One post-9/11 urban intervention that has received little attention in architectural circles is the massive transformation of the San Ysidro border checkpoint, currently in its early planning stages and for which an architect has already been chosen. Homeland Security is pouring billions of dollars into the San Diego/Tijuana border region to reinforce its infrastructure of surveillance, continuing to further divide the U.S. from its Mexican neighbor.
In this context, we can call Pat Buchanan's Republican presidential platform of a few years ago incredibly visionary. Inspired by a protectionist agenda not that different from the one that is permeating our main political spheres and everyday physical environment today—increasing our obsession with security and safety—Buchanan requested bids from a number of companies for the construction of a huge border wall. As published in The New York Times, with axonometric drawings and diagrams, the bids included an array of material possibilities, from brick to concrete, even a moat that would have run the entire length of the 3,000 kilometers of the U.S.-Mexican border.
This incident calls for a chronology of the wall, a recording of how in the last thirty years the invisible line, rendered arbitrarily at one point in history, has been incrementally solidified. Beginning with a landscape between Tijuana and San Ysidro that was uninterrupted (there are photos showing the border at Colonia Libertad in the early 70s without a fence and children flying kites oblivious of the political boundary), the border became physcially defined by the erection of a chain link fence and then even more so by the construction of a ten foot high steel wall built in the late 80s with the leftover temporary landing mats used in Desert Storm. This inefficient steel version, with corrugation that runs horizontally allowing people to easily climb it and a solidity that makes it a perfect place to hide, is currently being augmented by a second wall, one that can be called the longest panopticon in history. It will be a hygienic and efficient wall made of concrete columns strategically spaced to allow maximum surveillance and minimum human slippage, crowned by an electric fence. This is how the perennial alliance between systems of control and urbanization is reenacted here, epitomized by the solidifying of the border wall that divides these cities, transforming San Diego into the world's largest gated community.
The border's transformation from light to solid is exactly opposite the trend in recent architecture, which has moved from solid to light. Contemporary architecture is searching once more for nomadic strategies of lightness and freedom, less interested in objects of imposition and more interested in territorial strategies. It is engaging the boundaries that simultaneously delimit and blur the diverse socio-cultural geographies of contemporary life. Maybe this suggests, once more, that the dreams of architecture are at odds with the actual socio-political and economic realities in which they exist.
In this context, the border wall is a solid critique of both contemporary urbanism's desire for revisiting the meaning of dynamic metropolitan landscapes, such as new models of layered programmatic intensities found in Latin American, Asian and African cities, as well as contemporary architecture's quest for new formal expressions based on strategies of transformation and open-endedness. As much as these notions are liberating, they are questionably achievable under the discriminating social policy in many American cities. If contemporary architecture and urbanism do not enter the socio-political, economic and cultural dimension of the territories they occupy, they are destined to continue being isolated formal events. They will perpetuate the idea of the city as a static repository of objects instead of revealing it as a dynamic field comprised of the complexity of its multiple forces and mutating histories and identities. In a post-9/11 political atmosphere, where protectionist urban legislature and neo-liberal economic policies toward privatization and homogenization of the public realm are defining our idea of city, it is in territories of conflict, such as the one the Tijuana/San Diego border wall defines, where critical alternative urban practices can emerge, ultimately transgressing the wall that separates social responsibility and artistic experimentation.
Teddy Cruz is an architect and principal of estudio teddy cruz, based in San Diego. He was a winner of the Architectural Leaguešs 2001 Young Architects Forum.