Two weeks ago, the United States Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection issued a single paragraph presolicitation notice for “the design and build of several prototype wall structures in the vicinity of the United States border with Mexico,” with an unprecedentedly speedy goal of selecting of awarding contracts by April 2017.
Who will design it? (We all know who will build it, right?) Still stinging from the American Institute of Architects (A.I.A.) postelection statement, an ingratiating gesture of support for President-elect Trump’s campaign pledge to embark on a $500 billion infrastructure building program, the architecture and design community is up in arms over the Request for Proposal for the wall. (I asked the A.I.A., which had later apologized for the statement, for a comment on the R.F.P.; they said they didn’t have one.) Many suggest that the only right response is no response at all; another firm justified their participation by making the argument that it’s possible to engage by taking “a post-national position.” But is no response the only right one here?
Though I’m sure he’ll take credit for it, Trump didn’t originate the idea of a border wall. Both the Bush and Obama administrations advocated for one, and after George W. Bush signed the Secure Fence Act of 2006 to “protect the American people,” The Times called on 13 architects and urban planners to design proposals for it (several abstained). In response to Trump’s calls for a wall, the Third Mind Foundation, created by a group of architects, designers and artists, sponsored a “Build the Border Wall” competition last year. Then as now, the border wall project promises to be an enormous construction boondoggle. And then as now, companies that are signing up want to make a profit. But the Trump context has made this controversial issue even more incendiary.
I got in touch with Fonna Forman, a political scientist, and Teddy Cruz, an architect, both professors at the University of California, San Diego, who who co-direct the UCSD Cross-Border Initiative, for their thoughts on the border wall quandary.
“O.K., fine, let’s imagine that a certain degree of pragmatism might guide some decisions right now,” the pair said in an email, “that Trump might surprise us and take a more functional problem-solving approach to investing in public infrastructure. The problem for us is that problem solving or business smartness without ethics, and without respect for human dignity, and without a sensibility toward social justice … is simply just business.”
The Architecture Lobby, an organization that advocates for such things as wage transparency, fair labor practices and structural change within the architectural profession, has called for a day of action today in opposition to the proposed southwestern border wall.“Participating in this R.F.P., even by not submitting what is asked,” Quilian Riano, an architectural designer and Architecture Lobby coordinator, wrote to me in an email, “is playing into the political ideology that allowed this R.F.P. to be released in the first place.”