by Benjamin H. Bratton
SCI_Arc and UC San Diego
Weaponizing Architecture was the subject of the blog on August 22 with Henry Louis Miller satirizing whether the U.S. should build a Toxicwall along its southern border. The result was a torrent of commentary. That subsided, and then, this past week, came a blog entry from Benjamin H. Bratton that, although lengthy, is provoking. Enjoy.
Some thoughts on why designing/undesigning the border interface is such an important topic for architects and social theorists ...
The agency of the partition is the critical question for architectural politics today, so it?s not surprising that speculative design would continue to find raw material in sites the partition is elevated to global metaphor. The ironic project itself is fine. My comments are more to the responses, especially regarding the Lou Dobbs wing of the AIA.
Clearly the partition is elemental to both architectural history and practice, and yes, from Vitruvius to Virilio, we understand how sedentary fortification gestated urban form. We also recognize that partitions do not only segment space, they also sort peoples and thereby are always also political technologies. Further partitions not only contain an irreducible violence, they embody it (Tschumi, Weizman, Involuntary Prisoners of Architecture, etc.) Precisely because the partition sorts it also gathers.
As others have happily noted on this thread, the national boundary gathers unlike cultures into a conceptual whole, just as on a much smaller scale a room sorts and gathers people into a shared present.
But the design purpose of partition, to include by exclusion, is never finalized. To design partition (what architects do) is not just to extrude already understood lines in the sand but in fact to redraw those lines for specific intended effect. If we simply constructed buildings around place where people already gathered, we would have to real social purpose.
Partitions are made to be drawn, undrawn, and redrawn. This is space.
Which is why the tragicomedy of the Southern California Security Barrier is so bizarre, unnecessary, ugly, and stupid, and why architects must work to unbuild it.
Given the real history of this specific region, where for the past several centuries, state and national borders have been continuously drawn and redrawn, and where the demographics of English and Spanish speaking immigrants has also mingled and merged, it is fallacious to describe, as Mr. Shawn does, the construction of a barrier marking the current national boundary in the terms of some primordial boundary between ancient peoples tied organically to their lands. This is not the Strait of Gibraltar. It is an abstract partition with little more historical rootedness than the migrants, tourists, and commodities that pass through it. Historically it is as mobile as they are, and its mobility is a function of the social and economic mobility of the region. To undo that condition with the imposition of something descendent from a prison gate would be exactly "unnatural."
The reality is that a perhaps new (perhaps very old) condition exists: the Southern/ Baja California region is integrated into itself economically, culturally, and linguistically but nevertheless bifurcated politically.
Perhaps we can imagine other examples of this?
What does the border do then? Like a very wide but very thin interface, it works to govern conditions of cultural, economic and demographic exchange between these two political territories. It doesn't just work on behalf of a government, it is governance. To me that is a very interesting design opportunity and challenge, and also why the the prophylactic strategy of the wall must be undone. A border can be many things and do many things. To filtrate and sanitize population flows is not the only assignment.
Which takes me to some of the comments here ... The question of immigration is an easily squeezed pimple out of which the pus of xenophobia and ethnic retrenchment does drool. I have no patience with the characterization of the situation in the terms of some paranoid fantasy about competing white and brown manifest destinies. While it's certain that delusions of conquest and eliminationism are also part of the history of Southern/ Baja California, but they are side spectacles. The moment you cast the most expansive dreams MECHA as the critical source of everyday border perforation, you move out of architecture into conspiracy theory.
I don't dismiss the importance of "imagined community" to structure regional flow, but the cause of such movement in this region is not primarily the "failed Mexican state" (though it is not in such good shape) but rather:
(1.) the cultural and economic integration that has historically existed bound the area well before Señor Fox, and
(2.) globalization's acceleration of the flows of people, goods, capital, technology, and information more generally.
Why would expect anything but maximum traffic in this location? The issue is that we see a regional condition where millions of people and billions of commodities attempt to flow through against this vast structuring, membrane of the border. That is one of most interesting, volatile design challenges anywhere in the world.
There the partition really does govern! I hope I am clear on this point.
But to extrude that membrane into a stupid wall is unacceptably bad urban planning.
Mr. Shawn is correct is linking legal mechanisms of racial filtering, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to architectural means such as security barriers. Partition includes virtual as well as physical pathways, and it is ultimately not possible to understand the hysteria about extralegal demographic flows without locating them within the deep and an unfortunate history of racial demonization and violence that scars the American experiment. I quote Mr. Shawn, "let us avoid internal weakness" (wow). Let us also realize, in fact, that the true goal of the Alien Hoard is to sap the integrity of our precious bodily fluids. Architects of all people should be the last ones advocating the transition of an open society into a vast national gated community.
As Mr. Shawn's contributions make plain, the site where body-hysteria and foreign affairs come into contact, can't then be separated from the general Post-911 program of "aggressive defensiveness" (preemptive strikes, enhanced interrogation, safe cities, security membranes along our national orifices, etc.). I would hope that for most readers this is a discredited strategy for a democratic societies moving forward.
Mr./Ms. Dale writes, "So, let's build it, hope it is temporary, and make it effective, efficient ... and beautiful. Let's make it architecture." I gather than you mean well, but the historical associations of a homeland impenetrable by criminal outsiders, are, to put it mildly, a set of precedents America should very much avoid. The comparison of extralegal demographic flows to armed robbery and home invasion borders on the neurotic. Would you compare the presence of foreign made goods to a viral infection? Would you compare the circulation of foreign capital to an invasive plant species? The narrative equation extralegal outsider = illegal = criminal = dangerous = violent is best left to others. It's not becoming of architecture's profession.
Leaving aside the homeland and the decoration of its policing for the moment, the situation does confuse traditional understandings of space and contiguity. The legal status of capital, data, information in a world of massively interconnected, radically decentralized networks is a hugely complicated and hugely important design problem. The same is true for the legal status of human persons. You download music and movies illegally, I assume? I do. Here's the connection: both file sharing and extralegal demographic flow are Crimes of Network. The reality of networked integration marches on, but laws stagnate. Both imply less the criminality of the act but the dangerous anachronism of the laws they transgress. The world is flat not just for toys from factories, but for factory workers too. It is bad economic policy to plan the flow of capital asymmetrical to the flow of labor.
Maybe the best example of the design policy challenges involved are represented by the fragile national data policies to be accommodated by Google's planned offshore data centers. In a single location, floating in the extra-national space of the open ocean, Google will house many petabytes of their users' data. Such data may originate in many different countries each with many different policies regarding privacy, security, and state access. Data may originate in Korea, use German software, be housed in a datacenter in Siberia, and be owned by the Chinese. What does the USA do when it wants access to prosecute a potential crime? Or when the Chinese want access to harass a political dissident? What if any jurisdiction counts?
Two possible scenarios to consider:
(2.) the transnationality of data networks, access, and integration comes to constitute a jurisdiction of its own that in practice supersedes the terrestrial sovereignty of States, whether they (or we) like it or not.
Google takes the long term political implications of this very seriously and they should. Back to the wall, isn't it unacceptable that we would plan the future to accommodate greater innovations in sovereignty for abstract information than we would for sovereign human beings?
In the face of the complex reality of a globalizing landscape in which borders don?t disappear but proliferate, mutate and reformulate quickly, the wall is precisely an irredentist maneuver (a nationalist claim on an international interface.)
It's not a matter of open vs. closed. Architecture never is. We need more serious work and imagination. Architecture as a system for the replication and tracing primordial categories is retrograde. The job of architecture is to draw the new models of political and spatial configuration necessary to govern the big and little worlds we share.
Pick up some books—Irit Rogoff, Terra Infirma; Rosa Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects; Ulrich Beck, Risk Society; Saskia Sassen, Territory, Authority, Rights—and take a look at the work done in, on, around the border region by my colleague, Teddy Cruz.
In the name of a hostile and self-destructive nationalism, both in its arrogance and its incompleteness, the wall is an accidental monument to the Bush episode. So then, who will be the Berliners, tearing down the wall? Americans? Mexicans? Architects? For the benefit of America, and according to the professional responsibilities of architecture in a free society, the wall should be removed. It's destruction, however, should itself be a beautiful act of design.