Architecture students re-imagine design possibilities for ports of entry at US-Mexico border

An architecture design project brought the current border crisis to the classroom this past spring.

Chi Zhang incorporated the night sky in his design for a Residential Family Center to ensure that detained migrants would could see the starry sky no matter where they were. (Images courtesy of Stephen Leet, professor of architecture in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis)

PRESIDIO – An architecture design project brought the current border crisis to the classroom this past spring. A group of graduate students from Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis spent a few days in West Texas in March to study the Presidio port of entry, and design facilities that create a more welcoming and safe space for asylum seekers.

Every semester, the students work on a design project for a hypothetical situation. Professor of Architecture Stephen Leet has brought his classes to Marfa for these projects in the past, and chose Presidio for its close proximity to Marfa and its size compared to the larger ports of entries.

“It’s small. There’s open land near the border,” said Leet. “It’s close to Marfa. Mainly, it just seemed perfect for the project.”

Leet, who also teaches in Italy, saw the parallels with his research into Italy’s involvement with the Holocaust during World War II and the current political climate with migrants seeking aslyum in the U.S.

In the past few years, families seeking asylum from mostly South American countries have been separated at the border under Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy. Reports and photos showed overcrowded facilities and dismal living conditions after several members of Congress toured two border patrol stations in El Paso and Clint, and a children’s facility in El Paso, earlier this month.

Instead of focusing on a wall, Lett had his students focus on designing facilities for these people at the border.

This migrant housing proposal, by Muzi Dong, centers on a garden-like courtyard.

“Imagine if the government committees funded something like this, they could construct facilities like this,” said Leet. “All of that for immigrants waiting for court reviews. It would be done in a very carefully designed way.”

Leet and his students only spent a few hours in Presidio. They ate at The Bean Cafe and shopped at Montana Western Wear before they headed to the Presidio/Ojinaga Port of Entry. They didn’t work directly with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for the project, but the students got an idea of what a port of entry does, and what it’s like to cross through the U.S.-Mexico border.

The CPB officers asked the class what they were doing when they approached the port heading to Mexico. Leet said the officers were polite, but they didn’t answer any of their questions and wouldn’t allow photography of the facilities. The students could take photos of the landscape. They walked across the border into Ojinaga, Chihuahua, Mexico, and noticed the stark contrast between Presidio’s facilities and Ojinaga’s facilities.

The port is currently under construction to expand the bridge to two lanes from both directions and build a wider sidewalk to accommodate pedestrian traffic. Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) received a presidential permit that authorized the Presidio International Bridge expansion in 2017. The plan was set in motion a few years ago with the support of the City of Presidio and Presidio County. Construction started on the U.S. side in March of last year. The new Ojinaga facilities, on the other hand, were completed and operational in 2017.

Leet compared the new facilities in Ojinaga to a small airport. He said the lobby is nice. There are shaded areas to protect people from the desert heat, and the bathrooms look like they belong in a hotel.

After walking around Ojinaga for an hour, the class walked to the port of entry to return to the U.S., and were again questioned by CBP officers. Student Nandan Kelotra, who is from India, said the officers seemed to become more serious with each student that went through the reentry process. Most of the students are Chinese, but they all had their passports and visas to gain access to the U.S.

For Kelotra, it was the serious tone in the officers’ voices as they verified each student that made him wonder how the officers would talk to someone who requests asylum without any documentation with them.

“Now I put myself in their shoes,” said Kelotra. “How would they treat them?”

Kelotra said the architecture students took the experience into account as they worked on their designs––each one reflecting on the emotional trauma one might go through as they seek a better life. Each student designed spaces that provided a place to wash-up and refresh before a migrant goes through the immigration process at the port of entry. Leet said the designs are similar to a small college campus: with narrow streets, comfortable living spaces and a shared dining area.

In addition to spending time at the port of entry, the group studied the adobes at Fort Leaton State Historical Site, east of Presidio, to incorporate the West Texas climate into their designs.

Kelotra stressed that by coming to the border, he and his colleagues were able to incorporate the emotional toll of crossing the border as a minority. He said, “We could have been sitting there at our schools, grabbing images from online sources,” and not fully knowing what the experience is like for individuals who would use their designs.

The often starry night sky also became an aspect of the designs. During a dinner at Convenience West, Leet told his students, many of whom come from urban areas, to look up at the sky. They were overwhelmed by what they saw.

“They turned into children,” said Leet. “They’ve never seen a clear night sky in their lives.”

Leet said Chi Zhang incorporated the sky into his design, making sure the migrants detained at the port could see the starry sky no matter where they were.

“If you can see the sky clearly at night and day, and see the mountains beyond, it would heighten the idea that you’re not being held in captivity. You can think about freedom,” said Leet. “If you leave, you’ll see that same sky.”

Kelotra said the biggest lesson his class learned was how good architecture could be part of the solution to the current crisis at the border.

“If the U.S. would take architecture into consideration, it could change a lot of factors like a space where you can have refugees,” said Kelotra.

He added that architecture like this could be a big step in helping those who arrive at the border.