El Paso-Ciudad Juárez is the second largest binational metropolitan region on the U.S.-Mexico border (behind San Diego-Tijuana). While much of the rhetoric about the border focuses on differences between the two countries and the need to protect people on one side from those on the other, recent architectural interventions in the area challenge these stances, encouraging us to stop viewing two separate sides and instead consider the shared history, culture, and development of the region as a whole.
For 12 nights last November, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s large-scale art installation “Border Tuner” created bridges of light in the night sky that opened channels of communication across the border. The project featured three interactive stations in El Paso and three in Juárez, each equipped with a dial to control the direction of an arm of light, along with a speaker and microphone. When a beam directed from one station met one from another, a bidirectional channel of sound was opened between the two stations, with users’ conversations effecting modulations in the light.
Each night started with binational, curated content from poets, musicians, indigenous voices, students, and others; the communication stations were then opened to the public. The goal of the “Border Tuner,” which attracted nearly 12,000 visitors, was not to create new connections, but rather “to make visible the relationships that were already in place” and to “draw international attention to the co-existence and interdependence” of the sister cities.
RAEL SAN FRATELLO
Southern New Mexico is often grouped together with the El Paso-Juarez metropolitan region, with the town of Sunland Park lying just 20 miles to the northwest and directly across the border from the Juárez colonia Anapra. The two residential communities are divided by a section of the border wall built in 2017, and children from the Mexican neighborhood that runs right up against the fence are often seen playing on it.
In June 2019, the wall’s horizontal bar briefly served as a fulcrum for a teeter totter installation produced by Rael San Fratello. Designed to slide through the fence posts easily, with seats and handles that could be attached quickly, the see saws were painted bright pink, a significant color for the people of Juarez, who associate it with the memorials for women killed in the area’s femicides.
In a viral moment more than 10 years in the making (early design ideas are documented in Ronald Rael’s book “Borderwall as Architecture”), children and families from both sides of the border came together for 40 minutes of joy, excitement, and connectedness, showing the world that play could be an act of protest, and, symbolically, that actions on one side have a direct effect on those on the other side.
TWO SIDES OF THE BORDER
EL PASO MUSEUM OF ART
From November 9 through December 6, 2019, the El Paso Museum of Art hosted “Two Sides of the Border,” an exhibition organized by Tatiana Bilbao and previously unveiled at the Yale School of Architecture Gallery. Featuring the work of 12 institutions across the U.S. and Mexico, “Two Sides” is conceived as an atlas, highlighting the shared history, environment, and economy of the region divided by the border wall. Historical maps, new commissioned maps by Thomas Paturet, and photography by Iwan Baan were displayed alongside students’ imagined potential futures for the area to emphasize the connections, rather than divisions, that exist. The exhibit was co-curated by Nile Greenberg of NILE in New York, and Ayesha Ghosh of Tatiana Bilbao Studio.
Among the participants were two studios at the Texas Tech University College of Architecture in El Paso — one group was asked to envision a place of shared healing at the city’s border with Ciudad Juárez, and the other tasked with designing an institute for the examination of binational air quality issues and airborne contaminants in the region. The following are a selection of these exhibited works.
BORDER BUBBLE/INFRASTRUCTURAL SANATORIUM
INSTRUCTOR: ERSELA KRIPA
Light Object Field
This project examines the infrastructure of protection and mistrust at the border through maps recording field measurements of monitoring technologies like surveillance lights, body heat cameras, and Border Patrol vehicles. The maps reveal a disproportionate field of vision directed toward Juárez, an aggressive front fostering paranoia. The proposal aims to counteract the incessant monitoring by creating a dense field of reflective objects to disorient surveillance optics, effectively fighting light with light, while providing a communal space for public health interventions.
Imagining a scenario in which contamination due to unchecked natural resource extraction and manipulation can no longer be reversed, this proposal uses architecture to address the political inaction, poverty, and lack of medical care at the border. It creates a system of decontamination chambers on the highly toxic site to filter and contain air to support a treatment center. Communal areas are provided in the spaces between the pods, drawing attention to the challenge of maintaining communities in the face of environmental deterioration.
Monarch butterfly migration transcends political borders and takes no note of the contentious wall dividing the U.S. and Mexico, but while the region serves as a resting point for monarchs, pesticides and pollution threaten their habitat. Research for this project revealed that the El Paso-Juarez agricultural industry, concentrated along the Rio Grande, is characterized by relatively low levels of pesticides, and that the river valley serves as a sound and movement buffer. In response, the proposal creates a binational infrastructural park straddling the river to provide a safe place for butterflies to rest along their journey.
This proposal creates a Medical Free Economic Zone in order to care for individuals whose health has been damaged by the environmental impacts of a Commercial Free Economic Zone. Taking advantage of the binational politics of water management, it creates a mechanical system for regulating water baths used to treat respiratory disease. The center floats on the Rio Grande, and maps documenting the locations of surveillance mechanisms along the border help identify places along the river that allow undocumented migrants to access the care they need.
Inhabiting Mechanical Space
Blurred jurisdiction at the international border has resulted in high levels of contamination in the area. This project maps lead accumulation at the proposed project site and creates a mechanical shell that works to expel pollutants while providing a sealed space for human activity within. The architecture meets the site via robots that continuously work at digging and cleansing the contaminated soil below.
INSTRUCTOR: STEPHEN MUELLER
Featuring layered shells in a double curvature design that references the Samalayuca Dunes, this center is oriented to provide both vistas of area landforms and landmarks, and points from which to observe atmospheric haze and inversions. Skylights filter light through dust-filled chambers within laboratories and public areas, allowing visitors to gain an understanding of the airborne materials connecting the two sides of the border.
This proposal creates a center for the study of binational air pollution that also acts as a distillery for the desert winds. An architectural enclosure filters contaminants within a custom structural screen tuned to anticipated levels of industrial pollutants and the needs of the interior workspaces. The collection of pollutants in the screen is on display in research areas and public spaces, while the filtered air is broken down into its basic chemical components and stored for later use.
Fungal spores are integral to the ecosystem of the Chihuahuan Desert, and an increased understanding of these is critical to the health of the region’s population. The proposed building features a tiling geometry that accelerates the capture of airborne particles, while the roof provides areas where shadow, moisture, and negative pressure combine to encourage the fungal forms. A water capture system provides a misting chamber to aid researchers, while public areas provide space for education and demonstrations.