Michael Walch

Review – 99 Percent Invisible

Posted in General Architecture, Media Reviews by michaelwalch on 8 January, 2012

First of all, I haven’t “discovered” anything new, but – the 99% Invisible podcast was recently featured on RadioLab and I’ve become addicted to the little snippets of design-related discussion.  Roman Mars, based in San Francisco, hosts/moderates/edits the short (typically about 10 minutes) shows about every week, and airs interviews with architects, planners, artists, landscape architects, curators, and other interesting individuals about everything from large urban projects to sound design.  The show is sponsored by/aligned with the KALW, AIA-SF and the Center for Architecture and Design – all in San Francisco.  As part of a larger personal project of writing down my thoughts on books and other media I consume, I’m starting a series of reviews… There are about 50 episodes of this podcast, as of this writing, and I haven’t listened to all of them, so expect some updates to this post, and hopefully soon some additional posts reviewing and discussing other books, radio shows, and other media related to design and economics.

The 99% Invisible podcast is unusual in that it seems the audience really is design professionals.  While many media cover design-related topics and interview professionals – think of the recent slew of documentaries about the construction in Lower Manhattan – these are usually aimed at the general public and end up watered-down.  Whether those outlets should be more descriptive and technical or not is a topic for another day, but what I like about 99% is that its interviews are frank and specific in a way that often is lacking in shows for a general audience.  How many times have we watched a documentary about a famous piece of architecture, and see clear confusion between the roles of architect and engineer?  Fortunately, 99% hasn’t let me down.

At just about 10 minutes on average, some significantly less (and that includes intos, thank-yous, and the like!) 99% Invisible has some very potent moments.  While one general critique would be of the absurdly short time given to some fascinating topics, this format also forces a brilliant distillation and purity which might falter given a more unwieldy, fluffy half-hour or hour-long format.

Here are what I view as the highlights of the show thus far.  I’m working backwards from episode 44 (1/5/12) and have gotten back to episode 31 so far.  Don’t interpret an absent episode as a recommendation that you skip it… but I do have a mental list.


Episode 44 – The Pruitt-Igoe Myth – 1/5/12

This is a really famous story and poster child of failed urban renewal/slum-clearing projects.  What is refreshing in this telling of the Pruitt-Igoe tale is that through interviews with residents and historians, the building is framed properly as the manifestation of a social goal in the context of Saint Louis’s urban problems.  Some of the decisions which ultimately lead to the blight and demolition of the project could have been foreseen, others not.  While engaging the large socio-economic issues of Pruitt-Igoe, the interviews present the buildings and life in them with frank detail and nuance which prevents the project from turning into a simple icon of failure.  The Pruitt-Igoe Wikipedia page is a good start to learning more, and a documentary film is out, also called The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.

Episode 39X – The Biography of 100,000  – 11/18/11

I grew up in the Bay Area and lived in San Francisco for many years, so U.N. Plaza and its problems are very familiar to me.  This show is long at 31 minutes, which is refreshing as it is yet again dissecting a very complicated urban renewal scheme, and interviews Lawrence Halprin, the landscape architect of the original project, as well as subsequent designers, project managers, and community members involved in the various efforts to clean the place up.  Again the interviews engage the broad issues but are very focused on the specifics of the place – in this case, the fountain located on Market Street and the local homeless and addict population using it for various biological functions.  Halprin feels like the lone defender of the design, which was part of a very large renewal effort to clean up Market Street after the construction of the BART and Muni subways.  The interviews cover a long time-span of history (the plaza was originally opened in the 70s and the podcast is essentially from 2004 with minor updates) and the only one with real continuity through the design process has been Halprin.  His defenses of the project (he basically says he was emulating Haussman’s Paris – “Have you been to Paris?”) seem incredulous compared to the other stories of how run-down the place turned out to be.

What is missing from this story is an acknowledgement of the clinically insane political environment of San Francisco.  There is a nod to this from the more recent project manager for the City – she has money available for construction to improve the place, but after multiple extensions to the deadline, no proposal can be worked out due to all the fighting.  U.N. Plaza is also only part of the blight of Mid-Market Street (from about 5th Street, in the Tenderloin, all the way to Mint Hill just past Octavia Blvd.) so some geographic context would be helpful too.  San Francisco’s homeless and drug abuse services, while laudable in their intent, also have a history of making the city a magnet for regional social problems.  This could never have been addressed in a short podcast but it would have cast Halprin’s aspirations for the place in a different light.  Staying true to his vision, problematic as it might be, through such a long, arduous process is also a formative narrative to the story of U.N. Plaza and urban renewal in San Francisco.

Episode 38 – Sound of Sport  – 10/13/11

This is one of those stories that tickles my brain.  Of course, when you watch a sporting event on TV, the cameras and microphones are nowhere near the players – the cameras are zoomed in to provide the picture, but what happens to the sound?  This episode is short but sweet, leaving us to question what is “real” or “live” on television, and whether it matters.  The use of this kind of sound design blurs the lines even further between entertainment and documentary media.

Episode 37 – The Steering Wheel  – 9/29/11

A great interface design analysis.  We consider a steering wheel to be second-nature, and its use arguably is.  However when asked to actually describe its use, we get it wrong most of the time.  Is this a problem, or actually the gold standard of interface design – intuitiveness?

Episode 35 – Elegy for WTC  – 9/1/11

It was great to hear the structural engineer grapple with his role in designing the World Trade Center Towers.  His reflective questioning of what he did, could have done, and did not do should resonate with any of us in architecture and construction.  Even more arresting though was the audio of this show – the slow, meditative sound of the towers’ frames deflecting in the wind, recorded during construction, bring to mind how incredibly strong, yet fallible, they were.

More reviews… 1/14/12:

Episode 30 – The Blue Yarn – 6/30/11

This episode is a hopeless gnarl of cliches, but at the end of the day it’s still heartwarming.  The two cliches are the Toyota production method (along with its Japanese sensei analogies), and fighting for patient-centered health care against a tidal wave of bureaucracy.  A hospital director wants to cut costs, and so the whole team goes to Toyota in Japan to apply Toyota’s concepts to their facility.  The team goes through the exercise of tracing a patient’s path through their facility, and realizes that they not only have a methodology problem, but a spatial one.  By adopting Toyota’s production line method, they reorganized both their physical space but also the way they deliver care.  Everyone wins!

If you want to see the original version of this story, check out This American Life’s show on the New United Motors – NUMMI – plant in my hometown of Fremont, California, a joint venture between Toyota and General Motors (the show was put together just before the plant closed in April of 2010).  You can listen to This American Life Episode 403: NUMMI at their website – “Act One” of the show is the story of the opening of the plant and the collaboration.

Episode 26 – Chicago’s Jailhouse Skyscraper – 5/20/11

An endlessly rich topic which could be its own series of podcasts. The main point of discussion is the design of a jail skyscraper in downtown Chicago, interviewing one of the project architects. The architect described the attempt to make a comfortable interior – we’re talking about short-stay jail cells here – in a jail through built-in furniture and floor-to-ceiling slit windows. Government and non-profit funded projects, while often so standardized that they preclude innovative design, demand a level of quality in construction often absent in private projects. In this instance, the architects created an unusual design element – very tall, narrow windows – born out of a jail construction standard. The GSA in particular is publicly upping the ante on well-designed facilities in recent years; it would be interesting to compare the experience of this firm to people working under new programs.

Could future podcasts examine the urban jail as a typology?  Many cities have tower-jails like this as part of their court complexes, including Manhattan, downtown Los Angeles, and San Francisco (just to name the ones with which I am familiar).  This could also be a deeper investigation of some of the issues brought up in episode 39 – Darth Vader Family Courthouse about a recently renovated (originally brutalist) court building in Manhattan.

Episode 22 – Free Speech Monument – 4/15/11

I basically just love this for its UC Berkeley connection.  My guess is that most UC Berkeley undergrads walk over this thing every day and don’t realize it’s there – it certainly took me a while!  But it’s a fantastic concept and its origin story is exemplary of how difficult it is to deliver a design or art project in a charged political environment.

Episode 21 – BLDGBLOG: On Sound – 4/1/11

This should have been great – designing space for sound!  It truly is an oft-overlooked aspect of spatial design.  HOWEVER, Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG, who is a smart guy, comes off as naive and almost whiny in his complaint that architects usually only design for sound dampening – silence.  In reality, it is a rare client indeed who wants all the noise of their neighbors (city, suburbs, etc.) in their living and working spaces, and it goes against the idea of zoning (not that that is always a bad thing) and other laws and practical concerns.  Before it sounds like I’m ranting, let me suggest that the topic was great but should have been handled differently.  Ever so briefly, a project by Joel Sanders’ firm was mentioned.  Joel Sanders does great, engaging work and I would love to know more about his project.  Please, do tell us about the unusual cases where acoustic design doesn’t tend to the usual silence and reduction of “noise,” and feel free to suggest ways we can learn from those projects for everyday spaces.  But stop complaining – for the most part architects deliver very practical functional design, because it’s desired or outright required.


One Response

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  1. Graham Vantassel said, on 9 January, 2012 at 8:03 AM

    I do agree with all of the ideas you have presented in your post. They are really convincing and will definitely work. Still, the posts are very short for novices. Could you please extend them a bit from next time? Thanks for the post.

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