A/D/O by MINI | Border Architecture

Border Architecture

From sinister structures to flashy branding exercises, border checkpoints are indicative of political climate and national pride.

Next to the brick mass of Friedrichstrasse railway station in the centre of Berlin is a lightweight 1960s pavilion that was informally called The Palace of Tears. Looking at it just as an architectural object, it's the sort of building that is very fashionable today. This optimistic piece of pop-modernist design, by the architect Horst Luderitz consists of a concrete rotunda with a swooping roof and a full-height glass facade. It was built in 1962 as a result of the erection of a distinctly uglier concrete structure the previous year – the Berlin Wall, or as it was officially known, the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart. Really two extremely long, snaking walls with a heavily militarized and lethal border between, caked in graffiti on the West side and left untouched on the East, the Berlin Wall was the starkest image of a border you could imagine – a wall, and a killing field beyond it. The Palace of Tears was the polite face of the same border. One was “architecture”, one was not. In that, it has been influential.

The Palace of Tears acted as the main crossing between East and West Berlin

In thinking about the architecture of borders, that dual identity is always worth bearing In mind – you may find, as at an airport or a railway station, a checkpoint designed to create a feeling of arrival and departure, and beyond it, something much more sinister. So while the Berlin Wall had its checkpoints you could pass through, such as the famous Checkpoint Charlie in the city centre, most of those who crossed between the city's two halves did so at The Palace of Tears, which was connected with the city's divided public transport network – the tears were shed by those stuck in the East as they saw off their relatives, en route to the S-Bahn connection back to the West. This high tragedy of The Palace of Tears was paralleled at the road crossings between East and West Germany proper, such as the partly preserved Checkpoint Helmstedt – a simple space-frame over a motorway, the sort of border you could find anywhere; only beyond that was the electrified wire.

J Mayer H created a statement at the Georgia-Turkey border crossing at Sarpi. Photo by Marcus Buck

Borders, of the “hard” kind, have proliferated in recent years, as politics shifts towards paranoid nationalism; a European or American citizen with a passport generally doesn't see the wire, just the smoother checkpoints. A Eurostar passenger going between London and Paris sees today's equivalents of The Palace of Tears or Checkpoint Helmstedt at Gare de Nord and St Pancras, but they see the equivalents of the Berlin Wall only briefly, as at the terrifying array of fences surrounding Calais-Frethun station, which makes sure that those stuck in the “jungle” can't cross the English Channel illegally; seeing these on those occasions when the fast train slows down in Calais can be quite a shock. 

The Sarpi checkpoint was used as a branding campaign by Georgia's president. Photo by Beka Pkhakadze

Less tense borders have seen experiments in branding. The most prominent of these has been at the Georgian-Turkish border crossing at Sarpi, on the Black Sea. Here, a sensual and surreal concrete structure by the German architectural firm Jurgen Mayer H stands as an Instagram beacon, and as a logo for this startlingly beautiful country. It was intended as such; Mayer's many roadside buildings in the country, commissioned directly by Georgia's then-president Mikheil Saakashvili, were pitched as a branding exercise, and appeared on the cover of the architectural magazine MARK in an election year, with the slogan “Brand New Georgia – Saakashvili Rebuilds a Country”. He actually used this cover as an election billboard. Though this failed to get him re-elected, even if you enter the country by air or train you'll note that border control is emblazoned with images of the elegant Sarpi crossing; the branding was clearly successful.

The Van Buren border crossing in Maine was given a bucolic feel. Photo by Paul Crosby

The United States is not a pleasant place to arrive at, thanks to the strictures of the Department of Homeland Security, but interestingly, much tighter security since 2001 has often gone alongside architecturally more ambitious crossings. Under Obama, widespread deportations managed to coincide with impressive new border architecture, where, as at The Palace of Tears, lightweight and imaginative modernist structures accompanied the fences. These crossings include Van Buren on the Canadian border in Maine, given a bucolic new face by Snow Kreilich Architects and Robert Siegel Architects, and Jones Studio's ambitious, tropical redesign of the Mexican crossing at Mariposa Land Port. The critic Amanda Kolson Hurley, reviewing these in 2016, noted that these buildings emerged “not because the US government is soft on immigration or especially fancies modern architecture; it’s because the smooth flow of people and goods across borders is vital to the nation’s economy”. As divided Berlin suggests, these structures could be combined easily enough with Trump's Berlin-style “big, beautiful wall”. 

Text by Owen Hatherley.