Truckers hauling lumber and lobsters from Canada may soon have a better first impression of America, if entering at Calais, Maine. Next year, this small town of 3,400 people will boast a new 100,000-square-foot, $48.3-million border station designed by Robert Siegel Architects, a New York-based firm, in collaboration with Arup.
Augmenting two smaller stations, both more than 70 years old, the new facility is part of an ongoing effort by the General Services Administration (GSA)—the U.S. government’s real estate arm—to make federal buildings spiffier. Although that effort, known as the Design Excellence Program, focused on offices and courthouses when it was launched in 1994, it has branched out to include land-based ports-of-entry. Since 2001, the GSA has built 10 ports and has another 21 in the works. Nationwide, there are 162 such facilities.
Siegel's project, which broke ground in February and should be finished by fall 2009, sits on a 50-acre site along the St. Croix River. "It's about creating a visual gateway into the U.S., instead of creating a wall," says the architect, pointing out that many border stations look like glorified toll-plazas, or at best, souped-up garages.
His version, which from above resembles a hockey stick with its mirror image, attempts to harmonize with the landscape. The area for car monitoring rises two stories, but the section dedicated to commercial busses and trucks is purposefully low-slung, to allow views of a hill. A courtyard contains rocks unearthed onsite, and local wildflowers and grasses, along with three triangular, manmade wetland basins. The building’s wrinkled aluminum skin is meant to evoke granite, and its front lawn is basically a blueberry patch.
Beyond aesthetics, the gist of the project was to create a smoother traffic flow for the 1.5 million vehicles that cross the border in Calais each year. To accomplish this, the new facility contains three inbound lanes for trucks and six for cars, versus two in the existing stations. Indeed, another major impetus for the national renovations has been the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which has greatly increased traffic, says Thomas Mailander, a regional GSA director.
As might be expected, post-9/11 terrorist fears also influenced the design: mesh covers many windows, for example, rendering them “like a scrim on a Broadway-theater stage,” says Siegel. The covers allow the Department of Homeland Security employees to unobtrusively peer out‹while blocking others from peering in. But Siegel, who netted an American Institute of Architects award last year for his design of the station, downplays the security functions of the project. “It’s about what our children will think in 100 years,” he says. “Do we want to announce ‘Fortress U.S.A.’?  Or an open and free society?”