Redefining Wall

by Tyler Survant and Mark Talbot. Published in Log 39 (Winter 2017).


Border wall prototypes. Photo by Mani Albrecht, U.S. Customs & Border Protection, Oct 2017.

In his 1971 essay “The Rights of Retreat and the Rites of Exclusion: Notes Towards the Definition of Wall,” Robin Evans considers the wall as an exclusionary tool and a defense mechanism. Walls keep out not just the weather but also unwelcome information, sheltering insular ideologies by establishing an inside and an outside, an us and a them. Donald Trump’s presidential victory confirms the potential of rhetorical representation, proof that walls need not be built to have ideological impact. A “big, beautiful, powerful wall” was the Trump campaign’s totem, and “lock her up!” its battle cry. A barrier along the US-Mexico border and invocations of Hillary Clinton’s incarceration conjured, each in its own way, the wall as a means of social division. The medium is the message: protectionist partition and isolationist infrastructure. For Evans, the architecture of retreat, of keeping out, and the architecture of exclusion, of locking in, are two sides of the same coin; they both separate. It is no surprise, then, that a real estate mogul who made his business career constructing private retreats would forge his political career with proposals for national retreat and public exclusion. For Trump there is apparently little difference between a luxury high-rise and border infrastructure. “I’m very good at this; it’s called construction,” he boasted of his plans for the border wall.

Though the idea of retreat is arguably more socially acceptable than that of exclusion, Evans considers it no less a failure of political imagination. The question today is whether there is an alternative, an architecture that ritualizes inclusion. Though walls separate, they can also connect; the party wall necessitated by dense urban environments is a shared boundary appropriated by those on either side. The city remains a model of coexisting multiplicities, yet many cities today are guided by exclusivist urban development, their populations driven out by rising rents and property values, their public spaces corporatized and skylines dominated by speculative real-estate icons built by developers like Trump. Neoliberal capital may be a boon to architecture’s formal experimentation and technical advancement, but its tokenism and privatization inhibits disciplinary ambitions of societal reform. Cities are often innovative but rarely radical.

Notwithstanding the new administration’s machinations, there are signs that the city may become a site of open political resistance and a public rather than private refuge. Trump’s retreat from the global ideals of environmentalism, social justice, and open borders can be countered from below through uncooperative federalism, whereby municipal and state authorities defend universal concerns against an apathetic or hostile federal government. Many states’ attorneys general have already contested Trump’s travel ban, and the mayors of sanctuary cities, risking the loss of federal funding, have pledged noncompliance in the deportation of undocumented immigrants. The silver lining of the Trump presidency may be a popular rejection of the established socioeconomic order through the reinvigoration of collective social practice. If cities take up the challenge of preserving civil liberties, they will need to reinvest in projects for precarious populations. This regional criticality may invert the old aesthetic mission of critical regionalism, which aimed to defend local concerns through universal techniques. As we are all now aware, the goals of liberal democracy are not inevitable. An equitable future will not self-assemble. It will require civic participation, social engagement, and the labor of political architects. ■


Tyler Survant and Mark Talbot, “Redefining Wall,” Log 39 (2017): 87-88.