While competing for a U.S. General Services Administration contract in 2002, the architect Robert Siegel and a colleague took a three-day road trip to visit 20 border stations in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York. The structures, many dating from the 1920s, did not exactly wow them. “I would say that the buildings were, for the most part, quaint,” Siegel says. In an informal survey, he found that people were generally excited about crossing the border, but that their enthusiasm was being dampened by the banal architecture.
But in recent years, several new projects along the U.S.–Canada border (including Siegel’s own, pictured on the previous page) have proved that strictly functional way stations, burdened with tight budgets and myriad security requirements, can be works of innovation, sustainability, and even beauty. This improvement is largely thanks to the GSA, which has hired architects to build many of the country’s new land ports of entry, as they’re officially known, as part of its Design Excellence Program. (The Army Corps of Engineers administers its own border projects, with decidedly less ambitious standards.) The four GSA projects highlighted here—three that opened in the last two years, plus one that, as of press time, was just being completed—upend the “barn-meets-gas-station” model Siegel encountered on the road and may even sustain visitors’ border-crossing zeal.