A/D/O by MINI | The Great Great Wall

Journal

Architecture

The Great Great Wall

In his new book, author Ian Volner describes his visits to historically significant walls around the world, and offers context and possible lessons for today’s contentious border-wall debates.

Traveling thousands of miles to visit some of the world’s best-known walls might not be everyone’s idea of an enthralling excursion. But Ian Volner traversed the globe to gain first-hand understanding of these famous structures – built to serve as fortifications, to demarcate political boundaries and/or to impress outsiders – and relate their purposes and intentions to those of the “wall” proposed for the United States’ southern border.

Part travelogue, part historical research and part political commentary, the architectural historian and writer’s recently released book, The Great Great Wall, documents his experiences of, (in chronological order): the Walls of Jericho; Hadrian's Wall; the Great Wall of China; the Thiers Walls (the lost city wall of Paris); the Berlin Wall; and the Israel-West Bank barrier. 

These structures proved to be at their time, and are still considered, controversial projects that used monumental construction to exert power and dominance, to confine or exclude, and to divide geographic areas as well as people. These are the same topics brought up in today’s discussions about the US-Mexico wall.

“With each of these [walls], there’s a debate that crops up – a debate that’s often remarkably similar to previous ones. And each one does indeed shine a particular analytical light on the current wall debate,” Volner told The Journal.

Along the route of Hadrian's Wall in England

The idea for the book was born after Volner visited the prototype structures for the US-Mexico border wall in California two years ago. With the premise of “walls” firmly fixed in people’s minds since 2015, when the president made constructing an anti-immigration barrier a key campaign pledge.

Given this context, Volner set out to analyze and examine the significance of his chosen walls from history in order to provide reflections and lessons for today. What surprised him was that his trips to these pieces of infrastructure were much more emotional than he anticipated.

The Berlin Wall Monument includes remnants of the structure that once divided the city

“The most remarkable thing, which determined the texture of the book, was how deeply affected I was – emotionally affected – by visiting the sites and considering their history,” he said, describing feelings of deja-vu, awe and dread in each instance.

The “emotional bouillabaisse, this strange stew of feelings that I kept encountering over and over again” became the primary focus of the book as opposed to simply analysing the walls and providing facts about the walls.

“I hope it doesn’t come across as ‘Eat, Pray, Wall’, but I decided that the intellectual element was almost subsidiary to the affective one; to the question of what the ambience was of these walls because, of course, that ultimately tells you more, or is ultimately maybe more persuasive than making a case of a utility of [the US-Mexico wall] proposal,” Volner said.

East Jerusalem in the contested West Bank region
Tel Es Sultan and the Jordan River Valley

The Great Great Wall includes details about the reasons why the historic structures were built. For example, instead of being erected as defensive fortification, The Walls of Jericho “appeared to be built solely for the purpose of impressing people, to be showing they could do such a thing. So its original intent was to have an effective impact.”

Where possible, Volner also divulges information about the impact that the walls had on those who were regularly exposed to their presence. “We know that East Berliners suffered from ‘wall sickness’,” he said. “It was something along the lines of seasonal affective disorder. The wall produced a kind of madness, especially for those living in its direct proximity.”

Volner’s consideration for walls to be included in the book was dictated by structures that he could easily access and physically experience. He broke his own rule by including the fabled fallen Walls of Jericho, and the Paris city walls that were demolished in the 1920s, but still managed to visit the sites where they once stood.

“But I didn't go around trying to define walls,” he pointed out, “because [a wall] cannot be defined. All of these things are immensely, immensely slippery. And it’s in that slipperiness that you encounter the sense of preposterousness in human affairs.”

The Great Wall of China at Huanghuacheng
La Petite Ceinture in Paris, a former railway line that followed the city walls

What has become a problem today, he said, is that those who are trying to define walls keep changing their mind. “This is especially pertinent in the contemporary context, because the president constantly ridicules things have not been ‘wall-y’ enough for him, while repeatedly erecting the same thing that he’s ridiculed, and calling it a wall,” said Volner. “But there is no goddamn definition of what is what distinguishes a wall from a fence.”

Another important topic covered by the book is the ways in which the featured walls relate (or once related) to the borders that they run along, make physical, and therefore ideologically amplify. Many of them no longer signify political boundaries, as these constantly shift over time, and others had to be demolished because the boundaries they represented simply stopped existing.

“Borders are obviously fictions and constantly mutable. It’s a two-dimensional line that doesn’t exist in three-dimensional space,” said Volner. He described borders as “a region whose potential cultural reach stretches infinitely in both directions. What emerges in the borderlands ends up filtering outwards until it fuses itself with the whole culture.”

Author Ian Volner. Photo by Eva Calon

This idea effectively informs the premise of The Great Great Wall, in which the author aims to highlight the problem that many consider borders to be static, permanent lines rather than human-created areas of huge influence.

“If I could convey some of that, that sentiment might succeed where so many arguments have failed,” Volner said. “Americans, or at least some portion of the electorate, think that a border is a real thing. And that a wall upon it will make it somehow more solid or impenetrable. By exposing those false assurances and sense of security, and discover how bizarre the whole topic is.”

Whether the US-Mexico border wall will be built in parts, in its entirety, or indeed at all, remains to be seen – the project’s success now intrinsically tied with the president’s legacy. The rhetoric surrounding its purpose and necessity, however, appears to be a case of history repeating itself.

The Great Great Wall: Along the Borders of History from China to Mexico was published May 7, 2019, by Abrams Books.

Ian Volner spoke about the experiences and themes from the book at A/D/O on September 12, 2019. The event formed part of our At The Border research program, curated in partnership with Jan Boelen and Charlotte Dumoncel d’Argence.

Text by Dan Howarth.

Photography by Ian Volner, unless stated otherwise.