A Country is Not a House?

Letter from the border: Architecture is more than walls

Blueprints of a single house divided by the borderwall and designed by two different architects. (Courtesy Ronald Rael)

“I’ll bet you live within four walls” is one of the most frequent comments I get from proponents of building a wall along the southern border as a critique of my creative and activist endeavors against wall construction.

The comments can be quite vile. Here is one comment (since deleted) on the YouTube posting of my recent TED talk,

“Thank you so much Ronald Rael! I’ll come find your home and simply open your door, sit down and make myself at home! Pay rent? Nah essay! Rent is taxes homie! Permission to enter your home? Nah bendayho! I don’t need permission to enter your home! You don’t see the need for Mexicans to get permission to enter the United States! What’s that? You’ll call the cops? You snitch! What’s that? You’ll force me out of your home?! That’s wrong to deport me outside of your walls that hold up your roof and prevent anyone from getting in!”

In addition to making an actual threat to my own personal home and property, something no immigrant I have ever met has done, he is mocking the variations in the Spanish language (“essay” is ese, a slang way of saying dude, “homie”, is someone from your hometown, and bendayho, I’m assuming, is pendejo, a word used to describe an imbecile, but literally means “pubic hair”).

It might be futile to pen a response to such comments, but as a professor of architecture, it got me thinking… why do so many make a parallel between a country, and a house, when it comes to making an argument for the border wall? A quick internet search, thinking about the ridiculousness of this reaction—that if we build walls to enclose our house (which my TED Talk critic correctly notes are also often used to structurally support a roof), doesn’t it make sense to build walls around our country, and if so, what about a roof?

This led me to an article in the New Yorker that suggested, in sarcastic response to the construction of walls, that we should also build a roof over our country! I’ve always been fascinated by utopian and dystopian architectural projects that challenge the conventions of our built environment, which is perhaps why I’ve been interested in the border wall. When thinking about mega-roofs, architect Buckminster Fuller’s proposal for an enormous dome to be constructed over a portion of Midtown Manhattan comes to mind. He suggested it would save 80 percent of energy costs and snow removal costs, so perhaps the proposal for a nationwide roof structure has its merits?

View of floor plan cut in half with a wall

Average size house in Juarez on left and Average size house in El Paso on right. The border wall cuts through the dining room table. (Courtesy Ronald Rael)

The Sheats-Goldstein Residence, an experimental house designed in 1961 by John Lautner, was comprised of an enormous roof with no walls enclosing the main living space that connected to the exterior terrace and pool. Instead, the interior was defined and protected from the elements by a curtain of forced air, like those you might have experienced if you’ve ever entered a big box store. Construction on this incredible house began in 1961, the year that President Kennedy was inaugurated, the Peace Corps was established, and the first man went into space, a time when it seemed mankind could overcome impossible barriers but also the same year the Berlin Wall began construction (and we all know what happened to that).

Many years later, the Sheats-Goldstein Residence was enclosed with a nearly invisible and retractable glass facade, as there were several impracticalities to not having a barrier between inside and outside that house, despite the balmy Los Angeles weather. However, the luxurious glass wall wasn’t necessarily installed for security, and certainly it wasn’t out of practicality—an inexpensive concrete wall may have been more practical, but would undermine the original concept of the house as well as the architect’s original intent of openness and connection.

Perhaps in alignment to Lautner’s vision for how one defines the confines of a house, Franklin Delano Roosevelt laid out a concept for hemispheric security not beholden to a limited view of border fortification. Roosevelt said, “What I seek to convey is the historic truth that the United States as a nation has at all times maintained opposition—clear, definite opposition—to any attempt to lock us in behind an ancient Chinese wall.” With this in mind, what might Lautner and Roosevelt think of a 1,954-mile-long concrete-and-steel wall surrounding our house? Obviously neither would have thought it to be a necessity or practicality, nor perhaps in alignment with the original intent of the architects of our country. I wonder what they would think about a 3.8-million-square-mile roof?

Economics professor David Youngberg points out the problems with making analogies between “my country” and “my house” and the two uses of the possessive pronoun “my”—one of which is possessive and the other, associative. While one may own a house, we do not own our country, we merely live in it. A country is public space.

floor plan of a house with a wall running through the middle

Average size house in Juarez on left and Average size house in El Paso on right. The border wall cuts through the bedroom. (Courtesy Ronald Rael)

With this in mind, should we think about our country like we do our house, and does it need walls?

If we agree with the argument, that if we live by surrounding ourselves at home with walls, therefore we should also surround our country with walls, then perhaps let’s take that argument further, and not forget other components of what makes a secure home in addition to the roof. For example, the floor, a basement perhaps, central heating… how about other components of the house, like a refrigerator, with healthy food for everyone in our house to eat or a comfortable bed and a warm place to sleep? What about a medicine cabinet accessible to everyone in the house! A porch and a welcome mat, to welcome neighbors are also important features in a house (clean your feet before coming in)! Surrounding our house, we enjoy a verdant garden and appreciate nice neighbors, and we lend tools to our neighbors, a cup of sugar, and we want our neighbors to prosper—do we really want to be the only nice house in the neighborhood? How about a neighborhood watch program? Don’t we want our neighbors to look out for us just as we look out for them?

What about reliable plumbing to provide clean water? In our houses, we need a system that takes our bodily waste and delivers it to a place where it can be processed safely. Can you imagine the problems that would arise for everyone if we dumped it in our backyards, or our neighbor’s yard? Fresh air? Some of us have a heating and air conditioning system in our house that not only keeps our climate under control, but also filters the air, providing a place to live with comfortable, clean air. We don’t fill our house with pollution—we enjoy clean air inside our houses, and we probably all wish the air inside was as clean as the air outside, and vice versa, because we like to open our doors and windows to let the outside in—it helps keep our house fresh.



Perhaps a house is not a country, but if we are to make that analogy, here are some thoughts of things to do rather than build that wall:

Build that plumbing, and ensure safe, clean and reliable drinking water!
Build that ventilation system, and ensure that no one remains out in the cold and breathes fresh air!
Build that medicine cabinet, so that everyone’s heath in the house is cared for!
Build those roofs, to make certain that everyone protected from the elements!
Build those bedrooms, so that everyone has a place to rest their head at night!
Build that floor, so we are all on an equal plane and a level playing field!
Build that porch, and lay out that welcome mat!
Build that neighborhood, so that everyone in our global community has a house that ensures safety, security, and neighborliness across our own property lines!

A couple more thoughts; we also don’t shoot guns inside our house, and certainly not at other people in the house. We also do not lock up neighboring families from other houses inside our house for indefinite amounts of time, or separate our neighbor’s children from their parents and keep them in cages inside our house if they came knocking at our door seeking help.

Ronald Rael, Oakland, September 7, 2019

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