Can We Please Get Beyond the "Building the Border Wall?" Boycott?

A design competition has inspired controversy and a boycott—but also moved the conversation away from the important questions.

To the right lies Tijuana, Baja California, and on the left is San Diego, California. The building in the foreground on the San Diego side is a sewage treatment plant built to clean the Tijuana River.

Courtesy Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde via Wikimedia Commons


I’d like to begin with a disclosure: I worked at ArchDaily for two years, and am familiar with its editorial processes. However, I have reached out to all parties involved, in an attempt to understand all sides of this issue; we have entered into conversation and debate and I have attempted to faithfully represent their points of view while also communicating my own.

On March 2nd, an anonymous collective of New York-based artists and designers who call themselves the Third Mind Foundation announced a new international design competition (the organization’s first public initiative). They called it Building the Border Wall. It took as its jumping-off point Donald Trump’s assertion that, were he president, he would construct a “great wall” between Mexico and the United States. Noting the absurdities in such a plan—such as the unrealistic amount of money and materials it would require—the organizers called on designers to submit ideas of what such a wall could look like.

On March 4, ArchDaily, an architecture website which receives over 10 million visits a month, and that also provides a platform for users to upload events and competitions, approved the Third Mind Foundation’s competition submission to the site.

Around the same time, Bustler, the sister site to Archinect, refused to publish the competition, telling the organizers: “We are conflicted about the nature of the competition and fear that it promotes xenophobia. The competition goes against the ethical standards we strive to align ourselves with.”

On March 14, the ArchDaily posting was brought to the attention of Fabrizio Gallanti, via Facebook. Gallanti, a co-founder of the Montreal-based architecture firm FIG, as well as an immigrant who has spent much of his career thinking about the question of borders and migrants, was immediately offended by the competition’s premise, and by this sentence in particular (which has since been deleted and replaced): “That is our challenge: Design a barrier of architectural merit that is realistically priced to build and made of materials that will not only be effective in keeping out waves of illegal immigration, but that will also be relatively inexpensive to maintain.”

“The wall was not questioned all,” Gallanti says, describing the original posting, “It was just a matter of making a better wall, [… of providing] a technical solution so that the wall is more efficient in blocking the flow of illegal immigrants.” Gallanti notes the site’s satirical tone; yes, this could be a joke, he acquiesces. Indeed, in the place of jury members, which had not yet been chosen, the site had posted images of representative “placeholders,” from Rosa Parks to Buckminster Fuller. However, to Gallanti’s mind, even if the competition were satirical, it was still xenophobic. If it were serious, he didn’t deem it credible: after all, who was the Third Mind Foundation? If they had a track record of being serious thinkers in the field of immigration and borders, if they were a well-known NGO, that would be one thing, but they were anonymous, their intentions and expertise impossible to deduce.

That same day, Gallanti was inspired to launch a campaign—not against the competition, but against ArchDaily. According to Gallanti, the approval of the competition is symptomatic of the site’s tendency to publish unthinkingly in the pursuit of traffic, thus allowing the widespread dissemination of something xenophobic at worst and suspicious at best. “They have to be held accountable for standards,” Gallanti says. “They opened the open competition submission page quite recently, and that particular incident demonstrates a kind of lightness and superficiality in the editorial process.”

Gallanti felt the only way to provoke a response in a website that depends on traffic would be to create a decline in visits, because “a comment on the page or an email would not have generated any change.” He created the hashtag #boycottarchdaily, launching it with a photo of a piece of paper with the hand-scrawled words No ArchDaily, a big red X crossing out the site’s name. In the photo caption, he wrote: “We all deserve a better mainstream architecture news website. These guys from Archdaily and Plataforma Arquitectura [ArchDaily’s Spanish-language site] would blow the Farnsworth Villa just to get some extra Internet traffic.”

Sitting at ArchDaily headquarters in Santiago, Chile, ArchDaily’s Executive Editor, Becky Quintal, a Mexican citizen herself, quickly reached out to the Third Mind Foundation. Having spoken with organization’s spokesman, New York-based designer John Beckmann, Quintal updated the posting, clarifying ArchDaily’s decision to maintain the listing on the site. Meanwhile, heated debates about the competition, and ArchDaily’s decision to publish it, continued to rage on Facebook and Twitter. Gallanti, he admits, got carried away: “I was very unpolite. I used very vulgar words that I then removed because it was really heat-of-the moment.”

On March 17, the Third Mind Foundation released a list of updates to the competition, including the addition of a question mark to the title (now: Building the Border Wall?) to emphasize that competition entries may or may not take the form of a wall. Notably, the site’s most troublesome sentence (the one mentioned above) was altered to re-frame the competition challenge: “To bring creativity and innovation to bear on the idea of a border barrier, and in so doing, expand the boundaries and re-conceptualize the current debate beyond sound bytes, statistics and unrealistic monetary figures.”

For Gallanti, the changes weren’t enough. He emailed Beckmann to state his intent to “continue to pressure for the competition to be cancelled.”

***

For Beckmann, the hullabaloo was all a big misunderstanding. Most of the critics, he believes, were voicing knee-jerk reactions to the competition title, and hadn’t read the competition text. “No one’s encouraging buildings walls or not,” he assures me. “It’s conceptually open.” A compelling entry, according to Beckmann (who will not act on the jury), could be a piece of conceptual art or even a written text. “The most imaginative solution will probably not be a wall.”

The Third Mind Foundation responded to the controversy by re-wording its brief, however, I would like to make a controversial claim: it didn’t have to.

Let me explain. If the Third Mind Foundation is invested in making the competition a more serious, open-ended one, one that’s sensitive to the complexities and real-life tragedies of the U.S.–Mexico border, then, yes, it did indeed need to adapt and in fact could still do more. Gallanti points out that no Mexican is involved in the competition yet and that the web site is published only in English, not Spanish—both critiques that the Third Mind Foundation would be wise to address.

However, despite Beckmann’s assurances, I believe that, in its original conception, the competition was about envisioning a wall, which is offensive only if you consider the idea of a border wall to be offensive in and of itself. Ronald Rael, associate professor of architecture at the University of California Berkeley and author of the forthcoming book, Borderwall as Architecture, has assiduously studied the ways that border walls can serve their purpose while taking on positive social and ecological functions. Writing for the Architect’s Newspaper, he asserts: “Advocating for a reconsideration of the wall at the border is not an endorsement for the construction of more walls, nor should it give wall builders a greater reason for building them. Rather, if design—if architecture—can be smuggled into the creation and re-imagining of the border wall now, it will put into place several very important conditions that will affect the future of the landscapes, cultures, and bio-ecologies that it now divides.” Even before its adaptation, the Building the Border Wall competition was a legitimate (and unfortunately relevant) exercise for envisioning something that, rightly or wrongly, already exists and, in this political climate, could easily be expanded any day.

Courtesy Building the Border Wall?

The original version of the competition was also more blatantly tongue-in-cheek, both humorous and serious, in an attempt to reach as many people as possible. Gallanti’s position is that the competition should be canceled because the Third Mind Foundation has no record of having ever engaged with these issues, no pedigreed history; however, think tanks and academic institutions are grappling with these questions already, often using jargon and speaking only to themselves. The point of the Building the Border Wall(?) competition was/is to get attention, to generate a high volume of ideas and generate conversation across the internet. You could, as Gallanti does, call it a publicity stunt, but if it generates fruitful conversation, is this not the exact kind of publicity stunt worth having?

Moreover, the Third Mind Foundation has, since updating the competition site, proven to be amenable to modification. Just because they’ve never done something like this before, doesn’t mean they couldn’t execute something interesting and worthwhile—or that their goals don’t align with those of their critics (i.e. generating positive dialogue that runs counter to Trump’s rhetoric). Rather than pressuring for their closure, experts like Gallanti could be offering collaboration, offering to extend their expertise to ensure the competition is as productive and sensitive as it could be. Or they could even organize their own competition (perhaps to build a bridge across the border?) to emphasize how this type of thing should have been done.

But critics of the competition did not act positively in an attempt to generate profound conversation about these important topics. They attacked the platform.

***

The question of the website’s culpability feels less important, and less interesting, than the greater questions this incident provokes. To briefly address the charges leveled against ArchDaily: an open submissions page generated by users is not bad in and of itself nor representative of the website’s larger editorial content. But undoubtedly, the decision to include a listing or not is a political one. Bustler decided the Building the Border Wall competition was xenophobic and thus not within their editorial line for publication. ArchDaily, whose only requirement to approve a user-generated event or competition is that it be “legitimate” (i.e. not a scam), decided the competition was within their editorial line for publication. It would have been more interesting if the competition had been both “legitimate” and blatantly xenophobic or racist. Would ArchDaily have stuck to its guns, to its belief in the principles of internet democracy, then?

To be clear, Gallanti has never accused ArchDaily editors of being racist, just of not reading the competition before publishing it. This could be true—it’s possible no submission is carefully considered. The point is, however, that we don’t know whether the listing was discussed openly by the editorial board or not. And neither does Gallanti. It seems biased to assume that ArchDaily, in an attempt to drive traffic to their site, would approve anything without reading.

(An aside. Having worked at ArchDaily, I know that the events/competitions are not major traffic-drivers. Meanwhile, the call-to-boycott, which reached over 70,000 people on Facebook, has not resulted in any significant blip in traffic to the site; it was the campaign itself that influenced the ArchDaily editors to update the listing and make a statement regarding it.)

You could accuse ArchDaily of purposefully publishing something you consider to be racist. You could say that intolerant or racist views should not be tolerated, let alone disseminated. That is your right.

But I don’t believe that Building the Border Wall?, especially as it exists today, is racist or xenophobic. Moreover, I believe it is too important for this conversation to take place to try and shut it down with shrieks and pointing fingers, for fear of a few offensive elements. Ironically, of course, the competition was only brought to my attention, and considered worthy of an editorial, because of the boycott. But the boycott has taken the conversation away from what’s important. It has unfairly made the contest shorthand for xenophobia and ArchDaily shorthand for the unthinking online media. It has leveraged the passion surrounding this controversial issue to whip up ire around a web site’s editorial practices, something that’s ultimately less worthy of our passions and opinions.

The important questions that this competition provokes—ironically, questions all parties in this controversy are deeply invested in—have been largely forgotten in the furor.

***

Ronald Rael’s piece for the Architect’s Newspaper is a notable exception. Rael asks a series of questions that the Building the Border Wall? competition inspires:

So what are architects to do about the conundrum of the border wall? Do they ignore the issue all together or actively protest in refusal to participate? Do they strategize how design might dismantle the existing wall, or re-think the potential of the existing wall as an armature for correcting problems with it?

Should they take on the challenge of designing new walls?

Ignoring the issue entirely and designing new walls, are perhaps the most contentious strategies. Wall design and construction will, without question, continue, but should it continue without the input of architects? Does not participating in the design of the wall make architects as complicit in its horrific consequences as does participating in its design?

Indeed, these are the moral questions that extend beyond border walls to prisons and execution chambers—questions that are vital for the architecture and design community to grapple with.

How activist should architects be? Should they be turning down these commissions? Should they be taking a stand? Is a wall xenophobic and violent in an of itself? Can design mitigate these qualities? Should it?

I, of course, do not have an answer. But I do have a platform. As Metropolis’ web editor, I welcome the opportunity to let this blog be a place where these questions can be articulated, considered, and responded to. I welcome the opportunity to voice the opinions of those who run counter to mine and the chance to re-steer the conversation to the point I believe is most important: how can/should architects make a positive difference in this world?

Categories: Architecture, Arts + Culture

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