Borders: the fixed and the moveable

Across the globe, borders have attracted much attention in recent years. A certain president has made it his mission to build a wall between the US and Mexico. For a moment the prospect that the border between North and South Korea might disappear seemed a tantalizing possibility. At home in the UK, the discussion is about soft, hard and even frictionless borders – between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, between the UK and Europe. And at one point there was even the chance that the border between England and Scotland could become … Well what? A wall? A fence? A barrier on a road?

Questions about the boundary between England and Scotland highlight the paradox of borders – the fact that they are created and monitored to address the perceived needs of communities, but at the same time are distorted, blurred and circumvented by those same people and places. Borders are both distinct – a line on a map, a wall, a river; and vague – a notional and often invisible boundary.

The US-Mexican border wall illustrates this paradox perfectly. In October 2017 eight companies were commissioned to create prototype border walls, which were then tested by ‘tactical teams’ to see if they could be breached – to see if they met the brief to keep Mexicans out of the US. The final design is yet to be decided – or funded.

Meanwhile other groups dismiss the notion not only of such a wall but of the border itself. A design duo from the University of California at San Diego has developed a showcase for this year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture that explores the possibility of a region they call ‘Mexus’ – a place that ‘contains all the stuff that walls cannot stop’ – a cultural, social and ecological whole. Mexican architect Fernando Romero has long had a similar idea. ‘Border City’ – which he presented at the 2016 London Design Biennale – is a borderless urban plan that sits half in the US and half in Mexico. One wonders what the indigenous people who lived in the area long before the Europeans arrived make of these apparently ‘new’ concepts.

In the UK and Ireland one of the great perceived successes of the Good Friday Agreement was the disappearance of the military checkpoints from the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. Now, the fate of this border has become one of the most complex problems the Brexit process faces. Should a ‘hard’ border be reinstated, a host of activities could be affected, including shared electricity networks, environmental protections, and the 30,000 people who cross the border, unchecked and unhampered, every day for work.

A possible solution is the one that has been dubbed ‘a border in the Irish Sea’. A good wide stretch of water cannot be ignored; making it a border would leave the people living on the island of Ireland free to go about their business as they have for two decades. Yet politicians from all sides fiercely oppose such an idea; for many it seems to make a unified Ireland, separate from the UK, one step too close. But doesn’t it actually remind us once again what a nebulous thing borders are, and how caught up they are in people and the places in which they live? Perhaps ‘Mexus’ doesn’t seem so fanciful after all…