Borderscapes

Donald Trump’s big Mexican wall might not stop migration. But as a sinister case of collective social therapy, it works.

One of the most remarkable films about the phenomenon of “the border” begins with a deconstruction of its subject. In the first five minutes of Get the Gringo (directed by Adrian Grunberg, USA, 2012), we accompany Mel Gibson on a car chase that ends with his (surprisingly simple) border crossing. Gibson, the gringo, has stolen money. To escape the cops and to enjoy his ill-gotten two million dollars, he simply crashes a flimsy border fence between Mexico and the U.S. with his pickup truck. Yet his turbulent break for Mexico does not yield a life of abundance. On the contrary: Gibson finds himself back behind bars again – as an inmate of the absurd prison town El Pueblito, a place with its own rules and laws, one of which is key: that of the porous boundary. El Pueblito is porous – for some people. Relatives may live with the inmates, as long as they can cope with the sheer brutality of the place. (By the way, the film plot is based on a real prison. El Pueblito existed until 2002, at which point the Mexican state ended this long out-of-control social experiment.)

Utopian border city

Sociologically and politically, Gibson’s car flight and the entire story that follows point to one indisputable fact: Borders today are fragile, highly complex, porous entities. It is interesting that in times when the new U.S. president puts forward the idea of a wall as the utmost expression of cross-country rigidity, architects are contemplating the notion of this very fragility, complexity, and porosity. One of them is the prominent Mexican architect Fernando Romero. During the recent London Design Biennale, he unveiled his plans for a bi-national city at the U.S.–Mexico border. This Border City is very much a utopian vision of a place with dual nationality, where people and goods can move more freely across the U.S.–Mexico border, a porous model city.

An examination of the existing flows between the USA and Mexico indicates that Romero’s Border City is not as purely utopian as might seem at first glance. Effectively, the system of maquiladoras, production facilities of mainly U.S. multinationals in Mexico’s borderland, represents a transition from the purely nationally defined state. These maquiladoras are transnational spaces where U.S. capitalism is transgressing the border, establishing its own production codes and work ethics apart from but close by. At the same time, products assembled in these places from imported semi-products are transported back to the U.S. to be sold. This is the U.S. producing for itself elsewhere.

Nevertheless, in a time of Trump’s demonstratively hard-line plans, Romero’s idea formulates an important political counter statement, even more since as a symbol it is not purely abstract. Together with his architectural practice fr-ee, he proposes to realize Border City over a 12-year period on a vast piece of privately owned land within the states of New Mexico, Texas, and Chihuahua. In an interview with the online architecture magazine Dezeen, he outlined: „This is a long-term vision, a utopian vision that is not about building walls but about thinking more ambitiously about the mutual relationship between Mexico and America and about what borders really mean between countries.“

Free movement

Romero’s Border City is all about movement. In his vision, people and goods travel freely across the border. „With technology, those borders are just becoming symbolic limits,“ he said. „The reality is that there exists a very strong mutual dependency of economies and trades.“ What is remarkable is that Romero is developing the final stages of his concept together with three land owners. Of course, politics will still have a say in whether any part of the concept becomes reality. And yet the established connections that a figure like Romero has in the developers’ arena means that this project might attain a different status than many of the other architectural-artistic project ideas triggered by the manifest political and cultural provocation of the existing border. His city would be built around an existing border crossing, thereby giving residents the opportunity to work in both Mexico and America. The master plan that the initiators suggest features themed zones laid out hexagonally, each with an epicenter containing medical, cultural, or indus- trial services. Avenues radiating from their centers would link with neighboring zones.

Logistically, the idea is interesting. The site would connect to existing major transport conduits, including the new inland port of Santa Teresa, the I-10 highway that connects the east and west coasts, and seven border crossings in the area. In this sense, it demonstrates that the strict nature of the border is not only causing social and human problems: It is also a logistical issue.