Architects Ask if Borders Could Be Something Else

Reports from the Field by • 08/04

Event: Welcome to the USA: Architecture and Human Rights at the Border
Location: Van Alen Institute, 07.30.09
Speakers: Teddy Cruz — Principal, Estudio Teddy Cruz, & Associate Professor of Public Culture and Urbanism, Visual Arts Department, University of California, San Diego; Thomas Keenan, Ph.D. — Director, Human Rights Project, & Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, Bard College
Organizers: Van Alen Institute; Bard College Human Rights Project


“Aesthetics of Crossing: Land Ports of Entry / Citizenship by Design” at Van Alen Institute.

Courtesy Van Alen Institute

For a nation that theoretically welcomes travelers with a lifted torch, the U.S. hasn’t exactly made its border stations a beacon of friendliness lately. With security concerns trumping other values since 9/11, even the efforts by the General Services Administration’s Design Excellence Program to bring progressive architecture to federal facilities have taken a back seat to a caution that borders (pardon the pun) on paranoia. As readers of the New York Times learned this week, the Department of Homeland Security recently ordered the removal of the large yellow lettering reading “United States” on the main building at a new station in Massena, NY, on the grounds that it might invite attack (See “At a Border Crossing, Security Trumps Openness, ” by Nicolai Ouroussoff, 07.26.09). NYC-based firm Smith-Miller + Hawkinson was successful at imbuing the station and grounds with an open, Post-Modern aesthetic, but whatever combination of transparency, functionality, and patriotism the architects strove for, in some eyes a border crossing is just a military checkpoint, its structures inevitably resounding with a carceral clank.

In this context, Estudio Teddy Cruz’s explorations of the complex spaces around the San Diego-Tijuana border, the world’s most heavily trafficked national juncture, offer particular insight into the nature and possibilities of our borders. Teddy Cruz is living proof that architectural thinking extends beyond the formal disciplines of design and construction. Perceiving essential continuities between spatial analyses and social interventions, he has treated the U.S.-Mexico border as a site of contrasting communities, and as a broadly conjoined region, rather than a simple barrier.

While governments on both sides, he says, display the “arbitrariness and stupidity of the nation-state” in imposing political force on the area’s complex economic flows and human energies, Cruz has designed spaces conducive to Tijuana’s informal economy, adapted features of shantytown construction to new uses, worked with community groups to help the underprivileged obtain equity, and advocated re-zonings that would legalize the unfairly deprecated spatial forms associated with Mexican culture, and reduce parcels (notoriously supersized on the San Diego side) to an affordable scale. As a designer, he favors functionality, humility, and exuberance; he laments that in recent years “I saw the whole avant-garde of architecture rushing to Dubai and China,” and he is impatient with debates “hijacked by the politics of style and form.”

The conversation took place in association with the Van Alen’s two-part exhibition “Aesthetics of Crossing,” combining Smith-Miller + Hawkinson’s “Land Ports of Entry,” a series of designs for two stations on the border with Canada (including the Massena site), with Kadambari Baxi and Irene Cheng’s “Citizenship by Design,” a close reading of the intricate details of different nations’ passports, rules, migration patterns, and identification technologies (including some rather invasive biometrics). Cruz debated with human-rights scholar Thomas Keenan, Ph.D., who offered constructive devil’s advocacy about the beneficial potential of aesthetic concerns and the civil protections that state power can sometimes provide. Shared Mexican and Californian interests in protecting threatened resources like the Tijuana Estuary, Keenan suggested, could give old rhetorics of power imbalance “a chance to get re-inscribed or rethought in environmental terms.” “I see you’re a romantic,” Cruz quipped, “as well as I am.”

For both Keenan and Cruz, as well as audience members (including Henry Smith-Miller, who supplied details on his firm’s tricky balancing act at Massena with Homeland Security, the Canadian government, and the independent Mohawk nation), the obstinacy of officials has not extinguished the optimism that border zones might evolve a few steps closer to what Smith-Miller considers their ideal condition: not being needed at all. Border containment is spectacularly futile. Some 45 tunnels have appeared beneath the southern border in the post-9/11 years alone, and an older site, La Casa del Túnel, is no longer a drug conduit: it’s been repurposed as an international arts center. “All I’m saying” of the border, Cruz summarized, “is, could it be something else? Could it be smarter?”

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