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The Intangible Effects of Walls: Alexandra Auer (Transcript)

Alexandra Auer at TEDxEindhoven

Full text of designer Alexandra Auer’s talk: The intangible effects of walls at TEDxEindhoven conference.   

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The intangible effects of walls by Alexandra Auer at TEDxEindhoven


Alexandra Auer – Allianz Global. Investors

Humankind loves to build walls. Have you ever noticed that? We build walls for everything: for shelter, for protection, for privacy.

We build walls for snowball fights and walls for front yard decoration. Walls to keep people in and walls to keep people out.

We even build walls just to look pretty. And we’ve been doing it for centuries. It almost seems like this need to separate, to protect, to clearly mark what’s ours, must be in our DNA somehow.

And our desire for walls is growing. Over the past 70 years, the number of barriers between countries has doubled. Right now, there are more walls than at the end of the Second World War, more than during the Cold War.

Growing up in Germany, the fall of the Berlin Wall always felt to me like the introduction of a new world — a world without barriers. But since the attacks of 9/11, the construction has experienced an extreme rise.

Since then, the amount has doubled with about 30 new structures that were planned, or built. Many of them are found in the Middle East, but also between Botswana and Zimbabwe, India and Bangladesh or Hungary and Serbia, where a border fence was built in response to the refugee crisis of 2015.

What is it about walls?

Why do we keep returning to these structures that seem so outdated in the age of Internet and globalization?

Walls and fences provide us with a feeling of… are often built with the intention of security. Security from another group of people, from crime, from illegal trades. But walls and fences only provide us with a feeling of security, which is different from real security.

Even though they might make us feel safe, the structures themselves can’t protect us. Instead, they do something else. They separate. They create an ‘US’ and a ‘THEM’. They establish an enemy.

Walls make us build a second wall in our head, a MENTAL wall. And those mental walls slowly make us lose sight of all the things we have in common with the people on the other side.

The other way around, mental walls can grow so strong that they encourage us to build, keep or strengthen physical walls.

Physical and mental walls are closely interlinked. And one almost always comes with the other. It’s a constant cycle. Physical walls empower mental walls and mental walls empower physical walls until at one point, one part falls away and the cycle is disrupted.

When the Berlin Wall was being built, it was hard to tell who the wall was facing. Because the people living around it identified as one. There was no us and them. There was no others.

During the time of separation, both sides developed differently and formed individual identities. All of a sudden there wasn’t us and a them; a mental war was built.

And when the Berlin Wall fell again in 1989, dismantled wall in the head of the people state. Eastern Germans had to be reintegrated into their own country. And even though they didn’t have to move places, many still today feel like they’ve never fully arrived.

Those remaining effects of the mental wall are also measurable. A study from the Freie University of Berlin in 2005 shows that even 15 years after the reunification, Germans still believe that cities on the other side of the former wall are further away than they really are.

The interesting thing is that they found a link between political attitude and estimation of the distance. The more a participant was against the German reunification, the further away the estimated cities to be.

It’s the mental wall which keeps cities on the other side far away, and the higher and stronger this mental wall, the more difficult they seem to be reached.

I tried to repeat this study with a group of young Germans who grew up without a wall to see if these effects are still measurable nowadays. And the results show that this generation, my generation, is just kind of bad at geography in general, east and west.

But in our defense, this could be seen as an improvement, right? We never experienced the actual wall. This physical barrier was never able to make us build a mental wall in the first place.

I would love to take this as a serious indication that there could be a future without a mental wall dividing Germany. But I think we have to face reality. This one wall could be disappearing. But in the meanwhile, a billion others are constructed.

One global trend we are currently experiencing is the rise of gated communities. And in a way gated communities can be seen the same exact way as countries, just on the small scale. Neighborhoods surrounded by walls and fences to protect citizens from other citizens.

And the only difference is: it’s by choice. But the physical and mental effects on the people living inside and the people kept outside are the same: Separating cities, neighborhoods and even playgrounds.

In the spring of last year, I worked on a design project in Brussels at two elementary schools. But this was the case. Both the schools share an entrance and a school yard. Both schools teach in Dutch. But one school is mainly visited by Belgian children and the other school by immigrant children.

The schools are separated by walls and fences, leaving the children no point of interaction other than this fence on the schoolyard that separates them.

When I started to work there, it made me sad to see children having to stand at a fence to talk to their friend on the other side.

But what’s even worse is that most of the children will never get the opportunity to even make a friend on the other side. Schools should be the place for children, all children come together and learn, learn from the teacher; but more importantly, learn from each other.

And the more diversity, the more there is to learn. In fact, school might be the only time in our lives for establishing a contact despite social differences is even possible. Separating children during this time of their development will make integration extremely difficult, if not impossible.

And yet somehow I seem to be the only one having a problem with this fence in Brussels. Most of the parents, teachers and children stopped seeing or at least questioning the structure. It’s just how it is. Nobody has ever seen it differently and people are in favor of it.

I once asked the boy if he would like to play with the other side, and he said no. Then I asked if he would play with them if the fence wasn’t there. And he said probably.

But then he quickly added that the fence should stay because the other side is mean and they never give back his ball.

It’s funny because I talked to children from both sides and everyone taught me that the other side is mean because they never give back the ball.

The children on both sides dislike each other. And there are regularly arguments breaking out at this fence, which is also the main reason why people feel the need for it to be there. It protects the children from each other or at least their toys, and it prevents chaos.

At some point, the children started to crawl beneath the fence to get their ball back. And the reaction of the schools was to put these metal plates there. Now they climb over.

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