v.35 Borders Part II: Thresholds

v.35 Borders Part II: Thresholds

Letter from the Editors

In his 1939 account of a trip to Mexico, British author Graham Greene describes the border as  "more than a customs house, a passport officer, a man with a gun. Over there everything is going to be different.” Greene’s use of the phrase “over there” captures what the border means to most—a threshold that signals a transition to new place, governed by a different set of rules and customs.

Borders exist at the edge and are about separation, but they aren’t intended to prevent movement, only restrict it. Sociologist Richard Sennett, in defining the conditions of urban edges, draws a clear distinction: "Boundaries are quite like cell walls: rigid and impermeable, while borders are akin to cell membranes: at once resistant and porous”.

From International borders to (airport) security checkpoints, borders are where we cross over a line. Sometimes—and for some of us—this is a simple process; for many it means being stuck in a liminal or anomic in-between space, a “state of exception” where individual or collective rights have been suspended.

Today, Western nations are fortifying borders. After 20 years of expansion, Europe’s borderless Schengen Area is starting to crack due to the flow of migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. In the United States, the US-Mexican border has been occupied much of the political debate in the lead up to the 2016 Presidential election, with calls for construction of new or bigger walls.

Medieval cities made good use of the conspicuous boundary/border—the wall and the gate—to protect those within it; it defined a space where a certain level of freedom could be granted. Today, former urban industrial areas, with once porous borders to allow the flow of workers between work and their modest homes in the surrounding neighbourhoods, have been subject to “revitalization,” via the introduction of luxury housing with gates, guards and private lanes—new border crossings that have less to do with protecting collective freedoms, and more to do with the protection of wealth and private property.

In 1970, Lefaivre declared that the city and non-city in advanced capitalist societies have become one. Similarly, Constantinos Doxiadis’s Ecumenopolis—or world city—offered a glimpse into a fully urbanized—although not necessarily borderless—planet.  Often branded as economic regions, borders are removed to improve efficiency or competitiveness in global markets. While national borders are made more tangible, urban and non-urban continue to meld, creating megacities or regions - the Randstad, Flemish Diamond, Pearl River Delta, Taiheiyō Belt, Mega Manila, Rhine-Ruhr, London commuter belt, Texas Triangle and the Quebec City—Windsor Corridor, and many more. Yet, as new city-states emerge from nation-states, special economic zones are then being carved out of city itself, fragmenting the porous city through the creation of private gated enclaves and privatized “publically-accessible spaces.

Issues of security and liability have produced a renewed interest in the wall/gate—or border zone. Fences and checkpoints—whether you’re at a playground, mall, school, office—proliferate. And while defensive architecture has come and (thankfully) gone, form-based codes have reengaged the public in issues of separation, setbacks, height, density—often leaving the architect with little room to move within the defined borders of the site. The border has been prescribed to the site before any program is developed.

In this section, borders become thresholds into new places and spaces.  In “The Second Line,” Emma Xin Ma describes how the delineation of a Special Economic Zone in Shenzhen, China—kickstarting the phenomenon of “Made of China”—inadvertently gave rise to Chinese social reform.  Evan Pavka traces the psychogeography of queer spaces in Toronto, and how they correspond to the city’s network of lost rivers.  In Seamless Transitions, James Bridle’s haunting photographs of airport detention centres, we are confronted with the reality that national borders are sometimes more than the simple binary condition of a checkpoint; sometimes they occupy both time and space.

Just as often, the border is a psychological rather than, or as well as a physical barrier.  Amrit Phull navigates the psychological divide between the North and the South in Canada with an account of her encounters with the Cree Nation of Wemindji.  Parker Sutton critiques the notion of the American frontier as oil lines transform the borders of Alaska.