Monorails, shipping containers and nuclear waste dumps are just some of the ways that US construction companies have interpreted US President Donald Trump’s call for an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful wall” to march 3,200 kilometres across the country’s border with Mexico.
Up to 400 bidding contractors were expected to submit their schemes this week to the US Customs and Border Protection agency, in a militarised beauty pageant worthy of one of Trump’s own reality TV shows.
The parameters for proposals were as surreal as the idea for the wall itself; the solicitation notice tinged with the characteristic Trump cocktail of bluster, confusion and backtracking.
Rules state that the wall must be tough enough to withstand attacks from “sledgehammer, car jack, pick axe, chisel, battery operated impact tools … propane or butane or other similar hand-held tools” for up to four hours, but also be “aesthetically pleasing” – although obviously only on the northern, US-facing side. It must be “physically imposing in height”, ideally 30 feet, but the terms also state that shorter options of 18 feet “may be acceptable”.
After the initial call-out, a second request for proposals was published with an option for the designs to have “a see-through component”. As many predicted, the great impenetrable wall might simply end up being a mesh fence. If it even happens at all.
From a first look at some of the entries, it’s hard to tell which ones are spoofs. Alarmingly, on closer inspection, it turns out that very few are. Instead, they are the fever dreams of America’s small-business contractors writ large, which makes them a fascinating window into the lurid anxieties of middle America.
Clayton Industries of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who claim to be “revamping the energy sector through matter manipulation”, have proposed digging a 100-foot trench along the border and filling it with nuclear waste. A flimsy chainlink fence will run along the Mexican side, followed by a field of motion sensors.
If any plucky border-jumpers make it past the toxic trench, they’ll be met with another 30-foot wall the other side. Company owner Christian Clayton prefers to describe his linear nuclear weapon as a “conduit”, explaining that the waste would also be used to generate electricity.
Wild utopianism is fitting for a political campaign that seems increasingly unlikely to see the light of day
It is a theme picked up in designs by Las Vegas-based Gleason Partners “a 100 per cent Vietnam veteran owned small business”, which proposes to build a wall covered in solar panels. As well as providing electricity for lighting, sensors and patrol stations along the border, the company says, their wall would generate enough power to pay for the cost of construction within 20 years. It is “a sleeping lion,” says Gleason, “that will not hurt a climber except for the fall, but will protect itself if somebody tries to break into or through the structure.”
With its canted lower section and upper surveillance gallery, it has the unmistakable air of a prison perimeter wall.
Other technologically-minded entries include a scheme by San Diego company vScenario, which proposes to begin in warfare fashion by using drones to map a 3D model of the tricky terrain. They would then install a stealthy ribbon of cameras, “volumetric microwave sensors” and fibre-optics along the border to detect potential intruders, although perhaps Trump might want to put the microwaves to another kind of use.
Meanwhile, the sinisterly-named DarkPulse Technologies – “a leader in distributed fibre sensor solutions” – proposes a big ballistics-grade concrete wall embedded with special sensors, in order to notify border agents of the exact location of any tampering in real time. In keeping with their Marvel comics identity, their wall would be coated to prevent the use of grappling hooks.
At the other end of the spectrum are a number of decidedly low-tech proposals that recall the fortifications of an earlier epoch, even conceiving their grand infrastructural barriers as potential tourist attractions – the Mount Rushmore of our day.
Crisis Resolution Security Services of Clarence, Illinois, have clearly been inspired by the Great Wall of China with their scheme for a hefty crenelated concoction, complete with decorative parapets, buttresses and square castle watchtowers, all perched atop a vast earthen berm. It is the work of Michael Hari, a former sheriff’s deputy who most recently ran an agricultural food safety certification business before setting up his security outfit, who says it would be “as pretty as the Parthenon”.
“This wall is meant to defend what is truly American,” he adds, “and it can start by being beautiful in a way that ordinary American citizens appreciate, rather than by being starkly institutional or by catering to the controversial and perverse tastes of the elites.”
It has a foot and cycle path on top too, for “recreational use”, so upstanding citizens can go on a bike ride while peering over at Mexico.
Watch: Trump signs order to build promised wall
Other firms have taken more of an environmentalist bent, incorporating passage for animals and using materials that attempt to blend into the surroundings.
Black Security Products of Austin, Texas, has incorporated 10 cm holes in the bottom of its wall to allow animals to scamper across the border undetected, along with a “rip-rap” system of loose rocks so that smaller creatures can creep through the wall.
Decorative concrete specialists, Single Eagle Inc of Poway, California, meanwhile, have gone for a naturalistic camouflage scheme, proposing a “tilt-up” concrete wall cast on the ground then hauled up into position, thereby picking up the colours and textures of the surrounding landscape. Their dreamy super-saturated image of stratified waves undulating along the wall looks like it might have been dreamed up under the influence of something smuggled across the border.
While some of these proposals are security disguised as art, other artists have entered the competition with provocative, critical schemes that reimagine the idea of a border all together.
JM Design Studio of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, an all-women team of designers and artists, have entered sketches designed to “invite other realms of thought and consideration”.
One image depicts a magnificent wall of musical organ pipes, 30 feet tall, punctuated with openings every 20 feet allowing people to pass through. Another sketch shows an idea for 3 million hammocks strung across the border, hanging gracefully from 30-foot trees, for anyone to use as they please.
Another critical collective, made up of Mexican and American architects and engineers – including Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of non-profit group Architecture for Humanity – has come together to propose perhaps the most radical proposition of all: a new bi-national territory along the border, built collaboratively by Mexico and the US, connected by a supersonic Hyperloop transit system.
“We propose the eradication of the entire US-Mexico border via a trans-national ‘New Deal’,” they write, “to create a shared co-nation called Otra Nation, built on local economic empowerment, energy independence and revolutionary infrastructure and transit.”
Their wild utopianism is fitting for the whole endeavour, a political campaign project that seems increasingly unlikely to ever see the light of day. John F Kelly, Trump’s homeland security secretary, recently admitted that “it’s unlikely we will build a wall or physical barrier from sea to shining sea”. Nor was there any idea of cost, given the nature of the proposal was still up in the air; $2.6 billion was requested in the 2018 budget to fund border infrastructure, but Republican leaders have said the total project would cost $12 billion to $15 billion, while independent estimates run as high as $38bn.
The next stage is choosing a shortlist of proposals to be built as 30-foot prototypes in the San Diego desert, a place where we can only hope they will stay: a forlorn menagerie, left to rot as relics of a nightmarish future that never happened.
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