The long expanse of desert grassland stretches out some 30 miles, changes in ecozones painting bands of color in the distance. Occasional mountains, formed by volcanoes eons ago, accent the scene with purple hues.
The manner in which Richter Architects, out of Corpus Christi, has conceptualized their LEED Platinum Columbus, New Mexico, land port of entry project paints a vivid picture of this part of the Chihuahuan Desert.
As David Richter, FAIA, and Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA, describe it, this border crossing, one of three in New Mexico, sees many types of people coming through. Each day, over 800 K-12 students cross from Palomas, Chihuahua to go to school in nearby Columbus and Deming, New Mexico. Commercial trucks bring a neverending supply of mainly agricultural goods from Mexico, the highlight being when you can smell the chilies in the air as the trucks wait at the border during the harvest season. Senior citizen snowbirds wintering in nearby mobile home communities cross to Palomas for prescriptions, dentistry, and recreation. Occasionally, a cyclist group will pass through, as this crossing is popular with transcontinental riders.
Richter Architects was brought onto the project via the General Services Administration’s Design Excellence Program, owing in part to the firm’s experience with such ports of entry as Tornillo, Texas, and Ysleta in El Paso. The task for the Columbus port was to design the replacement of an existing facility built in 1989. The previous port had all traffic cross the border at one place, putting non-motorized traffic at a disadvantage. The new design creates three access points, increasing processing capacity and safety for both pedestrians and vehicles.
Entering the U.S. can be a tense experience, thanks to unpredictable wait times and occasional enhanced inspection procedures. Similarly, the job of an agent can be stressful yet tedious. The architects approached these realities by taking cues from the vivid landscape and finding opportunities to foster dignity and respect in the border-crossing process.
Mexican foot traffic proceeds along a shaded walkway alongside a welcoming garden full of desert plants, a reminder of the importance of water to this often-parched area. When there is rain, it falls in abundance, usually between July and September, and taking advantage of these rainy moments is crucial for survival: The architects use the landscape as a teachable moment. Pedestrians are met by a series of counter-sloped terraces edged by gabion retaining walls, each terrace sloped slightly backward to retain stormwater. These retention areas serve as a positive example of recharging the local aquifer.
Up ahead, the main building — brick veneer, topped with roof monitors integrated with photovotaic panels and clerestory windows — is designed to blend into the landscape. The brick coursing exhibits a variety of colors pulled from the hues of the expansive grasslands. The solar panels have a purple tint that mixes with the sky’s reflection. The result, when viewed from a distance, is a literal interpretation of the landscape: the brick fading into the desert grasses; the roof reflecting the indigo of the distant mountains.
Plentiful glazing and the clerestory windows make for what Richter describes as “a luminous feeling that brings cheerfulness to the place.” On a more functional note, windows allow agents to keep an eye on things without pedestrians feeling constrained. Outside, the canopy covering the cargo inspection area is pulled away from the main building, enabling convection and helping to create comfortable air movement.
In the decade prior to the realization of this project, a border wall went up, turning an imaginary line in the sand into a physical barrier between neighbors. It was an effort lacking in humanity. In contrast, Chu Richter says she views the Columbus port of entry project as a place where two communities come together, where the ecology of the place is accentuated. It’s an effort to connect people with the land they inhabit and to create a space where crossing the border can be celebrated, once again.
Jesse Miller, AIA, is an architect at Megamorphosis in Harlingen. He lives in Brownsville.