Fall 2012

Why Walls Won’t Work

US-Mexico Boundary Survey Map, 1853, Tijuana section.
US-Mexico Boundary Survey Map, 1853, Tijuana section. LINEA DIVISORIA ENTRE MEXICO Y LOS ESTADOS UNIDOS, Colección Límites México-EEUU, Carpeta No. 4, Lámina No. 54; Autor: Salazar Ilárregui, José, Año 1853. Mapoteca “Manuel Orozco y Berra,” Servicio de Información Estadistica Agroalimentaria y Pesquera, SARGAPA. Reproduced with permission. Digital restoration by Tyson Gaskill.Enlarge [+]

In a now-neglected book entitled Notes on the Synthesis of Form (1964), Christopher Alexander approached design as a question of “goodness of fit” between form and context. I thought about this formulation frequently when I began traveling in 2002 the entire length of the US-Mexico border on both sides, a journey of 4,000 miles. I had the good (or bad) fortune to embark before the US undertook the fortification of the international boundary line and so witnessed the border’s closure, an experience that altered my understanding of both countries.

The US-Mexico borderlands are among the most misunderstood places on earth. The communities along the line are distant from their respective national capitals. They are staunchly independent and composed of many cultures with hybrid loyalties. Nowadays, border states are fast-growing places of teeming contradiction, extremes of wealth and poverty, and vibrant political and cultural change. They are also places of enormous tensions associated with undocumented immigration and drug wars.

Mutual interdependence has been the hallmark of cross-border lives since prehistoric times. After the Spanish conquest, a series of binational “twin cities” sprang up along the line, eventually creating communities of sufficient distinction as to warrant the title of a “third nation,” slotted snugly in the space between the US and Mexico. I came to understand the third nation not as a zone of separation but instead as a connecting membrane. This way of seeing substitutes continuity and coexistence for sovereignty and difference, running counter to conventional wisdom that the border is the place of last resistance against immigrant and terrorist.

Ancient boundary monument No. XVI was a simple pile of stones (early 1850s?)
Ancient boundary monument No. XVI was a simple pile of stones
(early 1850s?). Jacobo Blanco. Memoria de la Sección Mexicana de la Comisión Internacional de Límites entre México y los Estados Unidos que Restableció los Monumentos de El Paso al Pácifico. 1901. Enlarge [+]
Monument No. 258,1851
Monument No. 258,1851. This was the first point (punto inicial) established by the boundary survey following the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The photograph was taken during the last decade of the nineteenth century after the original marble monument had been renovated, and fenced to prevent further vandalism. Jacobo Blanco. Vistas de los Monumentos a lo Largo de la Línea Divisoria entre México y los Estados Unidos de El Paso al Pacífico. 1901. Enlarge [+]
Monument No. 185, c. 1895?
Monument No. 185, c. 1895? The monuments erected during the second boundary survey at the end of the nineteenth century were made from iron. Jacobo Blanco. Vistas de los Monumentos a lo Largo de la Línea Divisoria entre México y los Estados Unidos de El Paso al Pacífico. 1901. Enlarge [+]

In 1848 the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo established the international boundary, which was frequently marked by no more than a pile of stones. A second survey in 1892 added over 200 more boundary monuments. But in the 1990s, responding to increased waves of undocumented crossings from Mexico, large fences sprouted in border cities such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez. Following 9/11, the US unilaterally adopted an aggressive program of fortifying the entire line. The new barriers are without historical precedent, and threaten to suffocate the arteries of communication that supply the third nation’s oxygen.

Border fencing during 1990s Operation Gatekeeper era, near Campo, California
Border fencing during 1990s Operation Gatekeeper era,
near Campo, California. The first modern-day attempts to fortify the boundary line began in the mid-1990s with Operation Hold-the-Line in El Paso, and Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego. The fencing was constructed from left-over aircraft landing mats from the War in Vietnam. Copyright © 2002 Michael Dear. Enlarge [+]
The “Primary Fence” at San Luis Colorado, AZ, 2008
The “Primary Fence” at San Luis Colorado, AZ, 2008. This latest fortification is made from steel manufactured in Vietnam, and includes two noteworthy features: a “lock box” in which a boundary monument is contained; and (at left) a gap that allows passage under the fence. Copyright © 2008 Michael Dear. Enlarge [+]

On the US side, the border was transformed into an archipelago of law enforcement agencies dedicated to the apprehension and deportation of undocumented migrants, and supported by private manufacturing, detention and security corporations. On the Mexican side, the federal government’s war against drug cartels resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and may even have consolidated cartel power.

In places, the new Wall is sinuously beautiful as it snakes through desert, but it can hardly be construed as a good fit! Yet the environmental design responses it has provoked are immensely intriguing in their diversity. The Wall provides a canvas for artworks, or becomes an instrument to be played by musicians; and ‘windows’ cut into the Wall reduce cross-border incidents of rock-throwing. Design professionals are directly engaged in building the rising number of official Ports of Entry that establish new portals in the Wall that shuts out Mexico. My CED colleague Ron Rael has designed water, energy and anti-pollution schemes along the Wall’s length. And people invent surprising ways of going over, under, through and around the Wall.

The “caged fence” outside Mexicali/Calexico, 2008
The “caged fence” outside Mexicali/Calexico, 2008. The new fortifications are manufactured from diverse materials, but recent forms appear to favor some possibility of seeing though to the other side. The fences are invariably built on US soil to ensure ease of access and maintenance, but as a consequence they also conceal and isolate the boundary monuments. In this image, the fence swerves to accommodate a boundary monument. Copyright © 2008 Michael Dear. Enlarge [+]

Ultimately, the Wall separating Mexico and the US will come down. Walls always do. The Wall won’t work because the third nation has strong connective tissue that cannot be undone. The third nation is the place where binational lives and values are being created – organically, readily, and without artifice. It is the place of being and becoming between our two nations.

Ancient Monument No. 1 at El Paso
Ancient Monument No. 1 at El Paso. This border location is especially noteworthy for its complete absence of fortifications. From the left, panel 1 shows the Casa de Adobe, restored headquarters of Mexican Revolution leader Francisco Madero; panel 2, a bust of Madero; panel 3, the berm (with a sign) marking the boundary between the two nations; and panel 4, the ancient monument no. 1. Collage by Michelle Shofet. Copyright © 2011 Michael Dear. Enlarge [+]
Monument 122A, viewed from the Avenida Internacional in Nogales, Sonora
Monument 122A, viewed from the Avenida Internacional in
Nogales, Sonora. A fortuitous vertical stacking of boundary infrastructure portrays the “deep archeology” of the line. The top panel reveals present-day electronic surveillance apparatus; below this is the 1990-era Operation Hold-the-Line fencing; in the third horizon is a monument from the late 19th-century boundary re-survey; and at its base lies a concrete retaining wall that has been spray-painted with symbols of birth and death characteristic of ancient Mesoamerican cultures. Collage by Michelle Shofet. Copyright © 2003 Michael Dear. Enlarge [+]

What should be done about the Wall that so rudely interrupts the third nation? The Berlin Wall was torn down virtually overnight, its fragments sold as souvenirs of a calamitous Cold War; and the Great Wall of China was transformed into a global tourist attraction. Left untended, the US-Mexico Wall would collapse under the combined assault of avid recyclers, souvenir hunters, and people offended by its mere existence. Nevertheless, we should preserve sections of the Wall to commemorate that fraught moment in history when the US lost its moral compass.

Recuerdos/Souvenirs, 2012
Ronald Rael, Recuerdos/Souvenirs, 2012. The border fence is memorialized as a play space. Courtesy of the artist. Copyright © 2012 Ronald Rael. Enlarge [+]