The $106 million border station in Blaine, Washington, seems a throwback to a less anxious, even optimistic time.
The long canopy wings across a busy highway separating Canada from the northwest corner of the continental U.S.
With immigration hysteria at a fever pitch, and a massive, ineffectual wall growing along the U.S.-Mexico border, Peace Arch Port of Entry, as the station is called, makes a quiet statement.
Border stations are there to aid trade and tourism, while keeping out illegal immigrants, criminals, terrorists and agricultural pests.
That is why the General Services Administration, which constructs federal buildings, has 25 expanded border-crossing facilities in the design stage or under construction.
Port-of-entry design must include surveillance cameras and jail cells yet still capture something essentially American.
The design by the architectural firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson neither indulges in spectacle for its own sake nor defers robotically to historical style.
Here in Blaine, principal Peter Bohlin has made most of the essential paraphernalia of customs, immigration and border security almost disappear. Yet he has successfully played up the contrast between the artifice of the straight, politically determined borderline and the sensuous landscape of green fir trees and gray tide flats.
The key ingredients are the roadways that draw 1.4 million autos annually into a curving dance with each other between the Canadian and U.S. border stations. They slip around the white- painted 1921 Peace Arch, a monument that commemorates the U.S.’s long, close relationship with Canada.
Approaching the U.S., the tree-lined freeway emerges from trees, then dips to unveil Semiahmoo Bay out the passenger-side window, which opens to the Georgia Strait separating the two countries.
A border officer standing in a booth under the soaring canopy admits you. A long, narrow, 34,000-square-foot metal- louvered building, housing additional border-control functions, extends the canopy inland.
The Canada-bound roadway rises in a gentle curve as it crosses the border building, opening to the water view, then slices through the blade-edge roof of the structure as it heads toward the Peace Arch. Few will notice another oval landscaped roof, on the inland side, that screens the secondary-inspection parking lot and much of the port building from view with planting.
Bohlin lets water, the forested landscape edge and the Peace Arch guide your movement across the border -- not parking, driveways and buildings.
It’s fly-beneath-the-radar architecture, subtle enough that you could miss it.
His delicate touch means wrong notes read jarringly. The booth signage and the raised roadway are both aggressively oversized -- thoughtlessly lifted from the highway engineers’ catalog at the insistence of bureaucrats.
Inside the port building, the tall secondary-inspection lobby in blond wood and cool greys is a far cry from the common low-ceilinged customs and immigration halls with endless lines winding toward a menacing rank of border-officer cages.
High north-facing windows that look out on a fern-covered slope shower the waiting lines with diffused light. A case displays colorfully swirling art glass by Dale Chihuly.
Even the long desk lined by border officers looks businesslike rather than intimidating.
Bohlin has methodically stripped away what’s unessential, making a place that protects people while treating them with dignity. Here, in a distant corner, he’s created a poetic meeting of the continent’s western edge and the sea.
(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Island Press will publish his book, “The Agile City,” in May. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: James S. Russell in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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