Aaron Betsky on a sense of safety in architecture

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"We face calls for safe houses, safe communities and safe spaces"

Opinion: there are concrete tactics that architecture can use to make people feel mentally and socially safe, says Aaron Betsky, but the real question is how we apply them to public buildings and spaces.


Fear and paranoia are gripping much of western society, and architecture is no exception. Architects have become good at preventing bodily harm, and most of the buildings we inhabit work so hard to keep us safe that they almost smother us with their cocooning layers. That safety comes at a price. We close ourselves off in our little boxes to live, work, play and learn, fed by air conditioning and images on our screens, in communities where we try live with as many people just like us.

The problem is getting worse. We are now confronted with an increased desire from some people to only be with those like them in familiar and comforting surroundings, and with demands that people be sheltered from anything that might harm them, whether physically or mentally. We face calls for safe houses, safe communities, and safe spaces – demands for insulation and isolation.

Now there is even the apparent need for places free from "triggers" and "micro-aggressions". These are words or cues that can remind people of traumas that they have confronted, or prejudices about who they are. I personally think some of these supposed triggers border on and perhaps even pass into the absurd, but I understand that even saying to an Asian person "you must be good at math" represents a deep-seated prejudice that can make that person feel ill at ease.

A few years ago, I would have dismissed the demand for a "safe space" in schools or at the workplace – a site where you cannot be attacked or even questioned for your ethnicity or sexuality, or reminded of traumatic occurrences in your past – as overkill. I am still quite skeptical of the whole notion but, a few years ago, having lived in my comfortable, upper-middle-class bubble for decades, I was confronted with feeling unwanted and distrusted because of both my ethnicity and sexuality. I had the freedom to leave the community where that happened, and did, but there again I had the privilege to do so.

My issues were trivial, but having watched what post-traumatic stress did to former students who were either veterans or victims of sexual abuse, I have had to face the fact that the need for a space that makes us feel not just physically, but also mentally and socially safe is as important as having many of life's other necessities.

Beyond my personal experiences, it seems clear to me that the very freedom and lack of standards that marks the reality of social media and the internet in general generates the need for a physical and mental space where people cannot spam us, insult us, "SWAT" us, or otherwise make us feel unsafe. The amount of hatred we confront every day begs for a safe space away from such verbal ugliness and hurtfulness.

That should not mean, however, that we need architecture that is a bastion. Paranoia only engenders more aggression. We cannot and must not close ourselves off. I would resist calls for communal places where different points of view, honestly and openly expressed, are unwelcome, as they seem to have become in some American universities. When we are in public, we need to be part of an open, fluid, and heterogeneous community through which and in which we define ourselves. Schools and government buildings especially should not be safe places. They should be places of knowledge and debate in all its raw and real power.

We by now have well-established codes that make sure that just about every building in the western world keeps us physically safe. We need something similar for mental safety, but without the same tendency to mindless banality life safety codes have engendered.

I would suggest that there are concrete tactics that architecture can use to make us feel mentally and socially safe. Many of them are moves that architects have employed for years, such as designing spaces that provide sheltering nooks with views out, or creating spaces with a weight and solidity that makes itself apparent, while opening out in a way that makes it clear where you are – for an oldie but goodie on how to do that, I would refer to Charles Moore's The Place of Houses (1974), a veritable compendium for such tactics on a domestic level.

The more interesting question is how we can make people feel safe in public spaces without using blast barriers or bollards, and how we can design places such as schools or colleges in a way that they make it clear that this is a place where you belong, but where you are also part of an open and evolving community, even as you might suffer verbal challenges.

One of the ways to achieve this is to use familiar design elements. Traditionally, this has meant classical architecture, but I would argue that the sureties its columns and pediments represent are also elitist and alien to many of us. They are in themselves micro-aggressions. Others might subscribe to the notion that we should design public buildings and spaces to look natural, but then we hide the fact that they were made by human beings and they wind up lying to us – not a good foundation for trust.

As Charles Jencks pointed out decades ago, you cannot use a simple semiotic address in a multicultural community such as ours. We need to figure out a deeper form of vernacular, one that is a collage or assemblage of all the cultures that make up our modern communities. We need to bring together both the forms and images in which we can recognise ourselves and in which we can feel safe. We need an architecture that mirrors and maps our society in a visual and tactile manner.

We also need an architecture whose reality, like the craft and "hand feel" that gives us so much solace in a world in which everything is becoming slick and unverifiable images, gives us a sense of reality, caresses us, and lets us hang on in and through its reality, offering a counter to the unreality of speech. The work by the Turner Prize-winning Assemble shows some of the ways in which this is possible.

One other thought: perhaps if we think of our public buildings and spaces as stage sets, scenery that should afford us the opportunity to act in the manner we feel is appropriate, comfortable, safe, and rewarding, in collaboration and perhaps even confrontation with others, we might begin to gain some clarity as to what might make an open, but safe architecture. A recent building by Snøhetta, a learning centre at Ryerson University in Toronto might be an example of how to do that.

Wolf Prix, not an architect who we think of designing it safe, used to call for an "open architecture of the open eye, the open mind, and the open heart"; if we can figure out how to make such an open scene in a way that makes us feel at home in our confusing and often threatening modern world, we might begin to create a sense of safety in architecture.


Aaron Betsky is dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. A critic of art, architecture, and design, Betsky is the author of over a dozen books on those subjects, including a forthcoming survey of Modernism in architecture and design. He writes a twice-weekly blog for architectmagazine.com, Beyond Buildings. Trained as an architect and in the humanities at Yale University, Betsky was previously director of the Cincinnati Art Museum (2006-2014) and the Netherlands Architecture Institute (2001-2006), and Curator of Architecture and Design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1995-2001). In 2008, he also directed the 11th Venice International Biennale of Architecture.