From Richard Mosse'installation on the refugee crisis,Incoming. Photographer: Huda Tayob.In April of last year, artist Ana Teresa Fernández and members of the Border/Arte collective carried out a project titled Borrando la Frontera, or Erasing the Border, in which they painted parts of the Mexico-US border fence in such a way as to make it visually disappear into the background. In Fernández’s words, the project aimed “to symbolically erase a long-standing physical barrier that separates families and causes widespread misery.” More recently, the same border became the subject of an architectural competition titled “Building the Border Wall?” and organized by the Third Mind Foundation as a critical commentary on President Trump’s related endeavors. Most of the competition’s winning entries are characterized by an attempt to integrate the future wall into the surrounding ecologies, albeit leaving intact its physically separating function; they include an inflatable structure powered by the sun, rain and wind, a proposal to use both sides of the wall as a public park, and one in which the wall doubles as irrigation canal to bring prosperity to the Mexican side of the border.
From the winners of the International Design Competition to re-concsptualise the U.S.– Mexican Border Wall.Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the US has been busy commissioning a new venue for its London Embassy. The building’s architect, Kieran Timberlake, seems to have taken on board the criticism leveled over the past few years by senior figures of the US administration like John Kerry, according to whom his country’s embassies are among some of the world’s “ugliest” and furthest out of touch with the public. The architect has demarcated the embassy complex from its surroundings not with “high perimeter walls and fences” but with “a park containing a pond, walkways, seating, and landscape along its edges, all open to the citizens of London.”
These are but few of the various examples demonstrating creative practitioners’ increasing preoccupation with border architectures today, whether as geographical divides bearing upon transnational migration and displacement or as urban ones affecting public space in cities. This preoccupation is often motivated by a critique of mainstream walls, fences and barriers, and more specifically, by that of the social and environmental burden these structures are thought to place on their immediate surroundings.
And, as epitomized by the above-mentioned projects, the prevailing tendency among the creative practitioners advancing such a critique is to ascribe to border architectures a set of characteristics that claim to visually and/or materially lighten this burden. To what extent does this ‘critical promise’ deliver?
From the winners of the International Design Competition to re-concsptualise the U.S.– Mexican Border Wall.
The wall’s modularity and portability was initially taken as evidence of Turkey’s commitment to peace.
A good way to begin exploring this question might be to take a closer look into the critique’s object: mainstream border architectures. Consider the wall Turkey recently built along more than two-thirds of the entire length of its border with Syria. Officially called the “Modular Border Security System”, this wall consists of concrete modules that are easy to assemble and demount. The wall’s modularity and portability was initially taken as evidence of Turkey’s commitment to peace and open borders in the region; the wall was only a temporary measure and would be removed as soon as the dust settles.
But the same features have turned out to perpetuate militaristic ends. Parts of this wall have been recycled and reused in the historic neighborhood of Sur in the predominantly Kurdish-inhabited city of Diyarbakır as part of counter-insurgency operations that followed the resumption of the armed conflict between the state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in late 2015 after several years of cease-fire and peace negotiations came to a halt. The wall’s modularity and portability have more recently been mobilized to facilitate cross-border operations into Syria by the Turkish Armed Forces. As parts of the wall were temporarily removed to let troops and equipment across the border, the ease with which the removal was carried out helped these operations retain their shock value.
There are also smaller scale examples indicating that flexible, modular and/or mobile border architectures are increasingly defining the mainstream. Consider the barrier-on-wheels that appeared on May Day 2014 in Turkey’s capital Ankara. It was designed bespoke for the Turkish police in the wake of the Gezi Park protests that shook the entire country throughout late 2013. The barrier is fully equipped with CCTV cameras, audio and video recording devices, full-body scanners used for X-raying incoming protesters, security lights, an automated tear gas and pressurized water release system that becomes activated if a certain amount of load is pressed against the structure, and a separate pressure washer to clean up the scene once order is restored. It also doubles as a police checkpoint and temporary detention center thanks to a small cage at its back where activists arrested on the spot are held before being transferred to police headquarters. This mobile and versatile barrier was modeled on a similar device used in the UK called “the steel police cordon,” which was rolled out in late 2011 in the wake of the London riots and deployed in numerous instances that year, such as the anti-austerity protests held in central London mid-December. A similar device has most recently been sighted in Slovakia, testifying to the ironically global circulation of enclosure discourses and mechanisms.
As clearly seen in both these cases from Turkey, being less of an imposition – whether in a tectonic or in a visual sense – is indeed integral rather than antithetical to mainstream border architectures today. Moreover, as especially indicated by the case of the barrier-on-wheels, the effectiveness of such structures is programmed to depend, even if partly, on the often-unnoticed participation of the very subjects against whom they have been designed. By significantly reducing the role and presence of officers, the barriers in question purport to address many contentious aspects of law enforcement in the event of protest: Was force used too heavily too early? Automated features mean that the answer to this rests no longer with officers but with protesters and their interactions with the barrier. Was force used too heavily too early? Automated features mean that the answer to this rests no longer with officers but with protesters.
The integrated X-ray machine somatically transforms proclaimed dissidents into consenting citizens already at the outset of protest, where they are otherwise supposed to collectively and publicly express their dissent. Rather than just divide physical space, such border architectures turn the body into a practical building block of public-space-as-state-engineered-space, therefore depriving individuals of their multilayered and multifaceted humanity and rendering them a merely biologically significant “bare life” in Agambenian terms.
Less militaristically charged examples of such a conflation between public space and the body include what has come to be known as “POPS,” or privately owned public spaces, whose publicness is assumed evident in their lack of walls, fences and/or barriers, and thus perceived as synonymous with accessibility. A prime case in point from Turkey is the luxury residential and retail complex Zorlu Center, commissioned by the eponymous conglomerate. The complex was built in 2013 on a one-hundred-thousand-square-meter plot near the European end of Istanbul’s first Bosphorus Bridge, previously categorized as publicly owned land hosting a regional outpost of the Ministry of Transport. Designed by the Turkish starchitect Emre Arolat, the complex has been touted, not least by the architect himself, for having introduced brand-new “public spaces” into Istanbul, including green slopes, several piazzas (named within the complex as meydan, Turkish for “town square”), a terrace enveloping the second floor, and uninterrupted pedestrian access into, out of and throughout the premises.
This “publicness” assigned the Zorlu Center was in some disarray during my research visit to the complex in summer 2014, when I found out that the green slopes were closed to the public. Similarly, my attempts to photograph the complex’s “public” spaces were halted by security guards. “Photographing the common areas is not permitted,” they told me, “unless the photographer is inside the frame.” I resorted to taking a series of what I have come to call “architectural selfies,” in which I aimed to document Zorlu’s architecture while also striving to fulfill the prerequisite of being inside the frame myself. That the simulation of privately owned space as a public one addressed to the eyes of the individual hinges on the latter’s presence inside the simulation, starkly indicates the body’s increasing instrumentality to mainstream conceptions of public space in today’s cities. It also shows that the seemingly non-existent or invisible boundaries underpinning the proclaimed publicness of many a contemporary space that passes as “public” have in practice shrunk to such an extent that they now overlap with the contours of the human body.
Importantly, there is also a recent and ongoing set of creative practices diametrically opposed to those above, in that they seek to subvert the invisibility upon which the strength of many a mainstream border architecture today depends. These include the interventions that the London-based urban activism collective Space Hijackers carried out in the early 2010s, especially those in privately owned public spaces. Preoccupied with the deception of publicness brought about by the lack of walls, fences and barriers, Space Hijackers would prepare prohibitive signs such as “no smoking,” “no ball games,” “no skateboarding,” and “photography not permitted,” and would place these in various privately owned public spaces. POPS’ successful presentation of itself as public space depends on the compliance of ordinary citizens’ bodies.
Alongside doing this, they would impersonate security guards, aggressively warning passers-by to stop carrying out various ordinary activities like chewing a gum or simply walking. Through the resulting confrontations, the interventions aimed to wake Londoners up to the fact that POPS’ successful presentation of itself as public space depends on the compliance of ordinary citizens’ bodies.
Making a related point on a geographical rather than an urban scale rather is photographer Richard Mosse’s project Incoming (2014-17), exhibited most recently at the Barbican Art Centre in London. The project documents a set of places and practices pertaining to refugees, and does so by using thermal cameras of the same sort through which the EU’s coastal guards monitor its south-eastern borders. Largely insensitive both to color and to three-dimensional space, these cameras concentrate singularly on the heat being emitted from migrant bodies starting from a distance of 30 kilometers inwards.
From Richard Mosse'installation on the refugee crisis,Incoming. Photographer: Huda Tayob.By using these cameras, Incoming provides insight into how migrants are literally seen by the EU upon first encounter: as a conglomeration of biological and chemical data rather than human beings with social, political, cultural and psychological histories and agencies. This, moreover, is not just a matter of seeing the migrant body but also one of materially appropriating it. In treating the sweat, bloodstream and body heat coming out of humans as raw material, the border technology exposed by Incoming constitutes a frontier architecture that operates not just against migrant bodies but through them and thanks to them.
As indicated by these examples, any attempt to mount a critique of mainstream border architectures today will fall short of doing so if it focuses narrowly on the materialities and technologies involved in architecture per se. It must also attend carefully to the often-covert ways in which the human body itself is objectified and instrumentalized as a component of border architectures.
Parts of this article were originally published in Turkish, in the architecture and design magazine XXI.
† A few days after this article was drafted, President Trump announced his endorsement for the idea of constructing a border wall that makes extensive use of solar panels.