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Prototypes of Trump's wall offer chilling lesson in the power of architecture

A reporter visits the scene in California

“Border towns always bring out the worst in a country,” says Charlton Heston. He is talking to his wife, Janet Leigh, his voice shaking with the tetchy conviction of an embarrassed patriot. “This,” he goes on, “isn’t the real Mexico,” and we understand at once that here is a man who knows whereof he speaks: for Charlton Heston is a real Mexican.

Orson Welles’s decision to cast the decidedly Anglo actor as Detective Miguel Vargas in his 1958 noir classic Touch of Evil was not the filmmaker’s finest hour. The mistake was only compounded by the application of a quarter inch of ruddy foundation to Heston’s face, as well as his inability to pronounce even such rudimentary Spanish words as “” and “no.”

Yet the bit of dialogue with Leigh seems, in retrospect, oddly prescient. Vargas is apologizing to his gringa bride for the tawdriness and violence endemic to “Los Robles,” a rotten little ’burg standing in for Tijuana, and portrayed, for production purposes, by Venice Beach, California. (Not the real Mexico indeed.) He may be saying more than he means; certainly he may be saying more than Heston, in his later role as icon of American conservatism, would have wanted to mean.

Borders have two sides, after all, and on the American side of the U.S.-Mexico line today there lies a town that is not exactly a credit to the great republic. It is not that there’s anything all that bad about the Otay Mesa section of San Diego. It has an IHOP, and an Auto Zone, and a Jack in the Box. It has ready freeway access, and it backs up against the rugged Peninsular Ranges, which form an incongruously dramatic backdrop to the neighborhood’s low-rise office blocks and drive-thrus.

But there is something ineluctably grim about the place—a pervasive sense that something is out of joint—that something is seething—and on an unusually overcast day in the Golden State, this feeling is amplified until it becomes the near certitude that there is, somewhere very close at hand, a touch of evil.

About two miles down the road, the most powerful government on earth is currently staging the most extraordinary architecture exhibition in human history.

There has been a great deal written about the prototypes for the Trump Administration’s proposed border wall since their construction wrapped up in late October. But nothing can quite measure up to the experience of seeing them for oneself.

The unfailingly helpful and informative press agents from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) drive you down the road to the construction site, and there they are: eight slabs of concrete and proprietary composite material, built by the six companies that advanced from the initial finalist stage last spring.

An immense cloud of uncertainty hovers around the whole affair: Lawsuits and countersuits proceeding from the design competition are currently pending. Congress has not approved funding for the complete wall, intended to span nearly the whole length of the border. CBP officials cannot specify what likely criteria will be applied to choose the final winner from the current contestants, nor precisely when an announcement will be made, nor what will become of the prototypes afterwards.

It is not, in short, clear what the erection of these walls is meant to accomplish, except to show that something has been done to advance a campaign promise that was key in elevating the current occupant of the White House to the Republican nomination and then to victory in the general election. What the slabs are, for the moment, is nothing more—but also nothing less—than a remarkable case study in how prospective buildings are displayed to the public.

As long as there have been architecture exhibitions, there has been the vexing matter of presentation. How to demonstrate what a building is like when you can’t give people the actual building? In the U.S., the curation and representation of new design has most famously played out in the halls of the Museum of Modern Art. Beginning with its first show on European modernism in 1932, the institution’s most influential subsequent outings all endeavored to sell the public on the potential of a putative architecture through the artful selection of two-dimensional renderings, photographs, and models. Yet all of these necessarily entail a degree of removal from the true experience of buildings in situ.

The mystique that can attach itself to even the most banal objects the instant they’re placed under a vitrine is a serious problem for architecture, given its real-world responsibilities in shaping conditions social and environmental. The most that we can ask of an architecture exhibition, perhaps, is that it somehow convey not literally what a building might be “like,” but—through suggestion, or the evocation of a mood, in the way of paintings or sculpture—what the world of that architecture might feel like. And it is on this score that the border-wall prototypes are an out-of-the-park home run.

There is no particular architectural merit to any of the individual structures. The patch of brush and sand on the outskirts of Otay is divided into parcels of 65 square feet, and upon each stands a solid rectangle, varying only in tone and occasional differences in detail.

Three of them—two from W.G. Yates & Sons of Philadelphia and another from Fisher Sand & Gravel of Tempe, Arizona—are little more than flat-out statements of the brief: unadorned blocks almost entirely undifferentiated in elevation, save for a tubular baffle atop the first two and a thickened buttress-like base on the third. Only one, the entry from Annapolis, Maryland-based ELTA North America, sports anything like color: blue steel bars that emerge from the concrete footing.

Two others, both from Caddell Construction of Alabama, make half-hearted attempts at what must be surface patterning: vertical ridges descending to about the middle point. There may be other qualities that distinguish the various entrants, more-than-meets-the-eye stuff like embedded sensors (a common feature in some of the first-stage proposals).

But there is no way to know, since, despite a strong public-relations push by CBP that has brought scads of domestic and international media to the site, none of the current brace of entrants are fielding questions from the press. This will do them no favors with design critics, but then again, none of these structures was likely to grace the cover of Architectural Digest, anyway.

It’s in the aggregate that the prototypes serve up a visual kick in the pants. The choice as to the 30-foot building module could have only been made by a design genius: any narrower and they would have lost their innate wall-ness, becoming mere towers; any wider and their height would have seemed less imposing; any bigger in both dimensions and the sense of scale would be lost altogether. They are also perfectly spaced, making for stunning photographs of the group in file, where the apparently arbitrary distinctions between them make them seem like exercises in pure form as explored through iterative sequence—inviting comparison to the work of Donald Judd and his fellow 20th-century minimalists. Their strikingly artificial precision and monumental presence make for equally apposite comparisons to Michael Heizer and other pioneers of land art and site-specific installation.

But oh, what a site.

Part of what makes the prototypes so effective is that they have been placed in a condition no curator would dare dream of: right smack in the middle of a politically fraught battleground in which they themselves are combatants. An existing segment of protective fencing, built in the early 1990s, is scarcely 40 feet away, and visitors can peek through the joints in the corrugated steel to see the disheveled Mexican barrio of Las Torres on the other side.

The mountains crisscrossed by smuggler trails, the sound of distant helicopters, the enforcement officers patrolling the nearby brush on horseback: The wall prototypes are a mind-warping, possibly unprecedented instance of architectural representation collapsing instantaneously into messy reality. As the CBP representatives explain, interdictions of illegal border crossers have happened directly on or adjacent to the building site in the last several months, both during and after construction. It is an early sign, perhaps, that drug traffickers and would-be undocumented immigrants are not much intimidated by these weird new monuments in their midst.

As for the likely future of the competition, it seems almost beside the point to debate the practical value of the whole border wall notion, at least when faced with the awesome reality of the prototypes as built. The president of the United States has told many falsehoods about his signature project (that it would have solar panels, that it would be see-through) but perhaps the most outrageous was his suggestion, this past September, that he would be personally responsible for selecting the winner from the prototype group. He will do nothing of the sort; he hasn’t even been to the site, and CBP does not know of any planned visit. But at last, a man who has spent his whole life boasting of his accomplishments in the built environment can claim at least indirect responsibility for a genuine architectural coup de theatre.

Whether it will do his reputation any good is another question. Taken solely for what they are—symbols of an imagined architecture—the efficacy of the prototypes is that they sound so clearly and so loudly such a profound emotional note. That note is dread. As no other architectural initiative before it, the prototype exhibition bodies forth an imminence of absolute doom, and after you’ve seen it you find that it taints everything around it in Otay Mesa—and, for some time after, everywhere else as well.

If it makes other architecture shows look so anodyne, it is only because it achieves a horrifying sublimity to which few designers would aspire.

Of course, as the saying goes, from the sublime to the ridiculous is but 40 feet and through a steel fence. In the opening sequence of Touch of Evil, in a three-minute-long tracking shot that stands with the finest moments in Welles’s oeuvre, we watch as his costars walk through the dodgy honky-tonk streets of Los Robles, then waltz across the border with scarcely a nod to its guards. Today, armed with only a passport, an American can walk into Mexico with only slightly greater official scrutiny, then hop into a taxi and travel through the industrial suburbs of Tijuana to the exact other side of the fence opposite the prototypes, only steps away but now in a different country.

SIERRA VISTA, AZ - APRIL 1: An obelisk marks the United States/Mexican border April 1, 2005 near Sierra Vista, Arizona. More than 1,000 volunteers from the Minuteman Project are expected to fan out across a 23 mile stretch on the Arizona side of the border to search for Illegal aliens who are making the trek into the United States from Mexico during April. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images) Scott Olson/Getty Images

There, sitting on the ground right before the steel fencing, in the very shadow of the looming slabs, is a small obelisk, a stout pyramid scarcely 6 feet tall. It was a marker set up by the United States and Mexico in the 1880s, the product of a bi-national Boundary Commission tasked with delineating the official frontier. The amicability of that settlement is memorialized on a plaque on the little stone pile, set down over a century ago in what was then an empty expanse of desert, a place where no one much cared who went back and forth.

The marker hearkens back to a time of a “border” without border towns, a border whose existence as a spatial entity was to be regarded mostly as a diplomatic fine point and occasional logistical hassle. The comedy comes in seeing it so close to the wall prototypes, which are the totems of precisely the opposite disposition: a political order in which the country’s physical limit would be elaborated, at an estimated cost of $70 billion, into arguably the single most expensive public building in our history.

If built, the wall would at once become the concentrated expression of our national values, surrounding us in every sense. Every single American city would then be turned into a sort of border town, full of shouts in the night and sordid official crimes, peopled by strangers and doubtful impostors who resemble no one so much as ourselves.


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