When Mental Walls Lead to Physical Walls: The design

This is the second in a series of posts about generating public conversations about the social responsibility of engineers and engineering using the case of border walls as a starting point.  The first one you can find here.

If engineering–the actual process of it, the nitty gritty, day-to-day decision-making, design, and analysis–happens out of the public eye, how do we get people thinking about the role of the profession and its social responsibility in society?  How do we get the public to understand how engineers create mental walls in their head to separate the technical work they do from broader social, political, and ecological considerations?  Can we use a current engineering issue–the US-Mexico border wall–as a way to get people to think about engineering in society?  How do we give people a sense of scale of being at the foot of a border wall?  What does that make them feel?  We designed When Mental Walls Lead to Physical Walls, a public art/engineering experience to do all of these things, and we’re so pleased to say it was a huge success in its first appearance last Friday, April 6, in Downtown Phoenix.  We’re still parsing through our thoughts from April 6, so for now, we’d like to share how we designed the whole experience.

The design

To convey complexity and history, to convey scale, and to be completely modular were our three design criteria for the installation/experience:

  1. Complexity and history: We wanted to convey several messages at once: that engineering is driven by business opportunities; that even for politically charged objects, the turn of the engineering design crank can be routine and almost mundane, and that the US is not the only nation in the world that is building or has built border barriers and walls—they are quite common.
  2. Scale: Whatever we designed had to convey to experiencers a sense of how big, tall, sturdy, and imposing border walls can be and are.  Our design had to be big, imposing, and look like an actual border wall.  We wanted people to look up, like you do when looking at a tall building or at a rocket on its way into space.
  3. Modularity: We wanted to be able to quickly assemble and disassemble the whole thing given time constraints, and to be able to easily store it for future use.

Considering public safety—as engineers are drilled to do—and the fact that we didn’t have the ability to lay a foundation limited the height of the wall to 12 feet.  Twelve feet is still pretty tall, and standing at the base of a 12-foot wall certainly makes your neck turn up if you’re reading something at the top.  Not having a foundation also meant that the structure needed to be designed to be self-standing and stabilizing—a Z-shape where the angles are 90 degrees would do the trick.

Limiting the height and designing a self-standing and self-stabilizing structure helped me (and the rest of the team) sleep at night knowing it would be sturdy, and could withstand a steady wind.  Using standard construction techniques, we built the whole thing using 2 x 4s, 4 x 4s, steel studs, Masonite, and a lot of self-tapping screws.  Painted using a light gray, then covered in perfectly cut decals made by FASTSIGNS in Tempe, followed by coats of clear spray paint, the wall ended up symbolizing the wall engineers build in their heads to separate their technical thoughts from their political, social, and ecological ones.  The sturdiness of the design also allowed people to touch the wall and put sticky notes with their thoughts on it.

Screws and screw guns (video/credit Darshan)

First assembly (video/credit Migle)

Priming (video/credit Migle)

Sticking and peeling (video/credit Migle)

We also designed a little Museum of Walls that discussed the history of the US-Mexico border, the barriers and walls that exist between the US and Mexico, and technical details on the new border wall prototypes.  With everything written in both English and Spanish, along with the consideration of visually-impaired, we felt confident that most people coming to experience the installation would be able to take in its full intent.

The Museum of Walls (credit Tanya Harrison)

DSCF5062 (1)

That’s it for now.  Next time, details on the assembly and the actual First Friday experience.


[Thanks, as will be given in every post related to this project:

Cade, Migle, Aliya, and Jorge did a tremendous job with everything from design to execution.  Special recognition goes to the ASU facilities team, which includes Chris Wilkes and Matt Lavery, for their grace and technical support, my sister Niyati for helping design the decals, and my friend Chris for helping paint the wall.  The School for the Future of Innovation in Society events staff played a huge logistical role, and The Design School helped, too.  Funding for the project was provided by the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and The Polytechnic School.

Most importantly, we would be remiss to not acknowledge the deep gratitude we all have for Cade’s father, Mr. Lortie, whose experience in construction and resources made the whole thing possible, from design, to logistics, to building, assembly, and disassembly.]