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“We shape our buildings; thereafter our buildings shape us.” – Winston Churchill
Looking up a concrete wall towards cloudy blue sky
-image © Gustavo Belemmi

Architecture and politics have always been inevitably interwoven: both communicate ideas to a wide range of people, and both change with the rapidly shifting landscape of public opinion and everyday life.

However, they also rely on each other.

Architecture needs a considerable investment of time and money to become a reality, and where there is finance, there are politics. Very often, politics use architecture to create an ideal image and to reinforce an idea.


From a pessimistic perspective, the world today might seem to be regressing to the ideals of a 100 years back rather than working towards the globally cooperative and boundary-leaping future. With the messy Brexit dealings, Trump’s alienating speeches, and perhaps a global increase in the hostile opposition to immigration, today’s nations appear to become more introverted and self-reliant. In fact, according to National Geographic, there are over 70 countries worldwide that use separation barriers to fortify their borders.

A map of separation barriers around the world.
A map of separation barriers around the world.

Perhaps, one of the most discussed pawns in this movement is Trump’s border wall. For many, the wall separating the US and Mexico is a symbol of anti-immigration, a highlight of the still-existing racial hierarchy and a political bullying move.


However, the idea of building walls to keep others out (or in some, cases, to keep them in) is nothing new. And Trump’s “new and improved” wall won’t be the last, for history is doomed to be repeated unless lessons are learned from the past.

Here is a selection of walls that left their mark in history.

The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China.
The Great Wall of China.

The first on the list is, of course, perhaps the most widely known defensive wall in the world. Built to protect China against foreign invaders, most of the wall still stands today and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is an impressive 21,000 km long structure of stone, brick, wood and earth.

Similar structures: (military defense) 2500 year old fortifications of Dún Aonghasa in Ireland, the defensive wall of Constantinople and Hadrian’s Wall

Berlin Wall
 A woman and a child walk down a street next to the Berlin Wall.
A woman and a child walk down a street next to the Berlin Wall. – image © rarehistoricalphotos

The infamous Berlin Wall occupies a particular spot in history as the first wall to be built to keep people in. Diving the East and West Germany, the Berlin Wall was a heavily guarded concrete barrier that personified the ideological division in the country. It was destroyed in November 1991.

Similar structures: (political division) Cyprus Green Line Separation Barrier

Israel West Bank Barrier – Palestine
Israel West Bank Barrier curves along the Green Line.
Israel West Bank Barrier curves along the Green Line. – image © Baz Ratner / REUTERS

The 708 km long separation barrier along the Green Line is source of great controversy. Israel claims that the heavily guarded barrier is a preventive measure against terrorism, while Palestinians argue that it is a form of racial segregation.

Rio’s “Wall of Shame”
The wall in Rio de Janeiro seen from a main road
The wall in Rio de Janeiro blocks the view to the poorer neighborhoods. – image © LightRocket

Dubbed as such by the residents of the city and the journalists, the separation wall in Rio separates the favelas from the rest of the city. Unconvincingly introduced as a noise prevention barrier, the wall hides the poorer neighborhoods from view of the visitors.

Similar structures: (social division) Peru’s Wall of Shame in Lima

US/Mexico Border Wall
The border between Mexico and US is blocked a combination of concrete walls and metallic fences.
The border between Mexico and US is blocked a combination of concrete walls and metallic fences. – image © Wikimedia Commons
Prototypes for Trump’s new wall are displayed at the border.
Prototypes for Trump’s new wall are displayed at the border. – image © Elliott Spagat/AP

And of course, there is the border wall between the US and Mexico. The highly discussed length of wall and fence stretching over a 930 km distance along the southern border is designed to obstruct illegal immigration from Mexico. The US President Donald Trump’s election relied heavily on promises to construct a larger, more fortified wall.

Similar structures: (anti illegal immigration walls) EU-Bulgaria/Turkey wall, Korean Demilitarized Zone

Building Walls in the 21st Century

In an interview in Financial Review, the architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne explains: “In the simplest sense, human beings build two kinds of things in the world. We build connective things and we build protective things. We build tunnels and we build walls.”

In this balance of connection and protection, flow or static enclosure, walls are the instinctive choice for defense. They represent a division between us and them. They provide an authority through the control of what stays in and what is kept out.

“As people become more accustomed to security, they have a lower threshold for what triggers their insecurity.” – David Frye, in National Geographic

However, our views of borders are not as strict and clearly defined as before, due to the digital advancements of our age. Borders are not necessarily impregnable obstacles walling in part of land. In their essence, borders are meant to be permeable, even temporary or flexible in certain situations.

As a result, defensive walls are becoming obsolete with the technological developments of the 21st century.

Why Walls Don't Work

The concept of defensive walls is as ancient as it is now redundant: it is the concept of creating a physical barrier and a tactical advantage between the enemy and yourself. But at the end of the day, as goes the delicate game between attacker and defender in the real or today’s digital world, a wall is just another challenge to be solved and leaped over. When the door is fortified, the security threat just moves on to the next access point, be it the window or the roof.

In addition to tactical and defensive shortcomings, walls are also too static and confining in today’s world, where technology allows us to travel fast, to explore far and digital advancements blur boundaries. Building walls does not only keep others out, it traps us in.

An aerial view of the picnic installation at the USA/MExico border
Picnic at US-Mexico border, an art installation/event by the artist JR -image @jr / Marc Azoulay

Adding the negative ecological factors to the social and humane restrictions, separation walls prove to be an ancient practice in a world where technology and society has long evolved past.

Pursuing protectionism “is like locking oneself in a dark room. While wind and rain may be kept outside, that dark room will also block light and air.” – Xi Jinping

The Berlin Wall itself shows the inhuman, harsh and cold outcomes of political ideologies, and the divisive effect of architecture in politics, as well as the fact that all walls can and will eventually be torn down.

So, what do we build, if not walls?

Unfortunately, there is no clear answer, as we live in a complex, nuanced world. The best approach would be to strike a balance: opening up to new cultures, experiences, and opportunities without losing one’s agency.

Perhaps, it is time for building bridges instead of walls.

Time for building more sanctuaries, which help protect immigrants, which heal the alienation of communities, which encourage supporting each other in humane conditions. The billions of dollars that would be spent on a mostly ineffective wall should be instead invested in public infrastructures, supporting the communities and providing real benefits.

“We shape our buildings; thereafter our buildings shape us.” – Winston Churchill


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