Home » An Architect’s Subversive Reimagining of the US-Mexico Border Wall: Ronald Rael (Transcript)

An Architect’s Subversive Reimagining of the US-Mexico Border Wall: Ronald Rael (Transcript)

Ronald Rael

Ronald Rael draws, builds, writes, 3dprints, and teaches about architecture as a cultural endeavor deeply influenced by a unique upbringing in a desolate alpine valley in southern Colorado.

Ronald Rael – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT

Isn’t it fascinating how the simple act of drawing a line on the map can transform the way we see and experience the world? And how those spaces in between lines, borders, become places.

They become places where language and food and music and people of different cultures rub up against each other in beautiful and sometimes violent and occasionally really ridiculous ways. And those lines drawn on a map can actually create scars in the landscape, and they can create scars in our memories.

My interest in borders came about when I was searching for an architecture of the borderlands. And I was working on several projects along the US-Mexico border, designing buildings made out of mud taken right from the ground.

And I also work on projects that you might say immigrated to this landscape “Prada Marfa,” a land-art sculpture that crosses the border between art and architecture, and it demonstrated to me that architecture could communicate ideas that are much more politically and culturally complex, that architecture could be satirical and serious at the same time. And it could speak to the disparities between wealth and poverty and what’s local and what’s foreign.

And so in my search for an architecture of the borderlands, I began to wonder, is the wall architecture? I began to document my thoughts and visits to the wall by creating a series of souvenirs to remind us of the time when we built a wall and what a crazy idea that was.

I created border games, postcards, snow globes with little architectural models inside of them, and maps that told the story of resilience at the wall and sought for ways that design could bring to light the problems that the border wall was creating.

So, is the wall architecture?

Well, it certainly is a design structure, and it’s designed at a research facility called FenceLab, where they would load vehicles with 10,000 pounds and ram them into the wall at 40 miles an hour to test the wall’s impermeability.

But there was also counter-research going on on the other side, the design of portable drawbridges that you could bring right up to the wall and allow vehicles to drive right over. And like with all research projects, there are successes and there are failures.

But it’s these medieval reactions to the wall — drawbridges, for example — that are because the wall itself is an arcane, medieval form of architecture. It’s an overly simplistic response to a complex set of issues. And a number of medieval technologies have sprung up along the wall: catapults that launch bales of marijuana over the wall or cannons that shoot packets of cocaine and heroin over the wall.

Now during medieval times, diseased, dead bodies were sometimes catapulted over walls as an early form of biological warfare, and it’s speculated that today, humans are being propelled over the wall as a form of immigration. A ridiculous idea!

But the only person ever known to be documented to have launched over the wall from Mexico to the United States was in fact a U.S. citizen, who was given permission to human-cannonball over the wall, 200 feet, so long as he carried his passport in hand and he landed safely in a net on the other side.

And my thoughts are inspired by a quote by the architect Hassan Fathy, who said, “Architects do not design walls, but the spaces between them.”

So while I do not think that architects should be designing walls, I do think it’s important and urgent that they should be paying attention to those spaces in between. They should be designing for the places and the people, the landscapes that the wall endangers.

Now, people are already rising to this occasion, and while the purpose of the wall is to keep people apart and away, it’s actually bringing people together in some really remarkable ways, holding social events like binational yoga classes along the border, to bring people together across the divide.

I call this the monument pose. And have you ever heard of “wall y ball”? It’s a borderland version of volleyball, and it’s been played since 1979 along the US-Mexico border to celebrate binational heritage.

And it raises some interesting questions, right? Is such a game even legal? Does hitting a ball back and forth over the wall constitute illegal trade? The beauty of volleyball is that it transforms the wall into nothing more than a line in the sand negotiated by the minds and bodies and spirits of players on both sides. And I think it’s exactly these kinds of two-sided negotiations that are needed to bring down walls that divide.

Now, throwing the ball over the wall is one thing, but throwing rocks over the wall has caused damage to Border Patrol vehicles and have injured Border Patrol agents, and the response from the U.S. side has been drastic.

Border Patrol agents have fired through the wall, killing people throwing rocks on the Mexican side. And another response by Border Patrol agents is to erect baseball backstops to protect themselves and their vehicles. And these backstops became a permanent feature in the construction of new walls.

And I began to wonder if, like volleyball, maybe baseball should be a permanent feature at the border, and walls could start opening up, allowing communities to come across and play, and if they hit a home run, maybe a Border Patrol agent would pick up the ball and throw it back over to the other side.

A Border Patrol agent buys a raspado, a frozen treat, from a vendor just a couple feet away, food and money is exchanged through the wall, an entirely normal event made illegal by that line drawn on a map and a couple millimeters of steel.

And this scene reminded me of a saying: “If you have more than you need, you should build longer tables and not higher walls.” So I created this souvenir to remember the moment that we could share food and conversation across the divide.

A swing allows one to enter and swing over to the other side until gravity deports them back to their own country. The border and the border wall is thought of as a sort of political theater today, so perhaps we should invite audiences to that theater, to a binational theater where people can come together with performers, musicians.

Maybe the wall is nothing more than an enormous instrument, the world’s largest xylophone, and we could play down this wall with weapons of mass percussion.

When I envisioned this binational library, I wanted to imagine a space where one could share books and information and knowledge across a divide, where the wall was nothing more than a bookshelf. And perhaps the best way to illustrate the mutual relationship that we have with Mexico and the United States is by imagining a teeter-totter, where the actions on one side had a direct consequence on what happens on the other side, because you see, the border itself is both a symbolic and literal fulcrum for US-Mexico relations, and building walls between neighbors severs those relationships.

You probably remember this quote, “Good fences make good neighbors.” It’s often thought of as the moral of Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall.” But the poem is really about questioning the need for building walls at all. It’s really a poem about mending human relationships. My favorite line is the first one: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

Because if there’s one thing that’s clear to me — there are not two sides defined by a wall. This is one landscape, divided. On one side, it might look like this. A man is mowing his lawn while the wall is looming in his backyard.

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