Porous and Complex: The Border between Mexico and the United States

Fernando Romero’s Border City project is intended to bridge the border between the United States and Mexico. Cultural studies scholar and architecture critic Alexander Gutzmer describes how the border looks today.

Borders are porous and complicated things — this is especially true of the border between the United States and Mexico. Its complexity stands in fundamental contrast to Donald Trump’s plan to build a giant concrete wall between the two countries. This complexity can be seen in the border's typologies. In many places, it's shaped and defined by natural barriers such as deserts, mountain ranges, canyons, and the riverbed of the Rio Grande. Only approximately one-third of the border, which spans 3,200 kilometers, is secured with permanent fences or metal walls.

According to experts, it is not possible to do much more. The American architect René Peralta says it’s technically impossible to build more border fortifications. The rivers and deep gorges have simply made it very difficult to get construction equipment and materials to the site in some places. As a result, there are spots along the border where you can easily walk into the other country. However, this permeability is, of course, deceptive. Time and again people have successfully crossed the border, only to later die of thirst. This is exactly the kind of problem that initiatives such as Humane Borders are working on.

© Jika Gonzalez (with support from the International Women‘s Media Foundation)

Until today, the classic border fortification has consisted of a metal wall made of huge sheets of metal. Incidentally, the wall’s expansion was initiated not by a Republican, but by United States President Bill Clinton. In Texas, the first border security measures were taken in 1993, followed by systematic fortification in 1997. Between 1994 and 2000, the border was extended in California, and construction began in Arizona in 1999. Many of the corrugated metal sheets used at the time were once landing strips used in the Kuwait desert during the first Iraq war — symbolic indeed.

Clinton’s decision to recycle was a pragmatic one based on economics and construction. Recycling the metal saved resources. In the future, perhaps Trump will also have to take such things into consideration. Experts have estimated that the concrete wall he announced in his election campaign would require a mighty 9.5 million cubic meters of building material. That’s three times as much as the legendary Hoover Dam, the hugely impressive dam between Nevada and Arizona.

Fortifications aside, few borders are as porous as this

Fortifications aside, few borders are as porous as this. Countless smuggler tunnels run under the border barricades. In fact, tunnels are the most symbolic architectural element and best capture the spirit of the wall, far more so than watchtowers or fences. Experts distinguish between three types of tunnels. The simplest lies about half a meter underground and begins and ends only a few meters away from either side of the fence. More ambitious tunnels make use of existing water and sewage systems. Smugglers dig such holes from Mexico to parking lots on the US side, covering the exit with a manhole, for example. Finally, there are the big, professionally dug tunnels with electricity, ventilation, and tracks. Border controllers attempt to detect these tunnels using seismological devices.

In April 2016, narcotics officers discovered one of these high-tech tunnels. It was 800 meters long. This was the 13th tunnel that the authorities had found in California in that year alone. The last three all ended on the same San Diego street, which runs parallel to the border.

Every year, the US spends tens of billions of dollars on border safety measures. Thousands of officials patrol the borders on foot and horseback; by car, plane, boat or bicycle. Drones are also used. On top of this, people also volunteer as border controllers, viewing their vigilante service as a patriotic act. The number of people who nevertheless manage to “immigrate illegally” is unknown. It’s estimated that more than half of the 11 million people without legal documentation in the US came over the border from Mexico.

The reality is that society isn't hermetically sealed

The reality is that society isn’t hermetically sealed. In addition to these allegedly “illegal” immigrants, an additional 330 million people and 140 million vehicles cross the 46 official borders entirely legally each year. Many of these people are tourists or visitors. Others contribute to both countries’ economies thanks to the daily flow of workers and goods across the border.

Economically speaking, borders aren’t always counterproductive. In certain circumstances, a border can even become an economic magnet. There’s a reason why special economic zones are often established in border areas. In northern Mexico, this has even led to a whole business concept — the maquilas or maquiladoras. These terms refer to manufacturing companies that import individual parts or half-finished products and assemble them into finished products.

From the air, the maquiladoras look like the surfaces of large, gray carpets. They are not built to last in the long-term, or even for a fixed period of time; nor are they built to produce a particular product. Rather, they offer very flexible, cheap, and repurposable spaces to assemble products. The spaces are completely neutral, oriented solely around economic criteria, as opposed to human needs. Many people employed here moved from other parts of the country looking for work. In this context, it’s interesting to look at the sociotopographic positioning of the maquiladoras: They tend to be built right next to slums. Infrastructure doesn’t play a decisive role — it’s all about being close to cheap and ready labor. This is particularly evident in the area around Tijuana, where manufacturing in the shadow of poverty has become a strategy to maximize profits.

Economically speaking, borders aren't always counterproductive

To use the vocabulary of the market economy, maquila factories are a special case of nearshoring. It works like this — raw materials and half-finished products are imported from the same country to which the finished product will return. This raises interesting questions about the identity of the border space. It means that the Mexican maquiladoras are, in a way, not a part of Mexico at all, but rather an extension of the US production system. It’s a kind of binational but also stateless, hypercapitalist spatial structure whose most important players are big North American companies.

Even though construction on the border may seem to have zero architectural value, the area is not actually wasteland. While the American side of the border is home to uninhabited desert areas, the areas immediately south of the border are actually dense with people and buildings. What’s more, several cross-border urban agglomerations are known as “double cities.” These cities stretch across both sides of the border and appear to be unequal urban siblings, who perhaps don’t like one another but also can’t survive without each other: Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana and San Diego are but a few examples of this.

In Friendship Park, only a barbed-wire fence separated the two countries. Separated family members were able at least to touch each other through it

At the moment, real estate developers are snapping up opportunities in Tijuana-San Diego. In San Diego, on the American side of the border, the past 20 years have seen countless tracts of single-family homes stretching toward the border. The inner city has become densely populated to an incredible extent, with its population doubling between 2000 and 2013. In 2015 alone, 1,248 new apartments were completed. This is now having an effect on Tijuana, on the Mexican side, with high rises of 2,000 apartments currently being planned.

Incidentally, the area around Tijuana and San Diego was also a special case for another reason: Friendship Park. In 1971, this area was established as a forum for people to meet at a place where the two countries were separated only by a barbed-wire fence. Separated family members were able at least to touch each other through the fence. Over the years, the fence was fortified and a second fence was eventually added. Now, people from north of the border are occasionally allowed to pass through the first fence, so physical contact is still possible. On the Mexican side, there’s even a busy park with tables, benches, and stands.

Ultimately, the Friendship Park represents a familiar kind of complication of the border system. It is one that’s expanded on in numerous architecture and art projects that focus on the border and use it to work through our current obsession with borders. For instance, American architect Teddy Cruz implements projects north of the border that explicitly reference the informal building style found around Tijuana. Working with his nonprofit organization Casa Familiar, Cruz develops integrated and densely structured living projects spanning multiple generations right on the California border, which are often based on the model of Mexican residential areas. This creates inexpensive living spaces and undermines the stereotype of a one-sided north-south hierarchy.

© Jika Gonzalez (with support from the International Women‘s Media Foundation)

Architects at Estudio 3.14 in Zapopan, Mexico, have been “inspired” by Donald Trump’s idea of building a homogenous concrete wall. Their dystopian idea is to build a massive pink postmodern structure as a border, which references the pink-heavy architectural language of Mexican Pritzker prizewinner Luis Barragán. The large structure will supposedly contain both malls, i.e. architectural icons of American consumer culture, as well as huge prisons, which is to say those structures that ultimately unite, rather than separate, the US and Mexico. Of course this idea isn’t a serious one. But such projects show that the dream (or nightmare) symbol of a wall can bring about creative ideas and forms of protest.

And then there’s the work of completely normal architects who just want to make better buildings, like Jones Studio in Arizona. In 2014, they created something new: a humane border crossing station that isn't horrific to spend time in. The station in Nogales, Arizona, tries to combine security measures with spaces that respect the people passing through it. The decidedly sculptural building has passageways for cars and pedestrians, a beautiful garden, and a water recycling system. In the future, this kind of approach will hopefully set an example—whether or not a concrete wall is ever erected.

Alexander Gutzmer is editor-in-chief of the architecture magazine Baumeister. He currently lives in Mexico and is writing a book about the American-Mexican border.