Architecture as Activism

It’s not every day that the work of a UC Berkeley professor becomes a viral sensation. Professor Ronald Rael spoke to Berkeley Connect Architecture students about a recent project that thrust him into the national spotlight and shared with them how the work emerged from his personal background and passions.

Growing up near the border of New Mexico and Colorado, Rael got his first taste of architectural work building homes for members of his community with his father. Despite having an evident passion for architectural work, Rael described his perception of college as being only a place for future lawyers and doctors. When he enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he began a path towards Pre-Med, before discovering the world of architecture both in classes and in the world around him. His passion returned and he excelled in his architectural classes, earning his Bachelor of Environmental Design as a top student. Rael went on to pursue a Master of Architecture at Columbia University. He laughed when recalling his youthful confusion between the country of Columbia and Columbia University.

One of Professor Rael’s key focuses has been the US-Mexico border, an area he argues has been hugely misrepresented by the national news media. Instead of a dangerous wasteland filled with criminals, Rael described the border as a place that thousands call home, including many families. That’s why, when he witnessed large amounts of steel being transported to reinforce the border throughout his youth and early adulthood, he became fascinated by this boundary. Over the course of his career, he has dug into the architecture of the border wall to better understand the tensions surrounding it. One of his most famous contributions to the discussion was the design of a teeter-totter situated between the border, with one half on the United States and the other on Mexico.

This design earned Rael much praise for its innovative approach to activism, highlighting the rhetorical misunderstanding of the border as a dangerous and inhumane place. Rael wasn’t comfortable with the praise he received for his design, however, as he felt that the design was empty without practical implementation. He recounted his attempts to reach out to the Department of Homeland Security with different design proposals, which were met with firm denials each time. In a stroke of luck, a Mexican art collective reached out to Rael and offered to construct the teeter-totter themselves. With their help, he was able to turn his vision into reality in 2019.

Once construction was complete, Rael was tasked with setting up the teeter-totter on the border, a difficult and frightening proposal given the border tensions stirred up in the wake of the 2016 election and increased scrutiny of the border. Despite his reservations, Rael reminded himself that activists must be prepared to be arrested for what they believe in. Armed with this knowledge and the fully constructed teeter-totter, Rael and some friends made their way to the border and set up their creation.

The event was a massive success, with a high rate of participation. Children eagerly took turns on the teeter-totter on both sides of the border, while their mothers watched close by. Rael recalled his concern when, within ten minutes, US Border Patrol agents showed up to the figure out what was going on. Thankfully, the agents were sympathetic to the cause and stood by watching and taking pictures. The Mexican National Guard arrived soon after and similarly didn’t intervene.

Quickly, the images and footage from the demonstration went viral, generating an outpouring of support. The message of the project had obviously struck a chord with people in both countries and helped to create an oasis of peace amidst the tension. In the face of child separations and increased border wall development, this provided a sliver of hope to residents at the border with a rare moment of unity between the two countries.

Architecture is a craft that Professor Rael described as having lost its social agency, serving more often as a tool of corporations and uniformity. While he explained that there was nothing wrong with corporate or capitalistic architecture, he believes that architecture must rediscover that social agency to make the world a better place. He argues that architects “don’t design walls, they design the space between walls.” Through his work, he has quite literally designed the space between physical and ideological walls.