December 1, 2007
A modest architectural commission becomes a platform for re-evaluating the entire U.S.–Mexico border.
Hyperborder: The Contemporary U.S.–Mexico Border and Its Future, an ambitious new book by the Mexican architect Fernando Romero that looks beyond the physical frontiers of his discipline, began with a bridge. In 2001 he was commissioned to build a 656-foot-long pedestrian walkway that would straddle the border between the United States and Mexico, and double as a museum of immigration. A research-oriented OMA alum who runs the firm Laboratory of Architecture (LAR), Romero found that the international footprint made the project much more complex than its architecture alone. LAR began taking a broader look at the region and how it might change in the coming decades. “Through the bridge experience we started to get more interested in the border,” he says.
Although the bridge from El Paso, Texas, to Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, has not yet been built—Romero remains hopeful—the firm’s research has coalesced into an ongoing interdisciplinary study that was honored as a runner-up in Metropolis’s 2006 Next Generation competition and is being published this month in book form by Princeton Architectural Press. While still busy designing buildings, Romero and his firm have made a sideline in the past six years of exploring border issues, ranging from human dignity to national security, in an effort to provide a nonpartisan platform for exploring a boundary that sees more than a million crossings a day. “Architecture is a translation process,” says Romero, who maintains that design necessarily embodies a broad spectrum of inquiries. “We translate social, political, and economic matters into a specific architectural or infrastructural solution.”
Romero sees, with a little cooperation and some well-spent dollars, the potential for infrastructure to improve living conditions in poorly served border communities, create employment opportunities for Mexican citizens, and increase security through more efficiently regulated crossings. But the architecture proposed in Hyperborder encourages interactions across the border rather than sealing it off. “Of course, infrastructure is not a wall,” Romero says, alluding to the proposal that has emerged since September 11 to build a large-scale fence between the countries. “Infrastructure is better roads, more secure bridges, better transport connections.”
Hyperborder doesn’t just focus on the role of architecture in mediating border issues. “We looked at different topics—health, migration, demographics, security, and so on—that are interconnected and relevant to U.S.–Mexico relations,” says graphic designer Alex Quinto, the book’s creative director and a collaborator on Bruce Mau’s interdisciplinary project Massive Change. “Today there is a lot of emphasis on migration and security in the dialogue between both countries, but really the picture is more complex.” One LAR proposal, a response to dwindling fossil-fuel reserves in Mexico and the economic disparity between the countries, suggests that U.S. corporations generate sustainable energy in Mexico, an idea that could boost that nation’s economy while providing lower-cost clean power to American consumers. Some of LAR’s most theoretical ideas, or “future scenarios”—visions for the region that are presented in the style of newspaper clippings from, say, 2032—seem more like radical challenges to the sclerotic political debate than feasible policy suggestions. For example, given the heated politics of immigration and pharmaceutical imports, it’s hard to imagine all of North America in a European Union–modeled bloc, or a binational health-care system that would encourage American retirees to seek medical treatment south of the border.
But whether utopian, bleak, or mischievously far-fetched, these scenarios emphasize the need for long-term, even risky, thinking about the relationship between the two increasingly interdependent nations—a mind-set that often eludes politicians looking anxiously toward the next election. Occupying the lonely speculative middle ground, LAR has embraced the role of communicating what might be. “I think our contribution as designers is that we can articulate and visualize future possibilities for the region,” Quinto says. “We have a unique opportunity to present a new perspective.”