At the Borders, Creative Crossings

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 29, 2006; C01

Good fences can make good neighbors, especially when those fences have great-looking gates.

That's the essential context for the General Services Administration's effort to design and build a new breed of border station. Thirteen examples are included in the traveling exhibition "Thresholds Along the Frontier: Contemporary U.S. Border Stations," which opens Friday at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. Twenty-four more ports of entry are in the works, at costs of $10 million to $100 million each.

Renderings and photographs show airy snow-white tents and vaulting arches. Facades of glass represent the symbolic transparency of a proud democracy. And an eco-friendly green roof speaks to the importance of cutting costs in a federal building, not to mention insulating the workplace in a wintry region.

Taken together, the designs convey a sense that first impressions count on the Mexican and Canadian borders, at least in the minds of those involved in the GSA's 12-year-old Design Excellence Program.

"Design is absolutely critical," GSA Administrator Lurita Doan says. "This is America. We do welcome people with open arms."

Between the lines, there are also signs that the federal design project is struggling. The program was created by Ed Feiner, who retired as chief architect in January 2005 and has not been replaced. Federal dollars no longer are flowing as freely for new construction, whether for courthouses or border stations.

One architect, who asked not to be named because he has federal commissions in the works, says insiders have complained about being "between Iraq and a hard place." Experts such as Reed Construction Data have blamed demand for building materials from such rapidly developing countries as China and India -- combined with rising energy prices and post-Katrina rebuilding in the South -- for dramatically higher construction costs.

The impact can be seen in a delayed project for a border station in Del Rio, Tex. The architect, Charles Rose of Somerville, Mass., won a GSA design award in 2004 for a sweeping canopy over the inspection area. The structure was designed smartly to extend east, west and south, providing relief from unrelenting sun during all seasons while allowing filtered northern light to enter interior spaces, reducing the need for artificial light.

The border station is a model of contemporary federal design -- and a sign that the nation is seeking to put its best architecture forward. The architect provided a model of the project for the exhibition's debut in February in Buffalo. But GSA has withdrawn it, saying the design is being modified.

One of the most impressive projects in the exhibition is also troubled. It would shelter the point of entry in Eagle Pass, Tex., with a giant vaulted roof, or sombrilla . The architect is Bill Aylor of Lake/Flato Architects, an award-winning San Antonio firm known for reinventing ramshackle outbuildings as glamorous new Texas sheds. Like Lake/Flato's high-end houses and museum designs, the border station creates fireworks from the simplicity of its form. The graceful canopy would shade agents, allow breezes to cool visitors, dissipate fumes from queuing cars and collect rainwater to irrigate the land.

Unfortunately, the project, which began in 2003, has been mired in what the architect calls "administrative and bureaucratic processes." Aylor says he expects the design to be built without significant modification, but could not say when.

A village of white tented roofs fared better. The border station was constructed as planned in Calexico, Calif. The almost whimsical design by Dworsky Associates was inspired by covered wagons that once traveled the desert region. Photographs suggest a magnificent public plaza or fairground.

Border stations began to emerge as a building type in the 1980s. As international trade increased and points of entry and road systems were overwhelmed, a proposal to create cookie-cutter border stations in small, medium and large sizes was floated. Feiner managed to quash the concept and open the door to architectural commissions. The best designs in the exhibition show the reward of conceiving a security barrier as a welcoming threshold, too.

"The program was always predicated on an opportunity to demonstrate a positive federal presence at the borders," Feiner says, "and to give designers an opportunity to be innovative and creative."

Buildings are only part of the challenge. Roadways must be mapped to allow some people to cross quickly while others are delayed for inspection. An overview of a border station in Champlain, N.Y., designed by Smith-Miller+Hawkinson Architects, shows the complexity of circulation on runwaylike swaths of pavement.

Doan's biggest concern remains the ability to keep trade flowing. To keep up with truck traffic, which she says has grown threefold, GSA has spent about $150 million annually over the past four years on border stations, which the agency says absorb 19.5 percent of its budget for new construction.

Doan waved off discussion of a Great Wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which could leave her new stations looking like slits in the castle wall.

"The whole fence, the wall issue, is a design element that will be discussed," Doan says. "It's not carved in stone, if you'll pardon the pun."

Thresholds Along the Frontier: Contemporary U.S. Border Stations runs Friday through Oct. 15 in the Exhibition Gallery at the Oculus, Ronald Reagan Building, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-312-1300.

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