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Seesaw installation at US-Mexico border wins Design of the Year award

The joyful project became a counterpoint to the division and violence sown by the Trump administration

"Suddenly we saw a landscape with mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and children, all playing together in a space that everyone assumed was a no man’s land," says Ronald Rael of Teeter Totter Wall (2019) Photo: Chris Gauthier ©Rael San Fratello

A seesaw installation at the US-Mexico border created by California-based architects Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello along with Colectivo Chopeke has been named the 2020 Beazley Design of the Year by London's Design Museum. The installation, titled Teeter Totter Wall, consisted of three pink seesaws built into a stretch of the border wall separating El Paso, Texas and Juárez, Mexico. The playground equipment allowed children and adults from both sides to play with one another when the work was activated in July of 2019.

The project took place at a time of “enormous tension”, Rael says, when children were being separated from their families because of outgoing US President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. “I think what the project did was show an entirely different narrative of what the border is from what was being portrayed by the news or by the leader of the regime,” Rael says. “Suddenly we saw a landscape with mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and children, all playing together in a space that everyone assumed was a no man’s land.”

“There are so many metaphors that are embedded in the project that people can read into in a number of ways,” the architect adds, “whether you understand the political situation in the US, or you just understand what it means to be separated from someone you love.”

Though the seesaws were only secured in place at the border for roughly 40 minutes, that was enough time for videos and images of adults and children playing on the work to go viral. These images of joy and unity stood in stark contrast to the often horrific photos that had also gone viral during the Trump administration of migrants—particularly children and families—enduring brutal conditions along the same border.

Teeter Totter Wall "remains an inventive and poignant reminder of how human beings can transcend the forces that seek to divide us," says Tim Marlow, the chief executive and director of London's Design Museum

"The Teeter-Totter Wall encouraged new ways of human connection," says Tim Marlow, the chief executive and director of the Design Museum, in a press statement. "It remains an inventive and poignant reminder of how human beings can transcend the forces that seek to divide us."

The other nominees for the award included the union-jack stab vest that was designed by the street artist Banksy and worn by the British rapper Stormzy at Glastonbury 2019, a 3D rendering of the virus that causes Covid-19, and Lee Ha Jun’s set design from the Oscar-winning film Parasite.

The announcement of the winner came in the final days of the Trump presidency, which was defined in many ways by the controversial border wall. One of Trump’s final public appearances while in office was in fact a visit to the site in an attempt to secure this legacy.

“There are so many reasons to be negative in one’s work as a creative person, there are so many things you could say about all of the crises that we’re experiencing. The question is, in a landscape like this, next to a structure like the wall—which is an architecture of violence—can one still carve out joy?” Rael says. “I hope that we and other artists can continue to tell stories of optimism.”