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For architects, Trump's wall reveals as much as it promises to close off

As I was reminded during a visit to Germany this month, Berlin is not one of those cities, like Rome, where you understand history in layers, as a process of accretion. Berlin is a city where space has been cleared out — often by force — for a new version of history to stand apart from everything that’s come before.

The longest preserved stretch of the Berlin Wall — officially overseen by the Topography of Terror, a museum exploring the history of the Third Reich — is an unmistakable case in point. You don’t turn a corner and stumble onto it. As you approach on foot you begin to sense a full quarter-mile away that more than 500 feet of it is standing in the middle of a clearing, a pockmarked monument of concrete and exposed rebar that you can view essentially in the round.

There is a historical reason for that, of course. This section of the wall, along Niederkirchnerstrasse, formerly Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, was built next to the ruins of the buildings that housed the Gestapo and the SS during the Nazi regime. There was no need for the East German government, as it sealed off its own citizens in the summer of 1961, to shoehorn this part of the wall into a crowded neighborhood. What had been the rubble of Nazi architecture, after those buildings were bombed and later razed, was easily transformed into a tabula rasa for Cold War construction.

Walls that divide one country, or one ideology, from another are like that. We think of them as being pinned along an edge by necessity. In fact their path of least resistance is often to move into and occupy vacuums in the physical landscape. And in the political or philosophical one as well.

Consider the way President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall has been greeted by American architects. After the Department of Homeland Security announced last month that it would be soliciting fast-track bids for “several prototype wall structures in the vicinity of the United States border with Mexico,” and then start awarding commissions to build actual stretches of wall by the middle of April, a debate broke out about whether it made ethical sense for architects and engineers to take part.

According to reporting by Kriston Capps for the website CityLab and my colleague Carolina Miranda in The Times, many large firms, including Bechtel, Boeing and AECOM, decided not to participate in the bidding process. (Many midsize firms were happy to.) There were also plenty of smaller architecture offices that shocked nobody by refusing to join in — and probably wouldn’t have been considered given their lack of experience managing large infrastructure projects.

Instead attention focused on a tiny firm called JuneJuly that appeared on the “pre-solicitation list” of potential wall designers. The office was founded by Jake Matatyaou, who teaches at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles, and Kyle Hovenkotter, who lives in New York and teaches at Columbia University and Pratt Institute. They were approaching the wall project, they told Miranda, from a “post-national” point of view.

“I think the nation-state is a kind of outdated construct,” Hovenkotter said. “But I also understand that if there is a system in which to play, you might want to play in it and make the best of it.”

Those statements, predictably, brought on heaps of ridicule. In response, the architects decided they needed to do a little damage control.

“Dear Christopher,” they wrote in an unsolicited email that apparently went to other critics and journalists as well, “We would like to clarify our position on the border wall pre-solicitation.”

What followed was not clarification but something closer to six paragraphs of rhetorical quicksand: Every time I struggled to understand what the two architects were trying to say I sank further into the muck. Here’s a representative sample: “Whether hard or soft, thick or thin, loud or mute, borders produce and negate various political imaginaries and subjectivities, both individual and collective.”

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Left entirely unacknowledged was the fact that these two architects could have made every point they wanted to make without signing up to build a wall that is far more about fear-mongering than national security. (In fact more Mexican immigrants have left the United States to return to Mexico since 2008 than have migrated to this country; what’s more, immigrants on the whole are less likely to commit crimes than people born here.) They could have written an essay about the border and its meanings or launched a studio for their students exploring similar issues. They could have sketched or built a “post-national” stretch of wall for a client other than the federal government or at a site removed from the border.

Instead they logged onto a federal website and added their names to a long list of firms trying to get work. They needed an actual commission to attach their theoretical notions to — a wall on which to scratch out a meandering graffito about political imaginaries.

This is all too typical of architects, this inability to notice (or in extreme cases to care) that the platform they’re leaping onto to promote their high-toned ideas is not a neutral stage but somebody else’s neck.

Put in slightly more generous terms: There is something in the architectural temperament that suggests, often against all evidence, that ill-advised projects can be redeemed. This moral vacuum is carefully protected beginning in architecture school, where (with very few exceptions) nobody teaches students how to say no to an unethical or misguided client — or even, for the most part, that it’s possible to give such an answer.

Maybe somebody should. As the Spanish architect Iñaki Ábalos has suggested, the profession needs more Bartlebys, more architects willing simply to say, in the words of that Melville character, “I would prefer not to.”

I’m also left wishing that the late architect Lebbeus Woods, who had a firmer grasp on the political implications of architecture (built or unbuilt) than anyone of his generation, were around to weigh in on Trump and the border.

This is the surprising effect of the president’s potential wall. Like the Berlin Wall before it, it is conceived in primitive terms, as a blunt instrument for division. Yet what’s most striking about it, at least as viewed from the perspective of contemporary American architecture, is the space for debate it has already managed to open up — and more to the point the blind spots and half-baked philosophy it has laid bare.

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

Twitter: @HawthorneLAT

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