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Current Call December 2, 2019

Volume 7 – Boundaries


[Tijuana, Mexico, left, and San Diego, California, right, separated by the US-Mexico border fence  AP PHOTO/DANIEL OCHOA DE OLZA]

How should we understand the power of boundaries today?

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the limits it had created did not disappear: they became less tangible, less spatial, less easily defined, and more permeable. The symbolism of the wall remained, and its associated attitudes and beliefs continued to play out socially.

In the 21st-century, the renewed focus on the penetrability of national borders demonstrates a common pursuit for tightly closed and protected sovereignty. Half of all border-barriers constructed since World War II were built after 2000, forming 20,000 kilometres of concrete, steel, sand, stone, and wire.[1] The symbolic value of boundaries was reinforced by United States President Donald Trump when he described his U.S.-Mexico border wall as “physical, tall, powerful and beautiful.”[2] Such adjectives are more suited to a monument than a border wall, questioning whether these structures serve more effectively as a political declaration that provides a psychological sense of security for Americans.

Multiculturalism in Australia celebrates different nations, cultures, and religions and  portrays itself as a welcoming and inclusive place for legitimate migrants, however the country has a tough stance on those deemed ‘illegal.’ The Australia Maritime Border Command and its Offshore Border detention facilities enforce political boundaries that prevent undocumented refugees arriving by boat from entering the mainland. They are subject to incarceration on Christmas Island, Manus Island and Nauru as an alternative process to turning back asylum seeker boats. The prison-industrial militarized-border complexes carry out settler-colonial practices of elimination and racialized imprisonment, allowing no meaningful resettlement of detainees in any society to take place[3]. The ethics of border regimes are controversial, with the foundations of equity and democracy challenged when a country distinguishes between insiders and outsiders.

Despite the reinforcement of territorial boundaries, architecture labour transcends geographical frontiers. Digital technologies and networked communication have enabled architects to practice beyond the limits of territories, cultures and religions. The globalisation of architectural practice and strategies have become significant to firms in developed countries like Australia and the U.S. By outsourcing and offshoring labour to India and China, architects not only have a worldwide competition arena, but also the option to work more efficiently.  In contrast to the collaboration of global labour, an arising concern is that it is harder to recognise the core skills of architects. The profession now embodies subdivisions such as design documentation, renderings, construction documentation and so on. What is the boundary between skilled, outsourced labour of documentation and the definition of a designer?

While architectural practice has always been in a position of crossing national borders, the boundary between global and local is further blurred. International architects are commissioned to design cultural landmarks in cultural contexts foreign to them. Chinese architectural firm MAD, by making the residential proposal Cloud Corridor, has created a thought-provoking vision for L.A., while the French architect Jean Nouvel has designed the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Local buildings take on a global character, becoming architectural icons through worldwide media consumption. Is there significance besides the visual, symbolised cultural representation? Is this a celebration of cultural diversity or a new aesthetic of globalisation?

Yet many boundaries are overcome by the omnipresent force of virtualisation: the virtual flow of money, commodities, news and information continually challenge state authority. But the flow of humans cannot be virtualised as such, hence border walls are built to impede migration and act as countermeasure to globalism’s international interconnectedness. In our smartphone-dominated world, technologies such as ‘Smart Walls’ developed by an Israeli weapons company Elbit Systems™, make it possible to identify potential targets kilometres away, transforming the overt boundary line into a covert surveillance zone. Regardless of how ‘smart’ these boundaries have become, their stealth design only adds to the growing ambiguity of positioning their significance.

Although boundaries are less obvious at the virtual level, they are no less powerful in creating limits as physical walls. The Great Firewall of China regulates the Internet domestically by blocking search engines and public platforms such as Google, Facebook, and YouTube.  In contrast to China’s media censorship in virtual space, the Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge (HZMB) in physical space aids efforts to connect pro-democracy Hong Kong more tightly to the mainland. But what embodies a convenient public transport connection, operates more as a barrier exclusive to those with high economic status. Private cars get limited access to this megastructure, with special permits required to drive on it, and proof of RMB 1 million (around $142,000) accumulated tax over three years[4]. As the HZMB encroaches upon Hong Kong territory, the proposed changes to Extradition laws, which would have eroded their civil and democratic rights, prompted mass protests that lasted for month and resulted in violent confrontations with police. Ideological divergence is now manifest in the real boundaries protecting Hong Kong from reputing itself as a safe and welcoming free port.

The protective borders at national-scale weave into the urban fabric as subtle defensive strategies adopted by today’s most liberal cities. They govern day-to-day lives of ordinary citizens, and segregate those entitled to access public space from those deemed undesirable. With less reliance on text signage to dictate what can or cannot be done, the unwritten rules materialise as non-living entities that do not give verbal commands. For example, SkateStop Skate Deterrent Edges in Melbourne, anti-injecting blue lights in The Hague, and urine deflectors in Frankfurt. London’s seemingly innocuous Camden Bench has a cambered top to throw off rough sleepers, and other features engineered to ensure it is not used as anything except a bench[5]. How are such boundaries affecting the way we interact with our environment? To what extent are designers, architects and engineers responsible for modern hostile architecture?

Inflection Vol.7 release date: November 2020

Inflection starts here, we leave the change to you.

[1] Ron E. Hassner and Jason Wittenberg, “Barriers to Entry: Who Builds Fortified Boundaries and Why?International Security 40, no.1 (2015): 157. doi: 10.1162/ISEC_a_00206. Theo Deutinger, Handbook of Tyranny (Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2018), 37.

[2] Rishi Iyengar. “Read Donald Trump’s Speech on Immigration”, published September 01, 2016, https://time.com/4475349/donald-trumps-speech-immigration-transcript/  “On day one, we will begin working on an impenetrable, physical, tall, power[ful] [and] beautiful southern border wall”

[3] Prof. Suvendrini Perera and Prof. Joseph Pugiliese, ‘Deathscapes: Mapping Race and Violence in Settler States’, in Black-Palestinian Solidarity Conference, Session 5, 08 November 2019: Racialised Statehood, Carceral Architecture and Military Nationalism in Settler States (Melbourne, 2019), 64.

[4] Guangdong Provincial Public Security Department, 《11月18日起,可重新申请经港珠澳大桥口岸通行的粤港两地车牌》, 2019. Guangdong Province, 2019. http://gdga.gd.gov.cn/bsfw/bmts/content/post_2654285.html

[5] Frank Swain, ‘Designing the Perfect Anti-Object,’ published on 05 December 2013. https://medium.com/futures-exchange/designing-the-perfect-anti-object-49a184a6667a