The bike path concept.

A burrito stand, where the cooks and patrons sit on opposite sides.

A confessional.

A cross-border library.

A solar-powered waystation.

A concept for transforming the border into a solar-power plant…

And a wastewater treatment facility.


Rethinking the U.S./Mexico Border Fence, With Bike Paths and Burrito Stands

Ron Rael thinks the border wall is bad policy, but he has bold ideas for making it more humane.

If you can't beat it, redesign it. An assistant professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, Ron Rael, is not exactly a fan of the 700-mile series of separation barriers that have been erected between the United States and Mexico. He says the wall is expensive, detrimental to the environment, ineffective, and even deadly, since hundreds die of dehydration each year as they try to cross the culture.

And yet it's there. "It would be easy for me to raise a picket sign and as an architect say, 'Down with this wall!?' Rael says. ?I have to accept the wall because it exists, but as a designer I see that something better is possible. Why not do something intelligent, something incredible" I envision not just a "dumb wall," but a social infrastructure that connects and improves lives on both sides.?

Call it ironic architecture. But he's directly inspired by life.

To that end, he has re-envisioned the wall as something like a town center, complete with infrastructure, social services, and recreational facilities. Among the stations he envisions along the wall are a volleyball court, a confessional, a lending library, a water catchment system, a wastewater treatment plant, a solar farm, and even a "burrito wall" featuring "a food cart inserted into the wall, allowing people from each side of the border to share a meal, chat and conduct business, all within full view of security." The designs are partly practical, partly satirical: call it ironic architecture.

Yet he's drawing inspiration directly from life. "These are ongoing things that are already happening to a certain extent," he tells Co.Design. "There are exchanges of food and money through the wall already." Priests already come and hear confessions across the wall. In a photograph Rael once saw, a thirsty border patrol agent bought a sno-cone from a vendor across a semi-porous stretch of wall. In one region, says Rael, Homeland Security recently put a 40-foot gap between two panels of the wall. But people on either side found an ingenious way around even that distance; "the sign language has been going there and having poetry readings," he says.

Rael has said that he looks forward to a "post-border wall world." That needn't mean for the wall to literally come down, a tall order politically. Rather, ?If it's a swing or a teeter-totter or solar panels, it materially ceases to be a wall."

"Border Wall as Infrastructure" a proposal by Rael and a partner, Virginia San Fratello, was a finalist in the 2010 Working Public Architecture 2.0 Competition organized by UCLA's cityLAB. Rael is first to admit that his plan isn't likely to be implemented anytime soon. Until then, though, we can dream of the day when a border wall with personality shows up as a hot destination in the travel and leisure sections of the newspapers.

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  • american dreamer

    U are a grate arcitech & I am glad that u have a grate vission of unity & not seperation after all God said love di naighbor we need to come together to make this a better world cuse we all live in it ! I wish everybody would have a great mind & heart & look tru the other side of the wall!

  • jimmy smith

    We need to build a wall like they had in germany and mount machine guns every 25 ft. and let the mexican government know we will shoot to kill. Then say in 20 years the chinese president can tell our government "take down this wall" History has a way of repeating itself.

  • Bill Mikesell

    Both the article and video upset me. Are life and death another opportunity for architecture to become an abstraction of photovoltaic panels and water troughs? What about the sanctity of life?

  • Juan-Carlos Fernandez

    I love this creative exercise. It it invites to add light to the shadow of a wall. We all know –and don't think it is the topic of this forum– why the wall was built, and we can all have different opinions about the form and the function it should have. However, assuming that no designer –at least, evidently, graphic and industrial– or artist was asked to contribute with ideas, this is the perfect chance to daydream.

    I would pose the question in a different way: What would we, designers, recommend for creating a space that connects people of two countries, and keeps them –with safety and dignity– from crossing?

  • krista schlyer

    Some of the comments on this article show how far we have to go in public information on the US-Mexico border. All evidence points to one fact, the wall does not work to stop people and it costs billions of dollars. Any wildlife or ecological scientist that has studied this issue will tell you that putting an impermeable obstacle through 2000 mile region will have serious long-term impacts on wildlife and ecosystems--trash can be picked up, but severed wildlife corridors cause systemic problems for endangered species and other wild creatures.

    I can appreciate Ronald Rael's approach to this issue--something fresh that maybe can get a few more people to pay attention to the incredible impact our bad border policy is having on wildlife, people and the economy of the borderlands and beyond.

    For more information on the issue, visit my site:

  • Rosalind Pearson

    This article refers to design and I think it might be interesting to appreciate and view the ideas that Ron Rael shares, rather than what the wall might or might not mean in terms of politics, etc. The wall is there, whether we like it or not, and from the south side it is indeed a wall that tries to prevent people from travelling illegally in to the US. However, for those who live with the wall, such as the people of Tijuana, it also suggests many others things; it doesn't just shut people out, it invite people to see what's on the other side (literally!) and it pulls together the north of Mexico with the south of the US, specifically in this case San Diego. It's surprising that the wall doies not loom ominously over the city, it's just there, and there are many legal ways through it and people come and go all the time in their thousands; many nationalities going in either direction. There are all sorts of projects afoot on both sides of the border to work together for the future, such as the amplification of the airport which will benefit both Tijuana and San Diego; the culture and creativity that is generated in Tijuana spills over into California, and viceversa. Take, for example, the event Tijuana Innovadora which last year drew really important people to give lectures, including Al Gore and Carlos Slim. Think also of the music and vibrant art that Tijuana is famous for, you may know the music of Nortec. I think Ron's ideas are great for even further crossborder communication. If it already exists why not make it even better. Before you ask, no, I don't live in Tijuana but I do live in Mexico (much further south) but we at Ideograma Consultores have just done the city brand for Tijuana and we lived and breathed the city for some time. I was surprised by Tijuana, it is a vibrant city that inspires. I am all for the bike paths and burrito stands; I know Tijuana would love it.

  • Theo Ronbaker

    Start building a exact replica of Israel's West Bank Wall at the U.S./ Mexico border.
    Israel's Wall is taller, stronger, and much better designed. We should be using Israel's superior border designs to increase security and decrease spiraling debt in border states.

  • JosedelaO

    There are some things that we can live with, but the wall and what it represents is just unacceptable. What a lack of sensibility and unprofessionalism to deal topics like these. I don't think the people living in "the other side of the wall" will really enjoy the burrito snacks (really?) and riding the bikes up and down a wall created by hate and ignorance. "Call it ironic architecture" I just call it offensive...

  • Jaime Odabachian

    Instead of trying to breach or attack the wall as an object, we decided to breach the US-Mexico economic and ideological divide with ideas and applied art.

    Our rug company was founded in Mexico in 1921. It is the oldest hand-made rug company in Latin America, but we are now based in the Design District of Miami and have been a US tax-paying, employee-generating company since 1979.

    We developed our new line of hand-made rugs by partnering with top Mexican architects and designers so their designs and ideas could be accessed by Americans in the US. We felt that by having Mexico export ideas and attitudes towards contemporary designs through our company, we would be able to not only make a statement about the relevance that these ideas have across the entire American continent, but also to demonstrate that Mexico's ideas are the most extremely powerful and inspiring export!

    Here is the link to the project.

  • Chris Reich

    Okay, so what's wrong with trying to come up with something other than a wall? Nothing. What's wrong with making it more than something designed (hardly) to keep people out? Nothing.

    So let's all think of ideas. What not? Yes, we have a security issue but so does Mexico. Look at the death on their side because of our drug consumers. For Mexico, it's like having a meth lab for a neighbor.

    Let's work out the security issues so we can get past the "Stay Out" mentality and perhaps even monetize the damn border. There is nothing wrong with thinking about it. There is always an element of fantasy to radical new approaches.

    Chris Reich

  • bucky katt

    How about declaring a strip on either side of the border to be a free-fire zone. Then, we have Army and Marine attack helicopters patrol it and eliminate any two-legged traffic. That solves the issue of wildlife being able to cross and eliminates the need for a wall.

  • Isobel Kramen

    The only other city in modern times that was walled was Berlin. With our enormous debt, financial debacles and political leeches it is a wonder anyone wants to be part of this country.
    Immigrants are not the problem; it lies and breeds in the housing projects we offer to lazy Americans who do not wish to educate themselves or work.

  • Clint Hodges

    I like your attitude but Berlin is absolutely not the only city in modern times that was walled. Londonderry, Ireland still has a wall and closes it every night to separate the Catholics from the Protestants. I don't consider myself a world traveler but I've been there to see/experience it myself so I know this case to be true.
    Immigrants are not the problem but illegal immigrants are. And at the root of the problem lies are reluctant and bloated federal government. I don't blame anyone for wanting to come here and I have nothing against immigrants. My wife is a latin immigrant but she never had an illegal status in any country. My heart goes out to no one that takes the shortcuts we didn't take.
    Our federal government has succeeded in raising generations that believe they are owed the world. There are simply too many moochers for us producers to sustain.

  • Michelle Cubas

    Without hope and optimism, we can hang up our skates. From such creativity flows other ideas. In fact, in Phoenix, there is a group that envisions a similar plan. The key would be finding a way to monitor the crossing points and declaring a DMZ, neutral place.

    Keep dreaming. Edison found 999 ways that didn't work on his 1000th experiment. -MC

  • Clint Hodges

    I agree with Jayson here. This is another clear example of how out of touch professors (especially from Berkeley) can be when they spend so little time in the real world or in a private profession. I suppose the wall could be considered expensive when not considering the cost of not protecting our borders, which is the responsibility of the federal government as defined in the U.S. Constitution (guess they don't teach that at Berkeley). Is the wall really more detrimental to the environment then the debris left behind by all of the illegals? If they're not interested in our sovereignty then would it make sense to say they're not going to leave any trash behind, spoiling our land and national parks? ( I would seriously doubt the judgment of one who blames a wall for the consequences one must face when decidedly traveling across a desert without proper provisions. Burrito Stands on the border...sounds like a dream to the smugglers and drug cartels profiteering off of our ludicrous prohibition.

  • Irene Turner

    Fabulous. Would that more people sought to find ways to connect people then to separate them. And I do love the absurdity or commentary on the wall to begin with ...Kudos Ron Rael

  • Jayson Jordan

    How absurd this ivory tower-utopian from Berkeley thinks to re-imagine the border wall with Mexico. I am quite sure he wishes our sovereignty was re-imagined as well. And apparently the deaths of those trying to invade our country--which is a federal offense mind you--is somehow our fault or the fault of this evil wall. If the federal government actually enforced our laws than it would be much more effective, instead of punishing border agents for doing their job. Who wouldn't want to hang out on the border, which is extremely dangerous, and have a burrito and give a confession while doing so?

  • Jaime Odabachian

    It is no-one's fault. There is no fault here. The wall simply symbolizes the assymetric result of an innumerable quantity of variables that lead to the US and Mexico to have a very different economic, social and ideological reality.

    Federal offence threat does not stop the hundreds of thousands of immigrants to pour into the US. Just as drug prohibition does not stop the 12.8 million Americans from using illegal drugs on a regular basis, even with severe legal threat looming.

    Wall or no wall, the issue is economic disparity on a common border. The wall just symbolizes that.