“What if we stop dividing the United States and Mexico into two separate nations, and instead study their shared histories, cultures, and economies, and acknowledge them as pieces of a single region?” asked Mexico-based architect Tatiana Bilbao, through her academic initiative titled, Two Sides of the Border.
Initiated and conceptualised by Bilbao and curated by New York-based designer Nile Greenberg, the exhibition addressed the political climate that continues to exaggerate cross-border differences while refusing to see the larger influence and co-dependency that one region has on the other. First debuted at the Yale School of Architecture Gallery in 2018, the exhibition hosted a second opening this March at the Aedes Architecture Forum in Berlin. Bilbao, an educator herself, involved 13 architectural studios from 12 universities across the United States and Mexico to bring together an array of concepts that imagined the non-existence of man-made borders. Along with the proposals was a photo essay of the various studio sites, documented by photographer Iwan Baan, and new maps highlighting spatial relationships of the two regions created by map maker, Thomas Paturet.
The best way to visualise and understand a region is through a comprehensive atlas. The exhibition, based on the same principle, was presented in the form of an atlas, a book that ‘selectively draws space and defines regions in order to produce a preferred image'. The works were categorised under three perspectives - projective, objective, and subjective.
This component explores 129 student projects covering 28 geographical sites through drawings, models and diagrams. Through interdisciplinary architectural and urban interventions, students created probable scenarios and came up with unique solutions for cross-border issues like housing, migration, farming labour and natural resources.
One such interesting proposal was The Case of José by Columbia University GSAPP student, Minjae Kim. The work talks about a fictional character named José, who is employed as a carpenter in McAllen in Texas but has his family living in Mineral de Pozos in Guanajuato. Seeing the recent interdependency of the two countries - 90 per cent Hispanic population in one and revived tourism in the other - José decides to take advantage of the latter and returns home. He adds a hospitality programme to his single-family house with architectural elements that connects him to his life in both the countries. Within this new Texan shed house, with a colonial courtyard, he constructs decorative motifs on wooden framing that represents his history in McAllen. When the unlikely merge takes place, he is home without having to leave his story behind.
A few other proposals include a network of conveyer belts facilitating cross-border movement in The Conveyer City (University of California, Berkeley); the Garden of Redemption (Yale School of Architecture) in Mexico’s Zimapan region with a natural landscape that helps architecture redeem the land from toxicity; and Aeroespina (McKinley Futures Studio University of Washington) that envisions Mexico City’s sinking airport site as the gateway to a new urban ecology.
This included historic maps showcasing 400 years of shifting geographical narrative across the two countries. These were put alongside new maps by French architect and cartographer, Thomas Paturet, who produced aerial imagery that emphasised the fact that nature dissolves all man-made borders and boundaries.
Dutch photographer Iwan Baan travelled across cities in the US and Mexico and captured vignettes of architecture and urbanism in an intriguing photo essay. Baan covered sites that ranged from remittance houses in Guanajuato, a food production facility in Ohio, an ice-cream shop in Kansas, to streets in Texas and sections of the border traversing between the two countries. Looking at the pictures of the buildings, streets, and public space, one cannot identify which city it represents, because they all look the same. It seems the differences emerge only because our collective conscious knows that a boundary exists.
The initiative evaluates the critical need of shifting the narrative when migration is at the forefront of political discourse and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is being renegotiated as the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA).
It becomes all the more meaningful to see students from the two countries coming together to work on a shared vision – to build a future where the term 'border' has no meaning and where creativity surpasses all differences.
'Two Sides of the Border' exhibition was hosted at the Aedes Architecture Forum in Berlin between 16 March - 25 April 2019.