This article is the last in a series that originally appeared in AN’s July/August 2018 issue which focuses exclusively on Texas and was guest edited by AGENCY. The essays examine architecture and practice across the southern border of the United States. Political Context Prada Marfa is a building born out of the political tensions arising in post-9/11 America, in which Afghanistan, Iraq, and Mexico become scapegoats. In 2003, a United States-led coalition invaded Iraq, beginning an eight-year war, and in 2005, Duncan Hunter, who at the time was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called for the construction of a wall along the entire border between the U.S. and Mexico. This led to his amendment to the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, which called for 698 miles of wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. This paved the way for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which President George W. Bush signed to “help protect the American people” from several purported threats, but primarily terrorism, which was the major focus of the era’s political rhetoric. Borderlands Architecture Prada Marfa is constructed out of traditional adobe bricks which have long been used in the region but are frequently perceived as an inferior material despite their ecological and climatological responsiveness. Adobe bricks provide the foundation for the oldest extant buildings in the region, as well as many of the area’s most important cultural and heritage sites, including artist Donald Judd’s own Block compound in Marfa. Directly referencing Judd and the military building traditions he emulated, the adobe bricks are intentionally set in a cement-based mortar. Judd recognized that this was the technique employed in the construction of barracks, hangars, and forts in the region, and Prada Marfa is constructed to reflect this mistrust of local traditions of the militaristic architecture that secures the border displays. Adobe brick was validated as a construction material, but not adobe mortar, which is more likely to be used on the humble houses of Mexicans and Mexican Americans on both sides of the contemporary border. Material Lineage While the adobe walls of Prada Marfa are indigenous, they are not perceived to be native to the United States, as the tradition is a spoil of the Mexican-American war. The form of the building recalls a West Texas vernacular, which is influenced by the melding of many cultures at the border. The artists Elmgreen and Dragset are from Denmark and Norway, respectively. The details of the interior come from Italy. The specifications for the shelves, the typography (a variation of a type popular with American engravers and typefounders in the last third of the 19th century), the color of paint for the interior walls, the lighting, and the carpet were directly sampled from Prada’s own architectural details for retail outlets in Milan. The inspiration for the facade is sampled from German photographer Andreas Gursky’s photograph Prada II. The building is sprayed with an elastomeric white latex coating to reflect the powerful rays of the sun and withstand the extreme expansion and contraction of the building’s structure in the fluctuating desert temperatures. Xenophobia and Cultural Assimilation Prada Marfa was a very new kind of work. Unlike the reserved and apolitical work of Judd—who in Marfa had already laid claim to art and what it should be—Prada Marfa blurs the boundaries between architecture, art, politics, and culture. The very same night that Prada Marfa opened, xenophobes attacked the work, stealing the shoes and purses, destroying the building’s facade, and spray painting “dum” [sic] and “dumb” on the inside and outside of the building. Prada Marfa represented a very new kind of artistic expression that was unfamiliar in the region and challenged conservative artistic sensibilities, calling into question the juxtapositions between wealth and poverty, the U.S. and Mexico, anglo and Mejicano, of the region that the building highlighted. Since Prada Marfa’s construction, it has had to evolve to survive in the political and environmental climate of both art and the borderlands. Since the first attack on the building, it has been vandalized several times—the glass windows were shoddily replaced by scratch-resistant and shatterproof acrylic to withstand bullets and the continual “peeling out” of cars in front of the building, which kicks up rocks and debris onto the facade. The fabric awnings had to be replaced due to smokers continually burning holes in the cloth with their cigarettes, and the font size of PRADA was increased to almost match the size of the letters on the black metal signs above, suggesting that the delicate typography on the original awnings may not have been good enough in a state where “everything is bigger.” Many other forms of vandalism have taken place. Men’s underwear was shoved into the drain pipes, causing the roof to flood and inundate the interior, which required the shelving to be rebuilt and repainted and the carpet to be replaced. Most dramatically, an artist by the name of Joe Magnano was found guilty of two counts of misdemeanor criminal mischief and required to pay Ballroom Marfa, the caretaker of Prada Marfa, $10,700 and a $1,000 fine for attempting to paint the building blue and pasting TOMS, the logo of a shoe brand founded by Texan Blake Mycoskie, on it, perhaps in an inadvertent attempt to make a structure perceived to be “not from around these parts” more Texan. The vandals who destroyed the building after it first opened, however, have never come forward, although it has been suggested that the borderland surveillance systems used to monitor immigrants traveling in the desert may be able to reveal these criminals. Hajj Prada Marfa has become a pilgrimage site where those making the journey to visit the building have left mementos as part of what has become a kind of hajj to this art Mecca. The various offerings at the Prada Marfa site have included visitors leaving one used shoe, placed around the building or atop the fencing surrounding the building. Perhaps this references the single shoe found in the faux shoe shelves of the store, or maybe the worn-out shoes of immigrants who journey by foot to the U.S. from Mexico until the soles of their shoes wear away, before being picked up in the landscape surrounding Prada Marfa. Not unlike the Jewish mitzvah where visitors to a grave leave small pebbles on a gravestone, visitors have also left small rocks, holding down a piece of paper with a name, message, or a business card, on the narrow ledge that surrounds Prada Marfa. This act reminds us of the harsh reality of a landscape where countless die in the desert, just as the wall has pushed people to greater extremes on their journey north. The shoes and the pebbles left by art pilgrims were systematically removed as they were also perceived as a form of vandalism—a crime, rather than a new tradition—and a fence was constructed around the building made of welded wire mesh, reminiscent of the transformation of the U.S.–Mexico border from a barbed wire fence to stretches of welded steel. The construction of the fence surrounding Prada Marfa, however, has prompted another tradition of offering at the site. While called Prada Marfa, the building is technically just outside the small town of Valentine, Texas. Despite a population of 217, the town is inundated with over 1,000 people on Valentine’s Day, as well as hundreds of Valentine’s Day cards that are sent through the local post office, which has been known as a “love station.” Today, “love locks,” padlocks used by sweethearts to symbolize their love, are attached to the new fence surrounding Prada Marfa, and the keys are thrown away. Perhaps this, too, symbolizes the time we live in, mired in a national struggle between the fences that divide and the love that could bring us together in the borderlands. Ronald Rael holds the Eva Li Memorial Chair in Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and his architectural practice, Rael San Fratello, was the designer of Prada Marfa. He is the author of Borderwall as Architecture: A Manifesto for the U.S.-Mexico Boundary.
Posts tagged with "Ron Rael":
How should architects respond to the call to design a border wall? Architect and educator Ronald Rael recently released Borderwall as Architecture: A Manifesto for the US-Mexico Boundary as an answer. Borderwall as Architecture is a collection of proposals, counterproposals, speculations, and research findings that encourage a critical engagement with border conditions. The findings were generated through his research studios with students and collected on a blog of the same name. The book couldn’t come at a better time or with a greater sense of urgency thanks to President Donald Trump’s insistence during his presidential campaign to have Mexico pay for a wall and the resulting rapid-fire progression of actual wall-building proposals. For historical context, it was just a month into the Trump presidency when Homeland Security issued a Prequalification Request for Border Wall Prototypes on the Federal Business Opportunities website. This was quickly followed by the Department of Homeland Security’s Procurement Innovation Lab, which issued a new Request for Information (RFI) pertaining to the proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall. The RFI’s stated purpose was to “solicit ideas from industry and other partners for the more comprehensive long-term strategy related to the border wall.” Six months later, these prototypes are being built along the border east of San Diego while the funding battles continue in Congress. Rael’s richly illustrated collection shows the ways in which the borderlands condition the U.S.-Mexico divide, how border fences function and how they are often subverted. Borderwall as Architecture collects stories of jump ramps, catapults, and tunneling machines; methods of getting over, under, and around existing controls. There are environmentally restorative proposals, like a green wall of indigenous cacti, a wall that generates solar power, and one that effectively channels and collects water. There are artistic and culture proposals too: from a “Theatre Wall,” “Climbing Wall,” “Sport Wall,” “Burrito Wall,” and “Birthing Wall” to outright hilarious ideas such as the “human cannonball,” which would shoot a person over a section of border wall, passport in hand. In many ways, Rael’s Borderwall proves to be a guide to outside-the-box thinking spatially as well as politically about the border. The border is a microcosm of political and social issues. From the economic impacts of migration and trade to questions of nationalism and identity, it is a place where fears and aspirations are projected from afar. The reality of life in the borderlands looks very different than its image. Where one stands relative to a wall—i.e., “Which side are you on?”—says a lot about the politically charged moment that Americans, both in Mexico and the U.S., find themselves in. What does it say about our moment when, on the one hand, the federal government is collecting “speculative” design proposals, and on the other President Trump is currently saying things like “We are thinking about building a wall as a solar wall. So it creates energy. And pays for itself”? The bidding process is so fraught that even Engineering News Record reports that large contractors were skittish in putting in their bids, and many of the successful bidders have been revealed to been under criminal investigation. In this context, Borderwall as Architecture becomes a critical toolbox, challenging readers with speculative proposals, informing with realpolitik discussions, and engaging guest writers such as Teddy Cruz and Michael Dear to encourage architects to think expansively about the southern border and imagine better solutions. Borderwall as Architecture: A Manifesto for the US-Mexico Boundary University of California Press $21.91
With the scent of wet St. Louis clay wafting through the air, the Data Clay Symposium kicked off at CCA last weekend. Hosted by the Architecture & Fine Arts Divisions at CCA, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, and the CCA Digital Craft Lab, the event joined architects, artists, designers, makers, critics and creators to discuss and display their latest syncretic experiments and the possibilities of the seemingly disparate mediums of data (i.e. computation) and clay. Moderated and curated by Joshua G. Stein and Del Harrow, and following on the heels of an exhibition on view at the San Francisco's Museum of Craft & Design, the symposium started with a talk by Future Cities Lab co-founder Jason Johnson and his Creative Architecture Machines research group at CCA, exhibiting student work that integrates robotics, interactivity, coding, and clay extrusions manifested in real time. Ron Rael of UC Berkeley and Emerging Objects followed with his research into Earth Architecture and the ancient strategies of clay building. Walking the line between passive building and high-tech computational techniques with his experiments on evaporative cooling bricks, Rael demonstrated the potential of the ancient and the modern coming together in a coherent and cogent architecture of today. Jenny Sabin of Cornell University and Jenny Sabin Studio presented work connecting biology, coding, and material systems that have fostered her experimental practice, which works at the intersection of rapid-prototyping, scientific exploration, and ceramics. With a BFA in Ceramics and a Masters of Architecture, Sabin has been able to integrate and develop a unique space for a practice that radically combines the digital and the analogue. Andy Brayman, a studio potter of the Kansas City–based Matter Factory, presented his unique take on traditional ceramics and data by showing off his knowledge of code and software platforms through his open-sourced self-education and research developments. The morning session came to a close with work presented by UC Berkeley PhD student Laura Devendorf and her playful syntheses of art practice, technology, and research. Her experiments, work at the intersections of a diverse set of disciplines, presenting innovative promise for the "maker" field.
The afternoon featured a keynote by Dries Verbruggen from Antwerp design studio Unfold. Verbruggen’s talk traced the history of digital design, then referenced his book Printing Things, which investigates the myriad techniques and processes of printing. He touched on notions of copying, iteration, and the physics of the physical world gone digital. One of the most intriguing projects of the symposium, on display at the Museum of Craft and Design, is Unfold's recreation of a potter's throwing wheel in digital form, which can be changed through your hands' interaction.Bobby Tigerman, associate curator of decorate arts and design at LACMA, followed, channeled remotely from Los Angeles, with a historical look at issues of technology and the hand-made, ending with a note that digital craft is on the rise and has prompted stimulating debate and connected cultures worldwide. From the History of Art and Architecture department at UC Santa Barabara, Assistant Professor Jenni Sorkin expounded on the nature of open source, and the hotly-debated realm of ownership and originality in object-hood. Wrapping up the Symposium was Stephanie Syjuco, a sculptor and Assistant Professor in the Ceramics department at UC Berkeley. She glided through her own work, focused on clay, data, and large scale installations, synthesizing traditional ceramic techniques and digital software such as Cinema 4D. Ending the day was an engaging debate revolving around disciplinary identity, scales and modes of production, the quality and quantity of education, and the ability of the arts, architecture, and design to make a real difference in the world today.