When the Secure Fence Act of 2006 was first passed to authorize and fund the construction of a 700-mile-long wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, the California architects and professors Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello thought about how design could help bridge the two divided countries. They came up with a million-dollar idea: set up three bright pink seesaws that allow people to interact and play together through a stretch of the slatted 20-foot-tall border wall between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
Because the pop-up playground was planned for a site of intense political fracture, it took more than a decade of design and planning with U.S. customs to orchestrate. When it finally came to fruition, for a brief but euphoric 20 minutes in July 2019, surreally joyous footage of children playing on the seesaws quickly went viral. The event was “filled with joy, excitement, and togetherness at the border wall,” Rael wrote on Instagram. “The wall became a literal fulcrum for U.S.-Mexico relations, and children and adults were connected in meaningful ways on both sides with the recognition that the actions that take place on one side have direct consequences on the other side.”
Now, their proposal has received the prestigious 2020 Beazley Design of the Year award from the Design Museum in London. The two architects will split the award with Mexico-based art collective Colectivo Chopeke. “The Teeter-Totter Wall encouraged new ways of human connection,” Tim Marlow, CEO and director of the Design Museum, said in a statement. “It remains an inventive and poignant reminder of how human beings can transcend the forces that seek to divide us.”
The award couldn’t come at a more symbolic time as Donald Trump’s single term as United States president draws to a dramatic close. A key commitment of his 2016 campaign and “zero tolerance” immigration policy was building a wall between the two countries, and when the U.S. Senate refused to fund the structure’s $5.7 billion cost, it triggered the country’s longest government shutdown in history. Horrific images of migrants—particularly children and families—seeking U.S. asylum and enduring brutal conditions at detainment centers along the border were suddenly omnipresent. His administration then released a Steel Slat Barrier wall to widespread ridicule from designers; it was later revealed that prototypes of the structure failed basic tests.
Seesaws aside, the U.S.-Mexico border wall has long been a topic of fascination for Rael. He authored the book Borderwall as Architecture: A Manifesto for the U.S.-Mexico Boundary, which explores the wall’s impact while proposing several creative alternatives for its design and purpose, ultimately encouraging its conceptual and physical dismantling. (On a similar note, Surface asked eight design firms to reimagine a more humane border without walls in 2019.) Rael describes it as “an artistic and intellectual hand grenade of a book, both a protest against the wall and a projection about its future.” Drawings and models from the book have been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and since the Teeter-Totter Wall went viral, the book has become one of Amazon’s top sellers in architectural criticism.
Both Rael and San Fratello aimed to start dialogue around the border wall—one of the Trump administration’s hotly contested issues—in “a very frank way but using humor.” It’s safe to say they succeeded. “The project resonated with people around the world in a way that we didn’t anticipate,” San Fratello said when the award was announced. “It speaks to the fact that most people are excited about being together, and about optimism and about possibility and the future. And the divisiveness actually comes from the minority. I think it’s become increasingly clear with the recent events in our country that we don’t need to build walls—we need to build bridges.”
“What the project did was show an entirely different narrative of what the border is from what was being portrayed by the news or by the leader of the regime,” Rael told The Art Newspaper. “Suddenly, we saw a landscape with mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and children, all playing together in a space that everyone assumed was a no man’s land. There are so many metaphors that are embedded in the project that people can read into in a number of ways, whether you understand the political situation of the U.S., or you just understand what it means to be separated from someone you love.” He adds: “Walls don’t stop people from entering our Capitol. Walls don’t stop viruses from moving. We have to think about how we can be connected without hurting each other.”