President Donald Trump has given us many details about his wall. “A great wall.” “A big, beautiful, open gate.” “Impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful.” “There could be some fencing.” And we all know who is paying for it: Mexico, whose president continues to insist, “Mexico, of course, will not pay.”
The wall has galvanized Trump’s supporters and horrified his opponents. It has split fiscal conservatives from immigration hawks. It has met with fierce resistance among border communities that fear it will lead to economic catastrophe. And it’s invited skepticism among engineers, who point to the complexity of building a 2,000-mile structure along rugged terrain full of water-logged canyons and mountainous peaks. One thing it has not done, however, is inspired America’s architects—generally a liberal bunch—to start drawing up designs.
Until … now?
One Miami architecture firm, DOMO Design Studio, is proposing a softer, gentler version of Trump’s famous wall: a sustainable structure built out of recycled shipping containers that mimics natural boundaries with divisions created by waterways, sloping terrain and, in urban areas, shopping, public art spaces and even housing units. The drawings look like they could be for a cutting-edge park or an innovative redevelopment project—it just so happens that they’re for a barrier meant to keep out “criminals” and “rapists,” as Trump put it so memorably in his campaign kickoff speech in 2015.
“One of our goals was to not be like the Great Wall of China or the Berlin Wall or any of those typologies that represent division,” principal architect Francisco Llado explained in a recent phone call. “Our design is not about division but about unity of sense and sustainable functionality.”
Llado and Robert Moehring, the firm’s other principal, did not want to talk about politics, and emphasized that their mission is purely architectural. “This is a different way of addressing the border that is sustainable, functional and hopefully beneficial to society in any way possible,” Llado says, “as well as any fauna, flora, landscaping, etc.”
The core of DOMO’s plan rests on the use of recycled shipping containers and excavated trenches. To minimize the eyesore associated with a towering concrete wall, the firm is proposing to scoop 25-foot slopes into the land that doesn’t already have natural boundaries and stack three shipping containers into the manmade grooves. That division would be invisible when viewed at grade level. The border would change as you go along: Some parts of it are rivers, some are mountains, and the studio would like those natural barriers to be mimicked by landscaped borders. When the wall gets into urban areas, that’s where the markets and housing come in.
Llado thinks shipping containers are the only object of the needed size that already exists in surplus and can be readily repurposed for such a large-scale project. Shipping containers are also more cost-effective. “When they ran the numbers, it made no sense,” Llado says about the calculations that showed Trump’s projected $8 billion price tag was about $17 billion off the mark.
To that basic skeleton, the architects are proposing a whole array of eco-friendly features, from water recollection to solar panels to animal shelters with food and cans of water. “Just some things that can be done along the length of the border that would help that particular ecosystem,” Moehring says. “We’re looking at every possibility of helping everyone,” Llado adds.
They’ve also proposed micro-housing units in the shipping containers, something that, Llado says, “is very common in Europe.” Micro-housing units are apartments typically no larger than 350 square feet, often with communal kitchens and living areas, and have begun sprouting up to fill the lack of affordable housing in places like New York and Seattle. The shopping areas and public art spaces could make the wall economically sustainable, too, they say. “It’d be self-paid, on its own,” Llado adds.
Micro-housing isn’t the only place they’re taking inspiration from Europe. “When you see the divisions in Europe between France and Spain, it would be the Pyrenees, or you have the Alps,” Llado says. “You have the Rio Grande between the U.S. and Mexico now, so why not create all those conditions and things to blend while maintaining the functionality and providing opportunities?”
The Department of Homeland Security has begun formally accepting solicitations for design and construction of the border wall, with a deadline for engineering and design firms to submit by March 20; awards are expected to be made in mid-April. A pre-solicitation notice obtained by CityLab listed interested bidders including defense contractor Raytheon and the international design firm Leo A Daly (Leo A Daly has since clarified that it will not be pursuing the project), both the kinds of firms that dwarf a boutique studio like DOMO.
Llado and Moehring acknowledge that the wall would be their biggest project yet—“Only the Great Wall of China is on this scale,” Llado says—but they do have experience with what they call macro projects, dealing with urban redevelopment and manmade islands, in Qatar and Dubai. And while a border project like this would be a big change from their usual repertoire of luxury hotels and resorts in Ibiza, Doha and the Caribbean, they’re not ruling out the possibility of making a formal bid. “At this time, we’re keeping it confidential,” Llado says.
This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Leo A Daly will not be pursuing the wall project.
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