Saturday, July 29, 2006

Call it 'Border Ball'

Joshua Bearman, for the LA Weekly, reports on a recent excursion he took to the US/Mexico border, to the Borderfield State Park, to be precise, "California’s most desolate and unknown beach" he writes. "A filthy beach, where the Tijuana River deposits human waste, heavy metals, toxic poisons and other industrial effluvia from Mexico into the ocean. CONTAMINATED WATER; DEEP HOLES; RIPTIDES; NO LIFEGUARD; NO SWIMMING!” the signs announce. It is, as he says, a geopolitically divided beach - "purposefully hidden, a DMZ in miniature" - where the separation fence comes down off the inland hillside like a flimsy rusted spine prosthetic, runing all the way down into the the nape of the beach's neck, to finger a pathetic show of security extending out into the ocean.

I was recently there myself, a very pleasant beach indeed (on the Mexican side, that is). However, a very odd feeling was produced peering back through the eroded holes and cracks and failed patchwork to the American side of this ambigous coastal landscape, fated now by mostly wandering Mexican police on horseback, stockade-like corrugated steel barricade, some border patrol jeeps perched on hilltops, and a few pink American tourists wandering the small containment of the parkless park in awe of the thriving Mexican side through the tiny gaps in all that separates them from the great latin invasion. The very presence of the wall made these gawkers look at it from some sort of safe distance, as if it were contagious or electric, or even unpatriotic to go near it. I remember this obeis sunburnt family in tight shorts and tank tops looking at me, enemy-like, through the fence, disgusted, 'he doesnt look Mexican, what's he doing on that side of the fence?' "Hey, you're on the wrong side of the fence!" Traitor.

To tell you the truth, the "other side" was ten times more appealing. Here, in Mexico, families played in the sun, swimmers wetted their brown bodies in the ocean (for better or worse), vendors sold me fried cheese, music played from a nearby veranda overlooking the beach serving up ice cold beers. In short, it was pretty damn fresh, ironically enough. Life guards trained in groups, joggers made their way down to the pylon wall before mindlessly turning back around to retrace their tracks. Latino tourists came, walked up to the rubber coated fence supports, touched them, pondered the openings between the pylons wide enough to walk through, and then shuffled off, wondering like everyone else - what if I walked through, what would happen? Occasionaly some kids appeared, checking it out briefly, to perhaps stare once more at this ridiculous line drawn in the sand, made even more absurd by such a beautiful context, and then went about their business kissing their girlfriends, taking in the breeze escaping the hectic Tijuna streets. It was the security fence as tourist attraction.

I'd go back there any day just to chill out, as odd and unsettling as it is to sit beside this massive controversial barrier, mocking the border from the beach all the way back inland along the highway and beyond... it's really quite strange to see the starting point - the head of the snake - that one day could stretch 2,000 miles all the way to Texas. This pathetic security sculpture that seals off the great empire's homeland from the entire latin world below it.

Anyway, back to Bearman's story. So, he ventured down there to do what all healthy beach goers go there to do: have fun, kick sand between your toes, and what else, strike up a friendly game of beach volley ball. Only this time, he and his collaborator Brent Hoff were going to use the security fence as the net. Nice! The first-ever game of international border volleyball. Read about it here.

Sounds fun, like maybe this could mark the beginning of a new sport, a new Olympic event of sorts, Border Ball, where the tense physical boundaries of geopolitics and international athletics temporarily collide to soothe the friction space of contested territories with some absurd show of sportmanship.
Sort of reminds me of these speculative sculptural objects I once read about for a Palestinain art exhibit, where tennis rackets and jai alai cestas had been modified to accomodate the grenades and rocks and other projectiles that are frequently hurled back and forth over the border lines of war-torn West Bank and the Gaza strip. Sorry, I couldn't dig up any images of those.

But, with the rising popularity of security fences and separation walls rising up all over the world, maybe a good old fashioned game of Border Ball could deter certain moments or situations from escalating to volleys of rockets, grenades, IED's, etc.. Instead, we could start a worldwide competition, the Great Border Ball Championship, where teams from borderlands all over would get to fly around the world into some of the most hectic neighborhoods to bring a peaceful day of competition to the region by lobbing balls over fences (think of the home court advantage); Mexico upsets Israel, the Canadians manage to topple the Kashmiris, the Palestinians beat the Indians, an African migrant team woops Spain. The Americans go out in the first round, while a surprising show from Bangladesh defeats the Koreans in a grueling tie breaker.
Call it a temporary cease fire, or some bizarre sports therapy, an off season mock olympic challenge, either way it could be the great geopolitical past time of the future. When the World Cup is over, and tensions are mounting over the wall, let the world watch Border Ball.

[All images were taken by me (Bryan Finoki) in June of this year (2006), except the aerials of the Borderfield Park and coastline, and, of course the first-ever game of international border volleyball, whose images are compliments of Joshua Bearman.]

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Subfuturism Under Tokyo

Saw this on Boing Boing and could not resist posting it here. Kaori Nishida for PingMag spoke with Joe Nishizawa, a photographer and author of what looks like an amazing new book, Deep Inside. Check out these unbelievable pics of nuclear power stations, incineration plants and energy research organizations burried just below Japan's impeccable hyper cityscape. Thus, a glimpse of the marvelous technological building blocks of what looks like a certainly unreal future urbanism taking alien root inside the earth, like some kind of subter-metropolitan cross between Fritz Lang, Bladerunner (as Nishida points out) Chris Cunningham, and maybe Survival Research Laboratories; these photos (yes pure photography) crack some light into the complex underbelly of Japan's subtopian sublime waiting to churn, as if these engineered forms will somehow take control and make the island move one day. Nishizawa talks about the Tokya Geo-site Project in which the Hibiya Joint Utility Tunnel was opened to the public "in the middle of just an ordinary park-like field, but opening a thin door," he says, "you get to experience a totally different futuristic world." I can only imagine. Pictured are also the Tokyo Tunnelix which "opens the Central Circular Shinjuku Route construction site to the public."

[Images: Deep Inside by JOE NISHIZAWA. There are a couple more so read this good little interview in PingMag. And on a related tip check out Geoff's earlier post: Tokyo Secret City]

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Life Under Bombs

This weekend's New York Times Magazine has a photo essay of the bomb shelters that have suddenly become very crowded in Israel and Lebanon.

Captive landscapes: Post-Base residue in South Korea

"U.S. Forces Korea expects to return 59 camps totaling 33,000 acres of land and valued at more than $1 billion to South Korea’s government in the next two to four years", the USFK command announced early Friday evening. So far, more than two dozen bases have been closed as part of a plan to consolidate most of its forces. However, the South Korean government has only accepted 15 of those bases, claiming unacceptable pollution levels.
Accrding to this article, Nong Island at Maehyang-ri in Hwaseong City, Gyeonggi Province, has been left "a grave of rusty shells." Fisherman upon returning to the island after the USFK claimed they had done their part, said that "'whenever water flows in, it is red from the heavy metals of the rusty shells stuck in the tidal flats. The heavy metals in the mud flat have poisoned the shellfish' and anything else alive."
The stance of the USFK is that not only do the islands not have to be returned to an environemntal status they were in when they first took over the base lands, but all of these delays turning them over are only costing the South Korean government valuable economic opportunities, while costing U.S. taxpayers "more than $400,000 a month to guard closed bases."
The U.S. government simply doesn't want to pay the cost of protecting the bases while taking the time to properly clean them up, and even say the South Koreans should be thankful for getting that land back for free, without having to pay the utility costs of the capital improvements that have been made to them in billions over the years.
But what good is toxic land ruined by military debris?
According to the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) "a contract between the sender nation and the receiver nation", the environmental policy requires the U.S. to remedy “Known, Imminent, and Substantial Endangerments” (KISE) to human health and safety. And while the U.S. has apparently gone on to remove fuel tanks underground and other heavy metal contaminats, many feel the SOFA agreement is not enough to force the U.S. to take proper responsibility for the land their foreign bases have spoiled through out SK.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Immigrant, The Camp, and The NYSE

[Image: A detention center in Raymondsville, Tex., that can be built in 24 hours as needed. (NYT-2006)]

“Less than two months after voting overwhelmingly to build 370 miles of new fencing along the border with Mexico, the Senate yesterday voted against providing funds to build it,” recent news reported. The alleged 1.8 billion needed to complete the fence could not be allocated without sacrificing many of the other border security measures, like “750 new border-patrol agents and 1,200 new detention beds.” Well, I can’t say I am disappointed by the decision not to fund the security fence, I am concerned though to see where a large chunk of that money has gone instead, that is, the other side of their border security plan - detention beds - hardly a solution for the nation’s immigration problem. But, I must admit, not the least bit surprising.

In yesterday’s New York Times we read about the prison-industrial-complex’s latest fervor. “By the fall of 2007, the administration expects that about 27,500 immigrants will be in detention each night, an increase of 6,700 over the current number in custody. At the average cost these days of $95 a night, that adds up to an estimated total annual cost of nearly $1 billion.”

[Image: Immigration Enforcement Benefits Prison Firms, NYT, 2006.]

Who’s going to cash in on this, and who is ultimately going to pay the price? Take a guess. I’ve written before about KBR’s contract for future detention facilities, but these new contracts really seem to further institutionalize incarceration as the nation’s preferred model for dealing with anything it cannot control; carceral urbanism as a main staple in our free society's cultural landscape.

“The Corrections Corporation of America and the Geo Group — the two biggest prison operators — now house a total of fewer than 20 percent of the immigrants in detention. Currently, Corrections Corp. and Geo already run 8 of the 16 federal detention centers through out the nation." Analysts say, profit margins are higher at detention centers than prisons. Just read the Times’s article.

[Image: Mathieu Gallois, sculptural interpretation of immigration detention facility. (via)]

"Last year, the Correction Corp.’s revenue from holding immigrants jumped 21 percent, to $95 million from $70 million in 2004. Geo, the second largest prison operator, received $30.6 million last year, about the same as the year before. [..] Wall Street analysts said that detention centers produce profit margins of more than 20 percent." While contractor stocks are jumping “Federal immigration contracts generated about $95.2 million, or 8 percent, of Correction Corp.’s $1.19 billion in revenue last year, and about $30.6 million, or 5 percent, of Geo’s $612 million total income." In the first quarter of 2006, apparently Corrections Corp.’s detention revenue rose to $25.5 million. And, according to the Times, the federal immigration agency is now the company’s third-largest customer, after the federal Bureau of Prisons and the United States Marshals Service. "The detention market is projected to increase by $200 million to $250 million over the next 12 to 18 months.”

From this recent MSNBC article, “Due to a lack of space in detention facilities, 74% of non-Mexican (150,000 captured a year) illegal immigrants are released. 60% of them never show up for hearings. Those that are detained are kept in facilities that cost $35,000 a year per bed (which now total 20,800). Of course, moves to expedite removal may not work either, the US is still trying to convince China to take back 40,000 nationals here illegally."

Putting an end to the “catch an release” tactic of apprehending immigrants and releasing before deporting them, “The government also plans to detain more immigrants, especially those from countries other than Mexico, while they await their hearings.” Yeah, you guessed it, instead of figuring on strategies for strengthening Mexico's economy, the U.S. is going to put those billions into temp-to-perm jails and detention beds instead. Kind of makes one think, if the U.S. secretly welcomes the floods of immigrants so new prison industry moguls can cash in at the expense of the taxpayer, to say the very least. After all, it seems to be an industry with infinite potential.

According to this SF Chron article, “On any given day, the system overseen by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detains about 21,000 people — most for a few weeks, some for years. Some are asylum seekers; others are illegal immigrants or foreigners who had U.S. residence cards but face deportation because of run-ins with the law.”

From the same article, more than "200,000 people are detained over the course of a year in any of three types of facilities — eight run by ICE itself, six run by for-profit companies that are eager for more business, and 312 county and municipal jails that have won lucrative federal contracts and hold about 57 percent of the detainees. Advocacy groups call it a hodgepodge system that is expensive and difficult to monitor.”

The federal government says it needs around 35,000 more detention beds to hold all of the illegal immigrants that are currently awaiting deportation. As of Dec. 30, there were 544,000 such people who had merely disappeared.

From what I've read, on average detention can last from 20 to 90 days. However, conditions for the most part of these detention facilities are appalling. Judy Greene explains for Democracy Now: “In the last decade, with increased emphasis on immigrant enforcement, the immigrant detention system, the little industry, has tripled in size to a capacity now of some 22,000 beds. Some of these beds are private. Some of these beds are operated by ICE. Some of these beds are in jails. But the private sector is gobbling up an increasing share of these resources. Now, since 9/11, there's been an increased blurring of the line between immigrant enforcement and law enforcement. And now, with the hyper-politicized immigration reform debate, we're seeing bills that would completely erase that line.”

Mark Dow also adds, “The reason I use the phrase "immigration prisons" is because we talk a lot about detention. We’re hearing a lot about detention. But when people are detained, they are incarcerated. They are prisoners. They're stripped of their clothing. They’re given inmate uniforms. It's not that they're treated like prisoners, they are prisoners. So even though this is administrative, quote-unquote, “detention,” it has nothing to do with serving time for a sentence. These people are jailed as prisoners, and they are in jails, they are in prisons, and sometimes in what are called detention centers or processing centers, but as a warden once told me, these are all the same thing."

And Dow goes onto say, "Part of the problem for these immigration prisoners, like some of the ones that have been talking to you today, is that they are isolated from families. They're isolated from legal help. They are often put in rural areas, where there simply aren't lawyers in the area who can help them. And none of that is an accident. In fact, often if immigration prisoners are in a big city, where they might have legal help or family support, the immigration agency, ICE, will often move them to isolated rural areas to make sure that they're more cut off and more isolated. So the immigration service actively works to cut them off from the little due process that's available to them.”

Another large misconception is that illegal immigration across the border has increased dramatically since 9/11. However, “According to the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, the number of unauthorized immigrants arriving in this country is down by about 50,000 a year from the late 1990’s.”

Anyway, with all that said, be sure to check out the Camp Campaign project, which explores the phenomoenon of "the camp" (in all it's forms: Gitmo, prisons, labor camps, internment camps, refugee camps, detention camps, etc), and "its relation to other phenomenon we are confronted with in the social and political landscape." The Camp as "a more acute or extreme version of what is taking place around us in the name of security," in a "state of exception, in this case, the suspension of the rule of law (e.g., Patriot Act, illegal combatants, military tribunals, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay), have become increasingly common devices of governance, perhaps the norm, in "democratic" states in this last century."

(Thanks to Geoff for the NYT article, and to Critical Spatial Practice for the Camp Campaign project, and thanks to the Javinator, too)

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Peripheral Milit_Urb 8


Bush Space.: anArchitecture covers the urban accomodation of George Bush who occupied the city center in Vienna for a summit in June. Google Earthing the barriers and all. Check it out.

As hundreds of National Guardsmen roll into New Orleans to help stem the violence in that hurricane- ravaged city, other cities with large populations of evacuees are managing to control crime without the use of the military. CSMonitor examines the militarization of local law enforcement.

Post-Katrina New Orleans has become a city of firearms, fears and feral gangs. Jim Gabour describes life under siege. Jim Gabour writes in openDemocracy on the state of Urban Renewal in NOLA.

Gangs (primary loyalties) in the US military: Global Guerrillas on the emergence of primary loyalties - gang, tribe, clan, ethnicity, religion, and more - can power a much more cohesive organizational alternative to that of the nation-state. We are seeing this process of fragmentation emerge globally.

Operation Valiant Shield, Joint U.S. Pacific Command operations in the Pacific: The joint exercise consists of 28 naval vessels, more than 300 aircraft and approximately 20,000 service members.

$2.1 billion dollars a year ain't enough for the brains in charge of Los Alamos National Lab, apparently. So the world's most important nuclear research center has turned to the U.S. Postal Service, of all places, to fund its new, 400,000 square foot "Science Complex." - Defense Tech on the ostal Service Funding Nuke Labs

A Hollywood-budget public service announcement aims at discouraging suicide attacks in Iraq and elsewhere. This Is Your Street Mid-Bombing (via)

United Nations investigators have found most of the small arms fueling the conflict in Sudan's western Darfur are Chinese despite an arms ban on a region where tens of thousands have been killed and 2.5 million squat in squalid camps. Phronesisaical links to a good story.

Password-protected bullets: The way to make firearms really safe, says Hebert Meyerle, is to password-protect the ammunition itself. WMMNA

Lightening Bombproof Freedom: The Freedom Fortress at the former World Trade Center site gets a major change as Childs and SOM cover the bunker base with composite glass panels. NYT (via: Archinect)

The Sierra Club sued the Department of Defense on Wednesday, saying its failure to complete a key study has stopped construction of more than a dozen wind farms in the Midwest.

Shock and awe is coming home. The Bush administration is planning to conduct future preemptive wars with "mini-nukes" and, to that end, wants to set off a nuclear-sized explosion at the government's Nevada Test Site, sixty-five miles northwest of Las Vegas. So far, the Department of Defense's latest testing plan -- code named "Divine Strake" -- has been thwarted by the organized citizens of Utah and Nevada, but the clock is running out. MoJo breaks it down in Pentagon Fireworks Deferred.

A Nuclear Family Vacation in Russia: Once inhabited by about 50,000 atomic workers, Kurchatov now has only 10,000 residents. By the mid-1990s, things really bottomed out. Almost worthless apartments were going for as little as $200, and no one thought the town had much of a future. Now, the town is being revived. (previously)

Baghdad security plan staggers on. The Iraqi government is to review its much-trumpeted security plan for Baghdad, in the light of Saturday's massive explosion in the mainly Shia suburb of Sadr City. BBC; Iraqis Call State of Emergency in Baghdad; After at least two high-profile incidents of alleged abductions in Baghdad in the space of a few days, BBC News looks at Iraqi officials' outwardly impressive, but often wholly inadequate, security arrangements - Iraq's mixed bunch of bodyguards. More on Bush's Baghdad Palace (earlier on Subtopia)

London’s security architecture: the end of the sustainable city? The intensive anti-terror security measures implemented in London – both before and after 7/7 – are altering the relationship between the citizen and public space, says Jan Willem Petersen. Jan Willem Petersen for openDemocracy. (thanks Rob!)

Wallerstein on Walls: As for effectiveness, walls are effective in the short run to keep many (not all) people out, and to keep many (not all) people in. But in the middle run, walls are politically abrasive and magnify injustice, and therefore tend to force further negotiations. The one sure thing we can say about walls is that they are certainly neither friendly nor charitable nor a sign of freedom. (Space and Culture)

For a 1.5km (1 mile) stretch of highway in Utrecht, Kas Oostherhuis and ONL were asked to design an acoustical barrier and a showroom for Hessing, a seller of high-end luxury and sports cars like Bentley, Bugatti, and Maserati. Their design responds to the speed of movement through a streamlined shape that gradually changes in plan and section across its length. (Daily Dose - Acoustical Barrier + Hessing Cockpit)

The Architecture of Slaughter: The article explains the preference in Hong Kong for "warm" meat and the government's decision to create a central abattoir facility in 1999 in an outlying area near rail and road networks and a sewage treatment plant to help provide for this preference, while also "ensuring the highest international standards for hygiene and safety, operational efficiency and environmental management." "But before you design a slaughterhouse, ya gotta learn how one works." Dose take a look.

Halliburton: No Bid, No Dice: Halliburton's lucrative logistics contract with the US Army is to come to an end, the military has said. BBC.

Northrop to sell laser shield 'bubble' for airports: Northrop Grumman forecast Wednesday a potential "very large" market for a laser-based system it has developed to shield airports and other installations from rockets, ballistic missiles and other threats. More in Gizmag.


The Power of the Eye : The power of the gaze to condition behavior is widely known. From Bentham to Eisenstein to GWB the watching eye has played a significant role in shaping our culture and behaviors. A new study has shown that even photocopied images of eyes have the power to make subjects behave more truthfully...(via: Archinect)

The problem with the American military today is that it doesn't have a giant, robotic airship, two-and-a-half times the size of the Goodyear blimp, that can watch over an entire city at once. The Pentagon's way-out research arm, Darpa, is trying to fix that. Defense Tech on an All-Seeing Blimp on the Rise.

Surveillance light fixtures: Mexican-born Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's Homographies combines twisted modernist aesthetics and surveillance technology. WMMNA

Technology for parents to spy on kids: Parents turn to tech toys to track teens, read in the SF Chron.

This Is a Computer on Your Brain: A new brain-computer-interface technology could turn our brains into automatic image-identifying machines that operate faster than human consciousness. Wired

A passport to privacy breaches: get ready for RFID's in your passport.

Eagle Pass, TX Police and UCSD engineers deploy video surveillance system on Caminno Real Bridge along U.S.-MEXICO border.

The Rise of the surveillance industrial complex: by Andrew Lichterman. (via:


Pentagon developing supersonic shape-shifting assassin: For years, the U.S. military has wanted a plane that could loiter just outside enemy territory for more than a dozen hours and, on command, hurtle toward a target faster than the speed of sound. And then level it. CNN

Chinese Death Vans: BLDGBLOG on China's mobile torture/execution chambers.

Police have taken to an unusual form of locomotion in the Brazilian city of Belem. It's law-enforcing buffaloes. (BBC).

The World’s Fastest Police HUMMER
: A Texas sherrif hires a German company to turn his beloved vehicle into the fastest police hummer in town.

Electric military vehicle system of the future
: Swedish BAE Systems subsidiary Hagglunds AB offered a glimpse of the future of military land systems at the recent Eurosatory military equipment exhibition in Paris when it showed a completely reconfigurable electrical vehicle with interchangeable, specialized mission modules, and a choice of wheeled or tracked drives, both electrically driven.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Tijuana River Re-realized

[Image: Teddy Cruz, Tijuana River, 1999, photo- construction. Courtesy of University Art Gallery, UCSD.]

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Cruz along the border...

Architecture Radio has posted a mp3 of a lecture given back in February by Teddy Cruz.

From the site: "Inspired by his studio's location at the border between San Diego, California and Tijuana, Mexico, Cruz's work explores the uniqueness of this bicultural territory. Cruz's work integrates research, theory, and design production to create architecture, interiors, furniture, installations, public art, and landscape interventions. Over the past decade, Cruz has demonstrated a commitment to finding architectural and urban planning solutions for global political and social problems that proliferate in international border zones. Taking his theoretical frame of reference as a starting point, Cruz has pursued investigations that stimulate an unconventional practice addressing the future of "divided" cities and the larger phenomenon of border zones. Cruz currently teaches at Woodbury University where he is forming "Border Institute" (BI) to further research the urban phenomena at the border between the United States and Mexico." (via: Archinect)

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Migrant Structures

I recently wrote an article for Inhabitat on Migrant Structures, which was posted fittingly enough on July 4th. You can read the article here, though I am reposting it on Subtopia with some added research I came across while putting it together. Also, thanks to Sarah Rich for helping me with some crucial edits.

With so much focus on the US Government militarizing the US/Mexico border right now, it can be easy to miss the new types of migrant urbanism cropping up in the borderlands. For architects and designers, it’s a process that presents important questions, and great potential for innovation.

How can architecture reconcile the transborder pressures of providing adequate housing with the inevitable tides of hyper-immigration? How can it help manage the increasing sprawl of the destitute colonias swelling between the two countries? And how can we bring new models of planning and infrastructure to areas of booming migrant settlement? How can design help to preserve the cultural identities of (im)migrants, or even help in some way to secure their political status here in the U.S.? Can design facilitate ties between immigrants and local municipalities, while preserving their connections to their homelands? Furthermore, how can future migrant structures suture the dismal and widespread labor-scapes of poor rural America?

From cheap hotels to border crossing choke points, smuggler tunnels to detention camps; from temporary labor shack housing to urban homeless shelters; squatter encampments to life in a vehicle, thousands of deprived families squat perpetually between various nodes of borderzone nomadism. Could a solution to farmworker housing help resolve other sectors of nomadic urbanism, like homelessness, or emergency housing for natural disaster refugees? How might our focus on migrant structures address these populations, as well?

For example, Public Architecture explores how the proliferation of informal day laborer shelters that are popping up in the urban core could be designed to help dignify and institutionalize this laborer space. But perhaps these structures could also serve as a bridge with other communities who stand to benefit from similar projects, like bicyclists seeking bike shelters, or other labor activists looking for mobile stations in their own field deployment.

First, some quick economic context in order to better understand the farmworker housing issue and how it has played out in the evolution and development of a dispersed borderzone culture in the United States: Current estimates place the number of migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the U.S. today somewhere between 3 and 5 million. 61 percent of these people live in extreme poverty, with an average median income less than $7,500 annually, and a household income somewhere around $10,000, but not exceeding.

Bill Moyers, in 2004, ran a great series ‘On the Border’ which traced the plight of farmworkers in this country through the last century up to their current struggles today. The history of migratory farm labor in the United States began right after the Civil War “when agriculture became increasingly the domain of business enterprises rather than family or subsistence farms. Always at the bottom of the economic ladder” Moyers reminds us, “the migrant labor population was filled time and again with marginalized groups — the poor, immigrants and racial minorities.” His website goes onto emphasize the work of Philip L. Martin, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of California at Davis, who has tracked the tidal wave patterns of the migrant farmworker population, suggesting that during the 1920s there were some two million migrant farmworkers in the United States. By the 1940s, he claims, the number had fallen to about one million. Then, came industrial mechanization and the numbers fell even further close to 200,000 in the 1970s. With the advent of NAFTA, Mexico’s farming industry has faced considerable depletion since and in the last few decades the U.S. has absorbed much of the shift in agricultural output, which has drawn many desperate Latino workers across the border.

In general, employers don’t provide adequate housing, if any at all, and workers and their families are forced to seek shelter in multiple locations during the year, according to the Housing Assistance Council, “usually in small communities with very little rental housing available. Compounding the workers’ difficulty, low prevailing wage rates and limited days of employment have resulted in two-thirds of migrants living below the poverty line.”

The Rio Grande Valley in the south of Texas is the nation’s capital for farmworkers; 90% of the 1 million people there are Hispanic and approximately 1/3rd of those depend on employment in agriculture. The Migrant Legal Action Program places the housing options in two categories: “either on or off the farm.” On the farm, housing is provided, but employers impose stringent control, such as tall fences, “both to keep farmworkers in and to keep outsiders such as lawyers and health care providers out.” These facilities - labor camps, as they are called - are overcrowded and lack the most basic amenities - toilets, running water, and even electricity. On top of it all, this kind of shelter means a reduced paycheck.

The “off the farm” option usually means makeshift shelters constructed out of scrap material from nearby ditches, open fields, abandoned buildings and cars — places dislocated from basic infrastructure, and generally perceived as countryside slums. The MLAP suggested in 2004 “that [at the time] there [was] only enough adequate shelter for 425,000 of the nation’s 1.2 million farmworkers.” Or, about 35%.

In terms of demographics, migrant workers circulating in the United States “follow three general streams. In the East, workers begin in Florida and travel up through Ohio, New York and Maine, following crops that range from citrus to tobacco to blueberries. The Midwestern stream begins in Southern Texas and flows north through every state in the MidWest. Workers in the West begin their season in southern California and follow the coast to Washington state or veer inland to North Dakota.” (pdf) The majority of farmworkers are located in Florida, North Carolina, Texas, California, Michigan, Oregon and Washington.

Along the border, the lower Rio Grande Valley, for instance, is a four-county area that forms the southern tip of Texas and has a population of approximately one million people. According to the organization Migrant Health Promotion, “Nearly 90 percent of the Valley population is Hispanic.2 [And…] The Valley is the permanent home of one of the largest concentrations of farmworkers in the United States; roughly one third of the Valley population depends on employment in agriculture.3” More interesting is that the Valley population grew “an average of 31 percent across counties from 1999 to 2000, compared to 13 percent nationally; yet the region has substantially higher poverty rates than Texas or the United States as a whole”.

Their research goes on to conclude that for residents without specific skills or training, work is very scarce in the Valley. “Thirty-four percent of the entire Valley population lives in poverty compared to 15 percent of the Texas population and to 12 percent nationally. Unemployment rates in the colonias are two to three times state rates, and many sources cite rates up to 60 percent.”

For those who don’t know, colonia means neighborhood or community in Spanish. But, along the U.S.-Mexico border, MPH explains, “colonias are unincorporated and unregulated neighborhoods where lower-income families build and own their own homes. They may or may not own the land.” šAnd in general, I have heard they rarely do. The majority of these communities can be found in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. Texas, unsurprisingly, has the largest number of colonia residents with 400,000 to 500,000. “The Valley alone is home to nearly 2,000 colonias and the bulk of the Texas colonia population. Valley colonia residents are predominately Mexican and Mexican American (99 percent).

Interesting facts, and certainly important while baring in mind the Rio Valley is incredibly polluted due mostly to the expansion of maquiladoras, and considering that the U.S.-Mexico border is expected to grow in population by another 10-15 million by 2020. The combination of this population explosion, the incorrigible sprawl of maquiladora by-product, and a continual expansion of the colonias, could spell a major disaster for the Valley in the coming years. Not to mention the impact of increased border security and how that will influence border crosser patterns in and around the Valley, and how constant patrol may interfere with the natural ecology of the region.

Design Corps, a community-design based architectural outreach and planning organization, has worked in close collaboration with low-income populations since it was founded in 1999. One of their primary projects has been the Farmworker Housing Program, which has helped farmworkers devise their own affordable housing in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

In 2004, Laura Shipman, an advisory Board member of Design Corps, worked with farmworker advocate, Rob Williams, of Florida Legal Services, to design hurricane-resistant housing just after the storms ripped through Florida and devastated much of the already substandard farmworker housing there. The project dealt with specific concerns, like balancing shared housing and communal space (washrooms, TV rooms, recreational spaces, and other community plug-ins) with the need for private and family-friendly areas.

Housing located directly on the farms requires structural elevation and hurricane-resistant features like retractable window panels and back-up ground fastening functions, so ’security’ and ‘openness’ can be equally central to the design. Most important perhaps, is that the end product can be a place which helps overturn the traditional perception that farmworkers only live in run-down shanties.

Design Corps has always treated its clients (often society’s most underserved people) as guides in the process through questionnaires, interviews and charettes; and by establishing a genuine and lasting relationship, which stimulates the community’s own design sensibility and input. Shipman’s project (pdf), while responding to the disasters of Florida’s post-hurricane landscape, is intended to be a model of community design for non-profits working with farmers and migrant workers all over.

Bryan Bell, the founder of Design Corps, who has been doing migrant housing for twelve years, was also featured in Metropolis back in 2004, when he spoke about the process. Specific needs, “which may not be uniform amongst farms around the country,” are teased out in many ways. He says, for instance, “Instead of trying to rewrite migrant housing law, we just do strategic strikes. Like in South Carolina, one of the farmers had used bunk beds. Now, some 48-year-old farmworker shouldn’t have to climb up into a bunk bed. So we put in our lien, ‘No bunk beds.’” Bell proves that design and architecture can provide a bargaining chip for workers seeking to improve their conditions with farmers.

The primary goal has been for housing “that accommodates diverse cultures, counters the stigma associated with farmworker housing, and provides flexibility in configuration that allows for long-term use.” Design Corps’ website, also boldly states, that “while the manufactured housing industry has gained ground in middle- and upper-income markets, it is important that the industry continue to develop its original client base, low-income households, with better products and improved image.”

Another project that was recently shown at the Mobile Living Exhibit in NYC is the Resident Alien, by designer Andrew Dahlgren, a student at the University of Arts. Considering the fact that most migrant workers “find work by word of mouth,” says Dahlgren, and “travel in small groups, from farm to farm with little to no personal belongings,” an ideal solution would be a dynamic and configurable nomadic unit made from standard cargo containers. Dahlgren’s solution (pictured also at the beginning of the article) involves three modules (kitchen and eating, social space, and a bathroom) that could be installed into the containers, or in the beds of semi-truck trailers, and would allow the workers to travel and dock in designated areas around the farms to form their own community configurations tailored to specific conjoined needs.

The architecture becomes a poetic response to fact that migrant workers are “in a way ’shipping’ their lives, belongings, and homes across the country.” And because the units “can be pulled by a truck or van and could be purchased by the workers themselves,” the Resident Alien gives workers a sense of ownership and control of their lives in a context which would otherwise treat them as nomadic serfs.

As spatial translations of global labor grind against an ironic nexus of free flow capital, how might an ideal migrant structure effect the global economy? What can farmworker housing achieve as a form of architectural negotiation with the fetid landscape of globalization’s open (and closed) borders? Can architecture help leverage migrant needs in the harsh marketplace of exploited global labor?

There are many other projects worth mentioning where migrant worker housing is resolved by the creation of affordable housing in general; a Google search pulls up some recent examples: Amistad Farm Laborers Housing, the Kingston House. Some are partially funded by the government’s assistance program, established solely for the purpose of developing farmworker housing, but those amount to a very small portion of what is actually needed.

And, of course, Teddy Cruz out of San Ysidro, California, has been mentioned on Inhabitat before, for doing some of the most important work in this context today, with implications for affordable housing well beyond the borderlands.

But what about all those workers who aren’t fortunate enough to find adequate rental housing or decent employer-provided accommodations? Hopefully, these projects can help suggest ways to alleviate struggles for millions who have come here to seek a better life for themselves. Perhaps, as simple as it may sound, part of the solution for everyone may very well begin with some thoughtful and decent farmworker housing.