Borderwall as Architecture: A Manifesto for the U.S.-Mexico Boundary, by Ronald Rael

Perhaps good fences can make good neighbours after all, suggests David Newman

September 7, 2017
people stand at a fence
Source: Alamy

The past 25 years have witnessed a major growth of interdisciplinary research in border studies. Much of this renaissance came in response to the discourses of the late 1980s and early 1990s about the “borderless world” that was sure to emerge as a result of the collapse of borders between East and West, the opening of borders throughout the European Union and a general feeling of greater geopolitical peace and harmony.

Little did we expect that borders would come back as they have during the past decade, largely through the homeland security discourses that have become prominent in the wake of 9/11 and subsequent terrorist attacks, coupled with the growing (and related) antagonism towards cross-border freedom of movement for refugees and economic migrants. This was highlighted even further by the discussions during last year’s Brexit vote in the UK.

Not only have borders returned, but walls, fences and barriers are being constructed throughout the world at a pace no one could have imagined at the time the Berlin Wall came crumbling down. Ugly features of the physical landscape, the new borders rely not so much on soldiers armed with machine guns as on a sophisticated, modern plethora of technological surveillance techniques and equipment, often invisible to those who attempt to cross illegally, but all-seeing to those whose job it is to make such crossings as difficult as possible.

The past two decades have seen a new genre of border studies, focusing on the visual and architectural dimensions of the new border monstrosities and the ways in which such features of the landscape impact upon the local people. Nowhere is this more apparent than in two border landscapes: the concrete wall and electrified fence separating Israel from the West Bank and – the subject of this book – the wall and barrier that has been constructed along large swathes of the US-Mexico border and which, under the presidency of Donald Trump, is likely to be extended and further fortified.

Within this context, Borderwall as Architecture is a timely re-examination of what the physical barrier that divides the United States of America from the United Mexican States is and could be. But alongside the architectural brutality and social displacement that almost automatically accompany such borders, Ronald Rael and his contributors also explore the ways in which highlighting the border can be transformed into new opportunities.

Coupled with the negative impact of the wall, aimed at keeping people out (and evidenced in its effects on people, animals, the natural and built landscape), they seek ways to continue to engage both sides in dialogue and to see the realities of the border as an opportunity for creating something new.

This is an approach that goes beyond the traditional binary perspectives of “closed” and “open” borders. Rael and the other contributors – prominent social scientists and public figures – seek to develop new modes of engagement in spite of the barrier, rising to the challenge that has been put to local residents. The book both reports on the situation and sets out a course of action to be tested in the years to come. It has much to teach those in other border regions throughout the world that experience the resealing of borders in the name of securitisation.

David Newman is professor of political geography and geopolitics at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel.

Borderwall as Architecture: A Manifesto for the U.S.‑Mexico Boundary
By Ronald Rael
University of California Press
208pp, £24.95
ISBN 9780520283947
Published 11 April 2017

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