Is New York Too Safe?

Ami Drach and Dov Ganchrow's Hamsa Head Guard (2003), at MoMA.Photo: Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York/Industrial Design Department, Bezalel Academy of Art and Design

“SAFE: Design Takes On Risk,” which opens this Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art, could also be called “FEAR: Design for Scaredy-Cats.” An unusually provocative show, it does more than isolate an important theme in contemporary design. It invokes an especially dispiriting state of mind. Something’s happened to the natural desire for safety. It now saturates our consciousness. It’s become a form of cultural hysteria, one that inhibits, restrains, crimps, smothers, and paralyzes everything from politics to art. Even in once-brave New York.

The organizers of “SAFE”—Paola Antonelli and Patricia Juncosa Vecchierini—do not set out to make this point. They rightly admire many objects that are not cozy or reassuring. In their design, Antonelli finds “grace under pressure,” a resilience that shows “how powerful we can be” in an age of terror. Such objects, she argues, “allow us to embrace our fears.” (One group of artists even turns the mushroom cloud into a fuzzy-wuzzy.) Some items are practical, such as car seats for children. Others represent fantastical responses to a threatening environment. A kind of gallows whimsy is common. As interesting as the show promises to be, however, I’d rather talk about its shocking title—that softly sibilant word safe, which sounds so wrong in New York.

It is wickedly ironic—proof of history’s cruel wit—that the Museum of Modern Art should organize a show with this title. Wasn’t MoMA born of fearless challenge? Didn’t it once emphasize the value of risk with quasi-religious fervor, insisting that the modern mind must forswear existential safety? Safety was not supposed to be part of your metaphysics. You weren’t timid, fearful, or protective. You took chances. You lived in a glass house. Something similar was true of the city, which was the Twentieth Century Limited. People came to New York, or so New Yorkers believed, to hurtle into the future, forever leaving behind the trim little towns of the heartland.

Today, terrorism is blamed for all our failures of nerve. But the paralyzing obsession with safety began here long ago. Why it developed can be argued about, but one important reason is the erosion of New York’s bedrock conviction: faith in the future. The fears of the Depression era were offset by countless ideas about better things to come, including modernist ideas. The terrors of the fifties were met by, among other things, a hope in science. These were not complicated passions, but they were vital. Today, visionary or even hopeful ideas, if they exist, have the strength of herbal tea. The computers don’t give off Utopian light, and science seems beset by problems like global warming, not excited by opportunities.

New York’s future once had an exciting, erotic edge. In today’s city, however, the body trembles, threatened by age, viruses, and imperfections, which are countered by gyms, diets, and plastic surgery. aids, which terrorizes the body, is responsible for “safe sex,” the deadly phrase that saves lives. Safe sex is condom sex, wrapped sex, showbiz sex, sex that doesn’t really touch. How sex goes, of course, often has a bearing upon how art goes. Safe art suits safe sex. And so we have, imaginatively speaking, condom art, wrapped art, showbiz art, art that doesn’t really touch. Often, New York art takes cover within fashionable rhetorical conventions, looking for approval in that safest of all places, the academy. Which can be just another condom. In fact, the condom is arguably the presiding symbol of a narcissistic age. We’re wrapped up in ourselves.

New York’s erotic edge—and feeling for the future—was always best expressed in its buildings. Its architectural vitality, its skyscrapers and canyons, represented power and abandon. (Rem Koolhaas called his book Delirious New York.) Today, the endless dithering over ground zero, which is about finding a compromise that feels safe to everyone, suggests nothing but impotence. The terrorist attack on 9/11 blew a gaping hole into New York. It was obvious that the city must meet this astonishment with an equal astonishment. It must “see you and raise you one”—that is, make a bold new bet upon the future. Instead, ground zero has become the symbol of a can’t-do city, a disgraceful and (perhaps even worse) boring scene of whine-and-bicker. Daniel Libeskind’s original building was not, in any case, equal to the occasion. But seeing it constantly chipped at and chicken-pecked, and then corseted in protective concrete, is a pathetic spectacle. From the first, the Freedom Center, too, conveyed nothing but weakness. Conservatives worried that a museum about freedom might actually be too free and therefore not follow some prescribed line. In response, liberals cluck-clucked. The very idea of a “freedom” museum was always just a highfalutin political piece of phony platitudinous piety—a monument to hot air.

Ralph Borland's "Suited for Subversion" prototype (2001), meant to protect protesters from cops' batons, at MoMA. Photo: Ralph Borland/Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York

Ground zero is the culmination of an ongoing series of disappointments. Great buildings still rise here, but rarely when or where it really counts. Through architecture a city dreams. What’s New York dreaming about? The safely conventional. What a missed chance Columbus Circle represents: We deserved better than just another slickly competent corporate face. Or, what about the great swath of open ground along the Hudson in the Fifties and Sixties—one of the great architectural opportunities in the world. We got more Trump. (Is there no end to Trump mediocrity?) In New York, unless things begin to change soon, our period will be remembered as mainly one of preservation, not creation, a worthy achievement unworthy of this city. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s desire to move Penn Station into the Farley Post Office was a brilliant act of contrition, a cultural apology for the destruction of the old railroad station. But it’s also historically safe, revivalist in nature, the architectural equivalent of reviving a Broadway chestnut. The idea lacks fire, including creatively destructive fire. No one is arguing for a smashing new station—one as radiant, in a new way, as the earlier building.

Through architecture a city dreams. What’s New York dreaming about? The safely conventional.

Today, people like to acknowledge—as if nothing could possibly be done about it—that New York is architecturally second-rate. You know, the developers, the regulations, the costs, the community groups … blah, blah, blah. The interesting question is, Why does the political culture tolerate this state of affairs? New York is an overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic city. The liberal tradition historically was not concerned only with safety; it also broke apart old structures of thought and advanced new ideas. The Democrats, including the Democrat-Republican mayor, could end this cultural paralysis. But they don’t. They never will. It’s too scary.

Of course, things could be worse. (After seeing “SAFE,” you should visit the Arms and Armor Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to gain some perspective on the topic of getting safely wrapped up.) And a charismatic mayor could, I suppose, bring a larger drama to the city. Just as a person of great wealth could commission an astonishing building that is not by Frank Gehry, yoga could become unfashionable, and Donald Trump could move to Beijing. At least New York has not succumbed to the Hummer, the most celebrated piece of pop armor. The Hummer is a castle on wheels, every little boy’s illusion of invincibility. But it is missing from “SAFE,” and even New York’s pimps

SAFE: Design Takes On Risk
at The Museum of Modern Art.
Opens October 16.

Is New York Too Safe?