When the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, in 2017, set up prototypes of what would come to constitute the U.S.-Mexico border wall, architectural journalist and AD contributor Ian Volner traveled to the Sonoran Desert to get a glimpse of the wall’s would-be structure. Though he wrote about the experience for Foreign Policy magazine, the visit would also become the genesis of a larger project: The Great Great Wall: Along the Borders of History from China to Mexico, a new book published this week by Abrams Press.
The U.S.-Mexico border is a key through line of The Great Great Wall, but it isn’t only about that wall, and it certainly isn’t just about our present-day debate surrounding it. If it was about assessing the utility of the proposed wall, the book would be, as Volner puts it, “one paragraph long.”
Instead, he locates this experience and the story that emerges from it in resonance with other walls he visited, including the Israel/West Bank barrier wall, the Great Wall of China, Jericho, and the site of the former Berlin Wall. His visit to the prototypes elicited what he calls “a vague sense of irony, a kind of historical déjà vu.” And this is the story he tells, explaining, on one hand, the history and political debate that led to border walls, and his own subjective experience with those walls. As he says in a conversation with AD, “there was this affective range, a brew of emotions that kept arising with each encounter with the prototypes, or with, say, the Israel/West Bank barrier—a kind of dread, a sense of awe, a sense of the sublime.”
Volner structures the book in multiple parallel narratives, blending political and economic reportage, historical research, and a firsthand travelogue rendered with personal inflection, resulting in what he calls an “unusual hybrid.” By structuring it in this way, Volner, in the span of a just a few pages, can exegete a passage from the Bible, present conflicting archaeological points of view, untangle immigration policies, and recall his impressions on, for example, visiting the Alamo for the first time. Along the way, his own photographs illustrate the text.
For the most part, there is nary a mention of Trump. He is there between the lines, of course, but one of the successes of the book is the way it steers clear from being a flash-in-the-pan title taking on a political figure in the electoral crosshairs, focusing instead on a longer view. And one theme that emerges from that long view is the very pernicious role of walls not just in trying to keep populations separate (and doing that most basic role with questionable efficacy and diminishing returns), but also in defining who those populations are. If walls divide “us” from “them,” then just what does “us” mean, and how do we define “them”?
To the chorus of opinions tackling the humanitarian, policy-related, political, economic, or environmental arguments about the proposed U.S.-Mexico wall, Volner’s is a welcome voice. From his vantage point in architectural journalism, he is able to take a long view, incorporating those subjects and questioning just what such a wall would mean.
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest