigration.
Sometimes, in the deadliest days, when I cannot remember the exact name of corpses—people—that I had seen during the day, I wonder: How many deaths in Juárez (or elsewhere in Mexico, Central America, Colombia, anywhere) are necessary so that a partygoer in the United States can peacefully consume a gram of cocaine?
When I cross one of the bridges that separate Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, from El Paso, Texas—one of the most guarded regions in the United States—I ask myself: Why is this border not sealed against the transportation of drugs with the same intensity as it is against illegal immigration?
Heroin, cocaine, meth, all major drugs are as easily smuggled into the United States nowadays as before the war on drugs. Have all the deaths been in vain, a symbol of the total failure both of our Mexican government and those external politicians who should understand that what happens on their (U.S.) soil stems from murder on mine?
The parody of Rael and San Fratello’s work fully emerges with the appropriately named “Border Wall Alternatives,” a realm where the absurdity of a wall is transformed from obstructive and negative to an affirmation of shared humanity. The time for Arthurian legends is past. Cruel borders and empty violence must be put to rest.