Atlantic Cities

Can Architects Do For Borders What They've Done For Embassies?


San Diego is an urban environment divided in two by a thin stainless steel barrier. Photo: via en.academic.ru

Embassies are architectural projects meant to represent one country to another. But why don’t we take similar care when it comes to designing the landscape of national borders?

Granted, most of these borders go unnoticed—often we only see them on classroom maps. But every so often they become the focus of global attention and national debate. Then they transform into more than just lines on a map.

Borders can create a divided landscape where political fissures are reflected in the built environment. A recent New York Times article describing how the previously porous Arizona border has been sealed by a combination of surveillance, increased patrolling, and physical barriers attests to the importance of divided landscape.


The new US Embassy in London, designed by Kieran Timberlake, had to balance appearance and security.  Photo: Courtesy of the State Department via news.beloblog.com

But this isn’t just about security; it’s about resources and missed opportunities. The article describes how Texas is set to spend $4.5 billion on continued border enforcement over the next five years. This price tag demonstrates what we’re willing to commit to when it comes to the border. And it’s not just money, it’s also ingenuity at our disposal. For example, in Arizona there’s a fence that can be raised above the shifting sands—a mobile landscape installation whose permanency has transformed a desert from a human highway back to its previous desolation.

All of which begs the question: If we’re prepared to use billions of dollars of materials and impressive engineering expertise to secure a border, then surely there are some opportunities for architects and landscape architects to make the border more than just a barrier? Read on to find out!


Frank Lloyd Wright was a fan of  Edward Durell Stone’s 1954 US Embassy in New Delhi, saying it was ”the only embassy that does credit to the United States.” Photo: via Wikimedia Commons

Embassies deal with the same issues you see at a border: They’re political spaces that must deal with foreign visitors as well as questions of security. The US State Department has a long history of hiring architects to project an image abroad, some examples of which are still impressive today. Granted, the OBO doesn’t engage in the same level of diplomatic architecture these days, but the precedent is there.


In 2005 alone more than 50 million people entered the US through the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Now under renovation and expected to be finished in 2015. Photo: Philkon via Wikimedia Commons

More important, the sometimes politically charged trend of globalization will continue to highlight the importance of borders, as economies—and especially jobs—disregard national boundaries. Most human movement will happen in airports, but some will inevitably take place in vehicles and on foot, as has been the case at the US/Mexico crossing. Previously, architects and designers haven’t been responsible for the design of nations’ edges, though that might be changing as seen in the below project by J. MAYER H.


The crossing at Sarpi in Georgia isn’t a military affair: It has becomes something more cosmopolitan. 

Architecture has the unique ability to shape the character of a place, therefore we should be asking what can architecture do to change how we perceive borders, especially polarizing ones like US/Mexico. Can architects create a new landscape typology that, much like the embassy, mediates between the need for quality space and the need for security?

We’ve rounded up a collection of borders that are now, or were in the past, subject to political tension and what their architectural character was. Could you have (or can you now) design something better?

This barrier, which runs from Yuma, Arizona, to Calexico, California, looks like a Richard Serra work, though it is unrelenting in comparison. It’s a simple barrier, one whose physicality both signifies and enforces the political boundary. Its peculiar design adapts it to the shifting sands and allows it to be mechanically lifted above the rising dunes.


The architecture of a face off at the North Korea/South Korea border. Photo taken from the North Korean side looking southward to the Freedom House. Photo: via josephreaney.com

And from the South looking at North Korea’s Panmungak building. South Korean guards are frozen in their form, half hidden behind intermediate structures, and wearing black sunglasses to hide their gaze. Photo: Globaljuggler via Wikimedia Commons

Some borders are overtly confrontational. The South Korean Freedom House, built 1998, has opaque black windows that allow officials and soldiers to look out without being seen. The building has a quasi-monumental feel thanks to its sweeping roof, and it’s certainly more sleek and modern than the North’s much older concrete Panmungak building, shown directly above. Here the somber discipline of the architecture extends into the guards themselves, chosen for their discipline and unfaltering in their surveillance of their counterparts across the border.

However, most of the border separating the Koreas consists of uninhabited wilderness that has now become a de facto natural preserve.


The approximately 400 square miles of mountains in the DMZ are host to a wide range of endangered species. Photo: via faslanyc.blogspot.com

The Korean DMZ, laid out in 1953, is natural landscape designed to create a gap between two warring countries. The land has since been filled with unique wildlife that has lost its habitat in the rest of Korea.


The border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic is marked by a line of deforestation. Photo: Harm de Blij via conceptcaching.com

Conversely, the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic has been unintentionally shaped by differing national policies on harvesting the natural environment. Here the border between two countries occupying the same island of Hispaniola is revealed by the presence (or absence) or vegetation. While the Dominican side of the border experienced strong enforcement of anti-logging laws (sometimes by less-than-democratic administrations), the Haitian side did not. Therefore the border is marked by a solid/void dynamic that even Nolli would appreciate.


Two projects by the artist Banksy on a wall dividing Israel from the Palestinian West bank. Photo: (top) via lenin-abimopectore.blogspot.com and (below) Adam Walker Cleaveland via flickr.com

Some borders are hosts to modification and subversion. Banksy, the guerilla artist and activist, painted directly on the concrete barrier between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. The works are cutting and simple, seeking to highlight the prison-like nature of the barrier that the artist wished to project. Most important, from a design perspective it’s an appropriation of existing infrastructure that lends it a new meaning. While the Israeli-Palestinian divide remains unresolved, some barriers do fall down as they did in Berlin. This, however, creates a whole new set of architectural and landscape questions that must be answered.


Traces of past borders in Germany: The Berlin Wall and the Inner German Border. Photo: (top) via wayfaringwannabe.tumblr.com and (bottom) environmentandsociety.org

With the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, a newly unified Germany had to confront the massive line of defenses and walls that had been built up over the course of the Cold War. This included the infamous Berlin Wall as well as a series of mine fields and fences that ran the entire length of the East/West German border called The Inner German Border. All the barriers are gone now, but their scar tissue remains: bricks that denote where the Berlin Wall once stood and a strip of vegetation (part of the European Green Belt) where the old defenses used to cut across the landscape.

Bonus Border: The US and Canada


Photo: b16dyr via flickr.com

The US-Canadian border is almost 5500 miles of … nothing. It is demarcated by a 20-foot gap in foliage that runs the length of the 49th parallel across fields and mountains alike. Around 8,000 monuments mark where the countries meet and each monument is joined to the next via the clearing. The void is relentless in its extent and it’s difficult to fully conceive its staggering size. For more on the weirdness on this border, see this neat Youtube report.

This post originally appeared on Architizer, an Atlantic partner site.

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