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A Wall for the 21st Century: ‘Trump’s wall should be a porous, shape-shifting invitation’

T wall3 04 large

An alternative type of construction is needed that resists the simplifications and separations that have framed nationalistic protectionism

At a time when nationalistic tensions appear to be reaching tipping points that could irretrievably undermine Western democracy, this manifesto calls for a rethinking of architecture. Specifically, we are responding to the call for prospective contractors to make a phase one submission for proposals by 20 March 2017, to the US Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, to build Donald Trump’s ‘tactical infrastructure’. This proposed edifice is to be composed of 30-foot-tall (10 metre) concrete that spans approximately 1,900 miles (3,058km) and traverses all sorts of terrains between the borders of the United States of America and Mexico.

This divisive barrier aims to prevent illegal immigrants from drawing on resources intended for American citizens. It is also a structural prosthesis that stands in for the failure of governance in dealing with fundamentally human activities such as dialogue, tolerance, mutual understanding, reciprocated respect and beneficial compromises. We believe that an alternative type of construction is needed that resists the simplifications and separations that have framed nationalistic protectionism and modern industrial development, to (re)consider the role of architecture in an ecological age that celebrates biodiversity, hypercomplexity and the uncertainties of a world in constant flux.

3054181 estudio314donaldtrumpmexicoborderprisonwall

3054181 estudio314donaldtrumpmexicoborderprisonwall

Prison Wall Project: a pink mega-structure inspired by Mexican architect Luis Barragán designed by Mexican firm Estudio 3.14

Since ancient times we have likened architecture to the body, and the way we build reflects our attitudes to nature and each other. A built environment conceived as a hostile system of control and barriers between and within territories, is not only generating the spatial conditions for the disintegration of societies but also establishes the (un)ethical principles based upon which they are dismantled. In contrast, an architecture founded on the principles of life, mutual thriving and negotiated exchange embraces the ethical conditions for thriving, tolerant, diverse and fair communities. While technological advances in the natural sciences, advanced materials, computing, robotics and social media can help us establish new conditions for the production of integrative spaces, it is naïve to assume that such diversity can exist without disagreement, or conflict. By seeking out the principles and techniques that embody the broad resilience and functional plasticity of nature’s structuring systems, we may have a chance to thrive alongside our neighbours, even in the face of adversity.

‘The living wall proposal we have developed invites personalising, dwelling, connection and community’

We have already begun to take such measures in the €3.2m Living Architecture project2 which is a collaboration of experts from the universities of Newcastle, UK, the West of England (UWE Bristol), Trento, Italy, the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid, LIQUIFER Systems Group, Vienna, Austria and EXPLORA, Venice, Italy that began in April 2016 and runs to April 2019. It is envisioned as a ‘living wall’ – a next-generation, selectively programmable bioreactor that is capable of extracting valuable resources from sunlight, wastewater and air. Conceived as a freestanding partition, it is composed of building blocks that contain functional microecologies (microbial fuel cell, algae bioreactor and a genetically modified processor), which are being developed as standardised building segments, or bricks. Living Architecture uses the standard principles of both photobioreactor and microbial fuel cell technologies, which are adapted to and combined into a single, sequential hybrid bioreactor system that works synergistically to clean wastewater and generate oxygen, electrical power and usable biomass (fertiliser). By harnessing and deploying metabolic processes through structural systems, we are producing a model diverse community of micro-organisms and an inhabitable architecture that not only distributes more fairly natural resources between bodies with diverse needs, but also produces spaces that are more liveable – both for the inhabitants of the wall and the (human) communities around them.

Our proposal for Trump’s wall develops these tactics further by drawing inspiration from the hypercomplex organisational systems of microfilms whereby diverse resident bacteria are able to state their own conditions for thriving and cohabitation by producing structured biomass configurations. By reconsidering the nature of the brick as a unit of architectural construction and attributing it with a life, will and agency of its own, we aim to galvanise people around the construction of the intended ‘tactical infrastructure’ as an act of ‘inhabited’ spatial diplomacy. The living wall proposal we have developed therefore invites personalising, dwelling, connection and community as architecture of integrative (multispecies) negotiation that like life itself, resists the decay towards conformity, homogeneity and cultural paralysis, by finding its way through the gaps in our modes of inhabitation and channelling those resources and strategies that enable us to ‘stay with the trouble’.3

A brick is a modular design unit for structural systems. Traditional load-bearing walls are made from rigid materials around which cladding systems accrete, and through which interior environments can be bound. These materials promise to resist the natural world (to keep it outside) and indefinitely maintain their integrity, on our behalf. For if the architectural body is immortal, then surely ours can be too.

Submission for Design-Build Structure

Solicitation Number: 2017-JC-RT-001

By Rachel Armstrong, Simone Ferracina & Rolf Hughes

Proposal for Solicitation Number: 2017-JC-RT-001

А дело бывало – и коза волка съедала.

And pigs might fly.1

The wall, as an architectural device and spatial marking technology, has barely changed since its first recorded appearance in the temple of Göbekli Tepe, Urfa, in south-east Turkey, 11,500 years ago. It is the belief of the Experimental Architecture Group (EAG) that in an age of living architecture, where our constructions forge dynamic encounters with nature, the humble wall must be reconceptualised and rediscovered for the 21st century. A flagship project would be an ideal occasion to implement such ambitious thinking. Hence the current submission.

The wall we envisage celebrates diversity over conformity, receptivity over exclusion, dissipative systems over homogeneity. Towards this end, it displays a number of unique properties:

Each brick is uniquely forged from materials that have come far and wide to bond to a shared integrity.

Brick production does not require any commercial investment.

Each brick is made by a person.

Each brick is baked by the heat of passion.

Each brick embodies living ecosystems such as a person, their microbiome, pets, plants and nurturing habitats.

No one brick is like another.

Each brick is conferred with sensibilities, emotions and desires that are expressed through its relationship with nature. Bricks may scream in the wind, crack under the sun’s heat, nurture vagrant mosses when damp, or provide shelter for small birds.

Bricks may also be ill-willed, and stifle the possibility of life, rendering a capacity for settlement untenable.

Each brick produces effects that are shaped by its fundamental capacity for love and hate.

Each brick tells a unique story.

Each brick has a relationship with its neighbours.

All bricks are dependent on each other to become a wall.

The community of bricks establishes the kind of wall they all become.

Mortar doesn’t hold the bricks together; they bond through diligence, patience and trust.

The wall tells the story of the appetites of nations, embodying our dreams and nightmares.

The wall cannot stay still and is prone to dancing under cover of nightfall.

Historically, building exteriors have been constructed using stone blocks and desiccated structural units, or bricks, which may be likened to biological cells. These modular units are fundamentally inert components whose vitality (the clay code) has been baked out of ceramics. Lacking any kind of ‘outspoken’ autonomy, their protocols are programmed by architects. Bricks are therefore designed to have particular morphologies, contexts and characteristics that are then conferred with the assumed cultural usages and practical considerations that inform how they are deployed and scaled.

In the midst of a dissolving world, the current political, economic and social structures, coupled with extreme environmental conditions like drought, famine, overcrowding and housing shortages, are set to provoke further movement and conflict between people. There is thus an urgent need to re-imagine and re-purpose the units of architectural construction; to transform our building technologies in tools not to separate, but embrace one another. No longer passive observers of divisions between societies, the infrastructures of the built environment must enable vibrancy, diversity, diplomacy, dignity, fluidity, survival and creativity. In converging living metabolisms with structural systems, the survival portfolio of architectural modularity is greatly expanded. Embodying the dynamic capabilities of the natural world, living walls are lively and responsive bodies that are capable of change, of processing their environment, and of productivity.

At the start of an ecological era, the idea of a brick, or its proliferation as a wall – even one as large as the Great Wall of China that starts at Shanhaiguan and ends at the sea in the Hebei Province about 300km due east of Beijing, or the MOSE gates in Venice, Italy – appears to be a rather futile gesture against planetary scale change. Also, its defensive character is misplaced in the context of an expanded worldview, which aims to accommodate the needs of populations in flow – following employment opportunity, and escaping natural or manmade disasters.

‘The idea of a wall – even one as large as the Great Wall of China – appears to be a rather futile gesture against planetary scale change’

By equipping fundamental building elements with some of the properties of living systems, barrier functions may be transcended and transformed into semi-permeable interfaces inside and outside of which living systems can thrive. Indeed, while organic cells superficially appear to be bounded by impermeable structural materials, operationally they are leaky and their interior surfaces are highly convoluted to increase the volume-to-surface ratio in favour of facilitating the passage of water and other substances across their limits. These spaces are detailed with villi, hairs, invaginations, enfoldings, pleatings and tubules – many of which are pulsatile to keep the supply of matter flowing through their cavities – and are regulated by gatekeeper (immune) systems, channels and pores.

3054177 erdemmexicoborder

3054177 erdemmexicoborder

Beautifying the Border: an alternative ‘landscape’ to the proposed wall, drawn up by Miami-based Domo Architecture and Design

Unlike the homogeneous character of bricks, cells may be freely living and wholly independent as micro-organisms. Some even become differentiated and specialised towards particular kinds of performances as tissues, which allows colonies of relatively self-similar bodies to form. It also creates the conditions for heterogeneity where rolls, folds and proliferations deploy spatiotemporal tactics to generate organ systems that enable the development of highly adaptable, multi-cellular organisms.

The pay-off for opening up the defensive design of bricks into more inclusive structures is that spaces and inhabitants may respond ‘entrepreneurially’ to changing circumstances. Such changes may include alterations in the chemistry of the local environment where, for example, organic batteries possess a metabolism, which is conferred by a city of organisms (a biofilm) and is integrated into the brick structure. When compiled, these living brick designs may also begin to modify the social and cultural programming invoked or enabled by architectural practices. Formed from such life-supporting agglomerations, living walls may offer shelter, sweat electricity, provide nourishment, and generate a source of clean water for those areas of the world that do not have centralised utility systems. Living bricks also embody a cultural need that is expressed through prototyping structural and technical interfaces that bring biotechnology, agriculture and architecture together into social spaces, and may help us discover how some of the pervasive problems of human habitation could be addressed differently.

While we have benefited immensely from millennia of inert barriers, perhaps it is time to reconnect with one other and with the natural world. This is why our wall is no longer a wall for separating spaces; it becomes instead a porous, shape-shifting invitation – for varieties of human, political, cultural and ecological transformation.


1. Lit. It was happening – a goat was eating up a wolf.

2. The project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under Grant Agreement no 686585.

3. D Haraway, 27 July 2010. Staying with the Trouble: Xenoecologies of Home for Companions in the Contested Zones, Cultural Anthropology Archives. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 10 September 2016].