MEXICO CITY — Mexican architect and designer Leonardo Díaz Borioli believes people understand ideas better when they can actually see them. So when Donald Trump began talking about building a big, beautiful wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Díaz Borioli decided to create a proof-of-concept model to help voters visualize what he calls the “world’s cruelest infrastructure”.
Díaz Borioli met with his friend Hassanaly Ladha, a Muslim academic who heads an experimental design lab at the University of Connecticut, and the two men came up with plans to give life to Trump’s proposal in a surreal way.
Ladha, who specializes in architectural philosophy, says he wanted to “caricaturize” the idea that states need borders as well as Trump’s xenophobic remarks during the campaign.
“Trump kept talking about a beautiful wall. He was talking about a very seductive form of nationalism. So we wanted to make something beautiful, to show how dangerously attractive, how dangerously enticing, a wall is,” Ladha told me in a phone interview.
Ladha says he drew inspiration from Native American reservations, Nazi concentration camps, and Japanese internment camps. He mixed those elements together to “capture the gorgeous perversity” of Trump’s proposal.
Then Díaz Borioli went to Mexico, where he pitched their idea to a group of six interns in his arquitectural and design studio.
“I told them: ‘Gentlemen, your project will be to design Donald Trump’s wall',” Díaz Borioli said. “They thought I was pranking them. We also thought Trump would never win.”
He added, “Trump wanted something grand, so we drew inspiration from Luis Barragán, Mexico’s most famous architect. He’s known for using plenty of Mexican pink. We also incorporated the style of Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, who uses very bright colors and bases his work in very powerful and seductive images.”
“Trump can talk about perverse policies because people can’t imagine them,” the Mexican architect said. “So I wanted to put his words in images so that people could see all the crazy stuff he’s saying. We added a surreal and magical realism element and turned the wall into a four-story prison.”
Díaz Borioli says he envisions the prison existing in a no-man’s land along the border, a place where Mexican and U.S. laws don’t apply to the inmates. The prison can be filled with the 11 million undocumented immigrants Trump has pledged to deport.
“It would be like Guantanamo,” he explained.
They also came up with a plan to finance the project, and make the inmates pay for it.
“The prisoners work in maquiladoras,” Díaz Borioli said. “They are not paid and the product they make helps to pay for and subsidize the wall. There are also shopping centers and public spaces integrated into the wall in cities like Tijuana, where the infrastructure intersects.”
“Six million staff members operate the prison,” Professor Hassanaly Ladha told me. “We did all the numbers to make sure it would pay for itself. It would cost about 390 billion dollars to build,” he said.
Díaz Borioli says the proof-of-concept is both an exercise on architecture and a reflection on politics.
“Architecture, as a discipline, has always served power,” he said. “Hitler had Albert Speer. So I was pretty sure Trump would get his own architect to design the wall.”
The proof-of-concept took 400 hours to finish and was uploaded near the end of October to a website. The idea is that the model would be taken seriously as a political statement, but not as an architectural blueprint.
But now that Trump has won, Díaz Borioli says he's amazed to see serious architects treat the wall plans as real. He notes that the American Institute of Architects recently pledged its support to work with President-elect Trump on his infrastructure plans, and an Israeli firm expressed interest in Trump’s project during the campaign.
Díaz Borioli says Trump's border wall is now a possibility. It's one that they tried to deter by pointing out its folly, but one that could happen anyway.
“We wanted to scare people with this, but it didn’t work,” he says.
Professor Ladha, meanwhile, thinks their proof-of-concept can continue to raise awareness at the intersection of absurdity and reality.
“We want people to think about the type of country we want,” Ladha told me. “In the end, by expelling the others, we create a prison of our own sameness and our refusal to change.”