Rael San Fratello’s signature blend of activism and architecture was forged in the months following 9/11, when founders Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello left New York for California. The pair, who met at Columbia University in the mid-1990s, founded their Oakland practice in 2002. Their first commission, for an adobe house near Marfa, Texas, fell through, but led to other work in the border town, including Prada Marfa (2005). “The post 9/11 political climate and the early work we did together in Texas and along the US Border have been very influential in our work,” wrote Rael and San Fratello in an email. “We consider the political, social, and environmental aspects of design central to our work.”
The US/Mexico border remains a focal point for the duo. “Because we were spending so much time adjacent to the border we found ourselves crossing it with frequency, walking along it and getting to know the people who live with this strange condition—the border fence—as part of their daily life,” wrote Rael and San Fratello. They had their own experience with border security during the site survey for Prada Marfa, when a group of Border Patrol agents surrounded them and peppered them with questions. Rael San Fratello’s 2009 Border Wall series approaches the issue with a combination of satire and empathy, reimagining the wall between the two countries as a literal fulcrum on which trade and labor relationships are balanced (Teeter Totter Wall); as life-saving infrastructure (Life Safety Border Beacon); and as a space of cross-cultural interaction (Burrito Wall).
Rael San Fratello’s work is characterized by a combination of natural materials—including earth and straw—and high technology. In 2012, the designers founded Emerging Objects, which develops new materials for 3D printing and aims to create printable building blocks. The firm’s recent projects include byproducts of their research on 3D printing, such as Saltygloo (2013), a dome constructed of bricks 3D printed from salt harvested from the San Francisco Bay. Yet even Rael San Fratello’s most technologically advanced projects circle back to their interest in putting architecture to work for the greater good. “It’s no coincidence that the first materials we started 3D printing with were clay and sand, or that we work with materials like mud brick, address social issues related to homelessness and environmental issues related to water conservation, or build galleries in the middle of Nowhere,” they wrote.