On Friday, as part of a Day Of Action set up by the Brooklyn-based collective Architecture Lobby, architects demonstrated their opposition to the construction of a Mexican border wall with a walkout from work at the end of the day. Meanwhile, other architects and engineers are submitting their preliminary prototypes for the 2,000-mile-long wall. According to a pre-solicitation notice obtained by CityLab, over 200 firms were expected to have applied.
The contrast in these two responses to the Trump administration’s promise of a Mexican border wall shows a significant rift in the building and construction industry—with politically active architects on one side of the issue and more politically neutral firms ready to cash in on a multi-billion dollar project on the other. Then there’s DOMO Design Studio, a Miami-based architecture firm, awkwardly occupying the space in between. In a Politico article published last week, associate editor Katelyn Fossett interviewed the firm about its prospective proposal to construct the border wall in the form of a mixed-use shopping center-slash-housing complex made from shipping containers.
According to Politico, the plans include urban areas, shopping, public art spaces, and even housing units in place of a more traditional border fence or concrete wall. It involves landscaping a 25-foot slope and building the structure right into the land, so that it’s out of sight at ground level from the U.S. side. The plan boasts a system for collecting rainwater, solar panels, and even an animal shelter. The recycled shipping containers provide a low-cost and sustainable option for an incredibly large scale and expensive construction project. People will live in micro-apartments with a view of border patrol, communing in open kitchen areas as if in a high-security desert edition of WeLive.
In the article, the architects on the project emphasized that this idea was “purely architectural.” They didn’t want to get into politics. “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,” DOMO principal architect Francisco Llado told Politico. “Our design is not about division but about unity of sense and sustainable functionality.”
The problem with framing this project as strictly a design exercise is that building a border wall is inherently political. Burying the wall in excavated trenches and embedding shops and apartments within it does not change the fact that its primary function will be to secure the border against immigrants seeking to enter the United States. A border wall, in whatever form it takes, will be both a physical and social barrier, one that limits safety and opportunity for some and reinforces systemic inequality and discrimination. This is not a problem that can be fought from the inside; the architects who design it will be complicit in that.
This is a lesson that history has already taught us. As Yale School of Architecture professor Peggy Deamer writes in an excellent op-ed for Architectural Record, architects answered the government’s call to construct Japanese internment camps during WWII, and have participated in social engineering schemes for “slum clearance” and discriminatory property development. “Particularly at a time when infrastructure seems to threaten more harm than good, our profession has failed in its task to show the public that we are more than ambulance chasers,” says Deamer.
Other architects have echoed Deamer’s sentiment about the ethical obligations of the industry as a whole, and clearly feel a particular responsibility to change it in light of the new administration. Many have mobilized around several social and legislative issues that pertain to the architecture community since Trump’s election in November. For instance, since January over 700 architects have signed an open letter, written by the newly formed coalition Architects Advocate, that urges the president to take action on climate change. Many within the architecture world have called for an end to the immigration ban, including the Architecture Institute of America (AIA), which has been facing rebuke from its members for its lack of criticism of the Trump administration.
Several high-profile architects and firms have also spoken out against the building of a border wall, and the walkout on Friday was an effort to build a unifying force across the industry. In a statement, Architecture Lobby described the Day of Action as “the first of many steps toward building the solidarity that will make it possible to organize actions against whichever companies make the shortlist after the 10th and are awarded the bid in April.” That’s roughly in line with the argument of Martin C. Pedersen, who here on Co.Design recently argued that “opposition designers—aligned with the professional organizations with guts and a conscience—need to confront the participating firms with pickets, phone calls, and a social media barrage.”
Meanwhile, it seems clear from looking at DOMO’s plan that the firm’s intent is to make a border wall that minimizes the border security and defense aspects of its design, making it comforting, safe, and aesthetically pleasing to those on both sides of the border. The problem is that redesigning the physical wall does not reverse or solve the larger sociopolitical implications of the wall—namely, that it is a xenophobic PR stunt founded on stoking prejudices rather than fixing actual immigration problems. DOMO did not immediately respond to a request to comment.
It’s unclear at this point how a show of opposition in the forms of protests, hashtags, and open letters will turn into action, either in the form of legislation or a shift in where and how architects decide to apply their expertise and influence. However, it is clear that refusing to take part in the construction of the wall is a crucial first step. Architects, please do not aestheticize the border wall.