By ANE GONZALEZ LARA
Ane Gonzalez Lara is an assistant professor of undergraduate architecture at the Pratt Institute. This post is part of an occasional series of essays and other content from the upcoming Museum exhibition “The Wall/El Muro: What Is a Border Wall?”
My calendar still shows that on May 15 I was supposed to be taking a train to Washington to attend the opening of “The Wall/El Muro: What Is a Border Wall?” exhibition at the National Building Museum. But little I knew, when I added the event to my calendar, that the future had different plans for all of us.
Sarah Leavitt, the exhibition’s curator, contacted me regarding the exhibition about two years ago. Since then, working with her on this project has kept me incredibly excited as “The Wall/El Muro” will allow a broad audience to learn about the intricacies of our southern geopolitical boundary.
Over the last months, I’ve been working, with the invaluable help of my research assistant Meryem Es Saoudi, on building models of the border wall prototypes built by President Trump in 2017. These models will be included in the exhibition when it opens to the public.
Rather than only depicting their geometry, it was essential for us that the models also represented materials as accurately as possible. These models will only be an approximation to the experience of being close to real border infrastructure. Their scale will be 25 times smaller than the real prototypes and the artificial environment of the museum will have little to do with the border region’s arid climate. But, by using the real materials employed for the construction of the border, we want to give visitors a hint to the harsh, cold, and brutal presence of the wall in its context.
The real prototypes built in San Diego were mainly made out of two materials: concrete and steel. Getting the right textures and colors in the concrete took some trial and error. We did tests to get to the right amount of pigment in the concrete mixture; we also tested different materials for the formwork to get the perfect texture. As for the steel, a material that neither of us had used before for modelmaking, we adventured into learning how to cut and weld it. This is the step that we were on when the pandemic started. Unfortunately, without access to fabrication labs due to the pandemic, the construction of the models is currently on hold.
As I write this text, new stretches of wall are currently being erected in Arizona, California, and New Mexico despite the pandemic. If the construction continues, the stretch of border that runs from the Pacific Ocean to the Rio Grande will be entirely fenced. Some construction will replace old fencing and vehicle barriers, but other will break new ground.
It is ironic to think that my small production of border-wall prototypes is in pause due to the global pandemic, while the real fence continues to be built amid the pushback it’s getting from different stakeholders.
When building these prototypes, I couldn’t stop thinking about the complexity of building such infrastructure on a massive scale. This process has made it even more clear to me that adding the intricacy of the topography into the mix would render this endeavor into an extraordinarily costly and challenging project that would take many years to build.
In addition to the high cost and time, I also became very interested in learning about the source of the materials utilized in the construction of the prototypes. It is likely that some of the prototypes, if not all, were built using cement coming from Mexico. Cemex, a Mexican cement company, is currently the second producer and supplier of cement in the U.S. With its American headquarters in Houston, Texas, its proximity to the border makes Cemex a plausible supplier for the job.
The labor needed to build such pharaonic construction in a harsh climate is also something that I thought a lot about when building the models. Historically Mexican workers have been allowed to enter the U.S. for labor-intensive jobs. The Bracero program, established in 1942, allowed Mexican nationals to work on American farms, and since then the farming industry has relied on Mexican labor for operations. Although there isn’t a similar program for the construction industry, a survey conducted in 2016 by the National Association of Home Builder’s Housing Economics established that Immigrants workers comprised nearly 25% of the overall construction workforce. If the same ratio is true for the construction of the border wall, one every four workers will be an immigrant, and ostensibly some of these workers will have crossed the same border that they are now erecting.
Building these models has made me value, even more, the importance of hands-on work in any design, and learning process. Not only have I learned more about the challenges of the construction process, but it has also opened my eyes to some of the immaterial realities of the borderland region. The physical presence of the models in the exhibition will also allow visitors to have a better understanding of the region. Using only images of the border wouldn’t allow visitors to interact with the materials, scale, and presence of the border in the same way that physical models will.
The first in-person encounter I had with the border took place as I drove from Houston to Albuquerque along Route 90 years ago. When gazing at the landscape in southwest Texas, it was hard for me to understand why the Rio Grande had been designated as the divider of land that unabashedly belongs together. After studying the border for years, its complexity still keeps me fascinated. The physical presence of the border is the first thing that many of us encounter when thinking about the border. However, it is the unseen that has kept me interested in learning more about this region.
I hope that when you see the models and the entire exhibition in person, you also think beyond the physical presence of the border. It is often in the immaterial where the most important aspects of any space reside.