International engineering corporations, boutique architectural firms and tiny mom-and-pop builders with names like “Loko-Koko” are lining up to help build President Trump’s border wall, despite the fact that Mexico has said it won’t pay for it and polls show that many Americans don’t want it.
Since the Department of Homeland Security placed a presolicitation notice on the Federal Business Opportunities website in late February for “the design and build of several prototype wall structures in the vicinity of the United States border Mexico,” more than 600 interested vendors across the country have signed on, including almost 100 entities from California.
Kevin Rouhani of Meridian Precast Inc., a Westwood-based company that produces prefabricated walls and concrete panels and has worked on government infrastructure such as BART stations in the Bay Area, says he is keeping an eye on the specifications of the project to see if it might suit his company.
“Any big project in general that has some sort of potential, we’ll follow and see if it has anything for us,” said Rouhani.
Halbert Construction of El Cajon, near San Diego, which has experience working with the federal government including projects at the U.S.-Mexico border, is also listed as an interested vendor. The company worked on a small pedestrian bridge that connects San Ysidro with Tijuana and built a small stretch of fence around the border station.
“If it’s going to happen, we would like a piece of it,” said Halbert project coordinator Jimmy Benavente, shortly after the presolicitation was posted. “We try not to bring our political beliefs into it.”
Certainly, the wall is one of the most politically divisive architectural projects to be proposed by a president.
At least six in 10 U.S. voters oppose it, according to a poll released by Quinnipiac University late last month. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), whose district includes 800 miles of U.S.-Mexico border, came out against it. And on Tuesday, Sen. Claire McCaskill, a ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, sent a letter to Homeland Security chief John F. Kelly, asking how the DHS planned to pay for the wall. (Budgets for the project have been estimated to run from $15 billion to $40 billion.)
That same day, Politico reported that the Trump administration was considering cuts to the Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration, among other agencies, to help fund the project — which drew an outcry from critics.
And there has been the hastiness in the design process. The presolicitation stated that a more formal call for entries would go online on March 8 and that concept papers would be due four days later — providing 96 hours to design a prototype for what could serve as the model of one of the biggest infrastructure projects in American history.
This week, DHS slightly delayed and extended that deadline. The formal solicitation will instead go online sometime around March 15 and concept papers will be due five days later.
The revised post also noted that the government was seeking a wall that was “nominally 30 feet tall, that will meet requirements for aesthetics, anti-climbing, and resistance to tampering or damage.”
The mere mention of the word “aesthetics” had the art and design types tittering on Twitter; a reporter for Talking Points Memo noted that the word may be a nod toward Trump’s continual use of the words “big, beautiful” when describing the wall.
Regardless of how attractive it may look, the construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall is no ordinary infrastructure project. There’s its massive scale. Trump wants a “contiguous, physical wall” along all 2,000 miles of border with Mexico — which means a whole lot of steel and concrete (not to mention construction jobs).
And there’s a 47-year-old treaty with Mexico that dictates that no structure can interfere with the flow of cross-border waterways, such as the Rio Grande.
There are also the environmental concerns; a contiguous structure could affect more than 111 endangered species, as well as various wildlife refuges and protected wetlands.
For some in the design community, the wall has raised all kinds of ethical issues. Last year, the architectural website ArchDaily generated an outcry when it announced a competition titled “Building the Border Wall?” One architect called for a boycott of the site in response. Others wondered whether the competition encouraged xenophobia. And a lengthy piece in the New Republic explored whether the competition missed the point on the border’s more pressing needs, such as municipal infrastructure for the informal settlements known as colonias.
Design and architecture writer Kriston Capps, who has been following the topic of the wall’s design and construction closely on the urbanism website Citylab, wrote in one essay that “any company (or companies) picked for the job faces a sincere reputational risk.”
“‘No Ban, No Wall’ has emerged as a rallying cry for Muslim and Latino communities and their allies at protests held across the nation,” he adds. “The firm that wins the final [request for proposals] may also earn undesirable exposure from activists.”
The attention the project has received has made some companies press shy. One project manager at a small construction company in Alta Loma said, “I’m not sure it’s something we really want to engage in.”
Benavente says he tries to “look past” the issue of politics: “It’s been a topic since the political race started and, in our office, political beliefs aside, we like to keep our doors open.”
And while it’s too early to talk design, he notes that it’s not going to be easy to build.
“A 30-foot building, that’s not hard,” says Benavente. “But a 30-foot-tall wall, that’s another story. I could put it up on firm ground pretty easy. But if you’re dealing with desert or a lake bed, it’s going to get more difficult.
“It’s not like you take two pieces of wood, fill it with concrete and then we’re good,” he adds. “It takes a lot more engineering than that.”
Rod Hadrian oversees Hadrian Construction in Carlsbad and he says the controversies surrounding the wall don’t concern him much. “I’m an older gentleman,” he says, “I know cement.”
He’s more interested in pitching a synthetic panel system employed by his company that might offer a more efficient construction method than pouring cement in place all along 2,000 miles of border.
Plus, there’s his last name — which he shares with the Roman emperor who built a massive wall in what is now northern England. He’s never visited Hadrian’s Wall, but he notes that his high school Latin teacher once gave him a passing grade based on his last name.
“If I tried to market this, I could probably use my name,” he jokes.
One of the more unusual vendors to appear on the presolicitation list was a small, bicoastal design studio called JuneJuly, founded by architects Jake Matatyaou, who is based in Los Angeles, and Kyle Hovenkotter, in New York. Matatyaou is on the faculty at SCI-Arc, the Southern California Institute of Architecture in downtown Los Angeles; Hovenkotter teaches at Columbia University and the Pratt Institute, among others.
For both, the border is a long-running area of interest.
“We’re interested in conversations around the future of cities, especially with respect to borders,” says Hovenkotter. “We think we want to approach this project as honestly as we can.”
In the past, the pair has worked on a conceptual project, titled “Approaching Borders,” that tries to subvert the infrastructure of the border so that it becomes a point of linkage, rather than separation. For example: placing two-way video feeds at points along the wall so that people at the border can connect visually with people in other cities such as Washington, New York and Mexico City — a way of using the tools of surveillance to connect.
“If we begin with the fact that we’re building a hard border, something physical and material, we start with the question, ‘What is an aesthetically aware, humanitarianly minded thing?” asks Matatyaou. “Can it have a more humane interface than something that is just technical and tactical and is about demarcation and territorialization?”
Are they concerned about the ethics of working on such a controversial piece of infrastructure?
“In an ideal world,” states Matatyaou, “there would be no border, and certainly, no wall.
“Borders already exist far removed from walls that circumscribe territorial boundaries,” he adds. “Walls, material or otherwise, exist within every American city.”
Adds Hovenkotter: “I take a post-national position. I think the nation-state is a kind of outdated construct. And I think they are creating more political problems than solutions. 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.”
Whatever gets built, Benavente of Halbert notes that “nothing is going to be foolproof.”
“Unless you’re putting a wall that’s 200 feet tall and 100 feet underground,” he says, “there are people who are going to tunnel under or create mobile structures to advance over the top.”