Since the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol put out a call for design proposals for a 2,000-mile wall along the border to Mexico in February, it has received designs that range from jokes and protests to serious contenders. Then there’s the proposal that has attracted attention for being none of those options and, perhaps, all of them at the same time.
Otra Nation is a proposal for a “binational” territory that radically rethinks the purpose of a border wall—and border, for that matter—by MADE Collective, a 14-member group of both U.S. and Mexican designers.
It’s not the 30-foot-tall wall (plus six subterranean feet to prevent tunneling) that the official request for proposals called for. Instead, it proposes an unincorporated organized territory belonging to both the U.S. and Mexico. Fences and existing parts of the wall would be removed, the surrounding habitats regenerated, and new cultural institutions erected to be shared between U.S. and Mexican cities. A biometric ID system would render traditional barriers useless, allowing for law-abiding North American citizens to move uninhibited across the continent. A Hyperloop–the not-yet-realized, super-fast transportation system originally masterminded by Elon Musk–would move people from city to city, horizontally along the border.
It’s a fantastical proposal—one that would rely on the cooperation of the two countries currently at odds, not to mention technology still in its infancy. But it’s also a plan that is grounded in real architectural, ecological, constitutional, and policy research. And the collective includes at least one high-profile member: Cameron Sinclair, founder of Small Works and cofounder of the now-shuttered nonprofit Architecture for Humanity who has taken on a role at Airbnb, Backchannel reported last month.
Their design has gotten a lot of attention since it was published on MADE’s website at the beginning of this month, both from liberal-leaning publications and right-wing media outlets like Fox. But what the media and commenters can’t seem to agree upon is whether the proposal is a joke or a form of protest. Is it a far-fetched, mostly symbolic response to an equally unfeasible, mostly symbolic campaign promise? Is MADE seriously bidding for a contract, or is its purpose to spark debate?
MADE claims that the proposal would cost $15 billion, or $1 trillion including public-private investments within the new co-nation. The radical aspects of the design reflect the unfeasibility of the RFP, which Sinclair points out was amended nine times in a single week, and twice on April Fool’s Day. “By actually submitting and being a part of the process, we got to see how the idea of the border was changing on a day-by-day basis,” he explains. “I don’t know if they were changing the RFP for a few contracts they knew could attain the goal posts, or were they shifting because no one knew how to do this? There was no definition of what people really wanted. [Our plan] is a lot more feasible than others.”
Though the question of the plan’s feasibility seems to vary from member to member within MADE, one thing remains constant—they see the proposal as a way to address the systemic and legal issues surrounding the wall. They consider it a productive form of protest. Of the three members I spoke to for this article, two offered up this Buckminster Fuller quote in separate interviews: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
A Utopian Vision Formed By Dystopian Politics
The Department of Homeland Security, of which the CBP is part, posted its initial pre-solicitation notice for the border wall competition on February 24. On March 1, the MADE collective launched a private Facebook group for members.
Though Sinclair points out that by its very nature as a collective MADE has no leader, both Tegan Bukowski and Elias Cattan, two other members I spoke with, say that he played the lead role in bringing them together. Bukowski, a Los Angeles-based architect and the cofounder of wellness startup SereneBook, and Cattan, founder of Taller 13, a firm in Mexico City that specializes in architecture and ecology, were joined by fellow architects, industrial designers, engineers, ecologists, and urban planners. The collective, exactly half of which is based in the U.S. and half in Mexico, seems only vaguely concerned with remaining anonymous; a picture on their site obscures their faces with animal heads, but all of the members were enthusiastic and open when we spoke.
The group started out talking on Facebook about how much a 2,000-mile wall along the border will actually cost (a recent report from Senate Democrats put it at $70 billion), how that money could be better spent on new technology, and exploring progressive ideas about working with, rather than against, globalization. “We said, ‘What if we used even part of that money to build something that is not a barrier but is regenerative and cooperative and good for both countries and their border cities?'” Bukowski tells Co.Design. “When you turn away from an area or zone, it creates a vacuum. In a place where there is no culture or consideration for economy, that zone becomes a blight and a dead-zone space. We wanted to reimagine that, and reimagine what was possible.”
Doing that meant pointedly ignoring many of the requirements in the two RFPs released by CBP, one of which calls for a solid border wall and the other for a “see-through component/capability.” Any wall stretching the entire border would be catastrophic to the habitats it would divide, which include the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, one of the most biologically diverse parts of North America. CBP’s requirements also state that “the north side of wall (i.e., the U.S.-facing side) shall be aesthetically pleasing in color, anti-climb texture, etc., to be consistent with general surrounding environment,” with no mention of aesthetics or impenetrability on the Mexican side.
By contrast, Otra Nation tries to work against the social inequity of the border wall by proposing a space with no barrier at all. Instead, Bukowski, who has a connection with Space X (though she declined to describe it), designed a structure to support a Hyperloop that would connect border towns on both sides and boost the economy of the new territory. It’s the only part of the design that could be interpreted as a division, but citizens are able to move freely below it. The biometric ID system, modeled off of the country of Jordan’s electric passport system, would scan a person’s body—fingerprints or eyes—to verify their identity, making the traditional passport obsolete. At major Hyperloop station hubs and on the boundaries of the territory a series of non-intrusive check-ins for people to be scanned to monitor the flow of people coming in and out.
The members of the collective who I spoke to are serious about the proposal being considered for contract, and unconcerned that some of the technology they outline in their plan isn’t yet fully developed. While Sinclair acknowledges the chances that Otra Nation will win the bid are slim to none, he says the group designed the proposal so that most of the elements could be built out tomorrow. The technology will get there, he says, but the trickiest part logistically would be the overlapping area—what the proposal terms a “co-nation”—that would effectively join the border cities in both countries into an unincorporated territory.
This is the part of the plan that most directly addresses the issue of inequity inherent in the border wall, but, with absolutely no precedent, it’s also the hardest to imagine actually becoming a reality. “We’re asking for a binational [constitutional] referendum for the U.S. and Mexico; we’re asking for a creation of a new country,” says Sinclair, acknowledging that that’s a big ask. The plan proposes not only a new shared territory along the boarder, but that all barriers in North America dissolve, so that any law-abiding citizen can travel freely through the biometric check points. He says the group talked to U.S. Constitutional lawyers, and to independent diplomats that have represented organized groups that want United Nations recognition, to design that part of the proposal.
Still, it remains hard to envision as a reality; in a recent article, The Verge talked to two scholars who study de facto states about the feasibility of MADE’s plan, who confirmed the move would be unprecedented and likely difficult to pull off, but also didn’t rule it out as an option.
“Not Responding Is As Political As Responding”
However unlikely to succeed and however opposite of Trump’s vision for a wall Otra Nation may be, it is still counted as one of the more than 200 firms that submitted a bid on the project. The proposal contradicts the fundamentals of Trump’s campaign promise of a continuous wall along the entire border—which, at this point, even Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said is “unlikely”—rather than legitimizing it. It also does not aestheticize the wall as other architects have; it addresses the problems inherent in the idea of a border wall with substantive research and design, rather than trying to beautify an ugly concept with nice aesthetics.
In a way, the proposal is mirroring the absurdity of the Trump administration’s wall proposal and timeline with its own agenda that pushes to extremes and ignores the typical way of doing things. Trump’s policy moves so far—the wall, the travel ban, the failed health care bill—have been more about stoking emotion than viable policies. Maybe the proper response to a wall proposal that defies all sense of logic and precedent is another wall proposal that defies logic and precedent.
“This administration hasn’t defined itself, it has changed its view on things even in a 24-hour time period,” says Sinclair. “All the rules are off the table. It’s important that you submit the idea because by not being involved in a project or taking it seriously you are handing over the conversation.”
Still, is it more impactful for the architecture community to stand united together against the wall? Does it hurt the cause of other architects who assert that they will not work with the Trump administration as long as it is pushing the construction of a wall that is divisive and unequal?
Thus far, says Sinclair, architects haven’t been able to organize in a truly effective way. “The reality is while I love the idea of First Amendment right to protest, the question is: Are architects going to be able to come together? Is the AIA going to be issuing an announcement that the administration is not legitimate?” (Based on recent events, the latter seems unlikely.)
Ultimately though, Sinclair says MADE’s design is about removing physical boundaries all together. Cattan sees things similarly. He perceives Otra Nation as a more productive form of protest, and one that will give new technology the push it needs. “It’s not a question of when we’re ready,” he says. “I believe the technology has the feasibility to it. We need to start applying and learning and prototyping.”
In that way, Otra Nation probably is most effective in its ability to start a conversation about updating our outmoded passport system and reimagining borders. Most importantly, perhaps, it also offers a model for what can be achieved when people work collectively across borders, when talented and smart people are able to move freely between countries. Even if its plan never gets built, the binational MADE collective’s remarkable proposal incited a dialogue. What is at stake if we continue to shut off our country from the rest of the world?