Borderwall as (Settler Colonial) Architecture, or why We Prefer Bulldozers to Seesaws


A joint statement by Dubravka Sekulić, Elise Misao Hunchuck, and Léopold Lambert ///

Yesterday, like many people, our social media was inundated by a wave of enthusiasm for the artistic intervention that the U.S.-based architecture office Rael-San Fratello have installed on a portion of what is commonly known as the border between the nation states of the United States and Mexico. Before we proceed, we would like to say that our urge to offer a statement has less to do with the intervention itself (we have no doubt that those who live close to “the border” must negotiate their existence with it on a daily basis) which has been taken down by its designers after the “photo shoot” anyway, but rather, with the publicization orchestrated by Rael-San Fratello and relayed by countless media, because this publicization, just like the book published by Ronald Rael in 2017, Borderwall as Architecture, holds a discursive value and as such, invites urgently-needed debate. We do so as architects and landscape architects, which is to say, as people involved in disciplines that continue to be among the most implacable means of enforcement of nation states’ violence. 

When it comes to this piece of architecture that extends hundreds of miles since the first George H. W. Bush administration — we were baffled during the last U.S. presidential campaign to see how many people in the U.S. seemed to have forgotten that the wall already existed — two narratives oppose themselves. The first narrative perceives the wall as a quarrel between neighbors that ended with the erection of this oppositional architectural typology. The Rael-San Fratello intervention is thus perceived by this narrative and its adherents as a salutatory encounter where “children from both sides can play together” and where one learns to know “the other.” If we believed that this narrative was accurately describing this situation, we could join the enthusiasm for a small yet symbolic gesture.

We however believe that an accurate depiction of the current situation involves the narrative that situates this border — even before the erection of the wall that has come to embody it — as a violent settler colonial infrastructure, a result of the European (British, Spanish, French, and later white U.S.) project of the historical and ongoing systematic dispossession and genocide of Indigenous nations. The enforcement of the political infrastructure embodied in this border is not limited to the wall itself: the line of the border is thick and extends ruthlessly outward to include a 100-mile wide zone of immigration control where an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 have died in the last 20 years, where weapon-carrying U.S. white-supremacist militias have murdered many, and where the brutal hands of ICE agents can appear at any moment to seize and imprison mostly Indigenous people coming from the south of Turtle Island in its growing network of concentration camps. 

Three years ago, the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign saw two paradigms facing each other: on the one hand, the active reinforcement of the neoliberal settler colonial status quo and, on the other hand, its fascist intensification, an architecture competition entitled “Build the Border Wall?”. Launched to offer designers the possibility to envision the materialization of the border wall extension ‘proposed’ by then-candidate and now 45th president of the northern settler colony, the outrage within the architecture scene against this competition was swift and it was substantial. Rightfully, many saw the efforts by the organizers to make the competition “politically neutral” (LOL) and to imagine a “humane” border as fundamentally unacceptable, although the outrage was certainly less than in 2006 when the New York Times imagined an architectural competition for “A Fence With More Beauty, Fewer Barbs” (see this text written by Léopold in 2017). Imagine our surprise then when we saw the very same architecture scene celebrating three pink seesaws set up on the very same settler colonial wall through the provision and distribution of images (because again, this is less about the installation itself than its publicization) of a more beautiful, more productive, more “humane” settler colonial infrastructure. The immediate public acceptance and celebration of this project flattened it into a palatable image of hope, concealing if not erasing real and pressing  concerns. By doing so, it reinforces the continuous political production of the two sides of a line for which one side is fully subjected to its enforcement, while the other is able to navigate between both (as demonstrated in the case of the seesaws videos).

“They are three seesaws, why do you care?” We care because, if we are serious about the dismantlement of the racist and colonial structures that rule the people living in Turtle Island (and we are), then our actions and political imaginaries must be consistent with this program. As such, the only publicized intervention we could possibly imagine supporting regarding the settler colonial wall involves a bulldozer (painted in pink, if you’d like) and a driver with the privilege of a U.S. passport behind the wheel. We do not ask you for the same sacrificial gesture that was carried out by Willem van Spronsen who was killed as he was attacking ICE’s Northwest Detention Center (read: concentration camp infrastructure) in Tacoma just two weeks ago on July 13, 2019, but, let us be clear: we cannot and will not  support any project that does not fundamentally challenge — symbolically or effectively — the structure of settler colonialism. 


2019 0731
Indigenous nation’s territories along the settler colonial border. / Screenshot from