Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt, The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design (2020)

When a podcast hits it big, it becomes something else: ideally a streaming television series, that most prestigious of all 21st-century cultural forms. But rare is the podcaster able to resist a book deal, and rarer still the podcaster who proves as skilled with the spoken word as the written one — or rather, whose manner translates naturally from the earbuds onto the page, podcasting being a medium driven more by personality than content. The leap is easier for those non-conversational shows, essentially textual to begin with, built around scripted or constructed narratives. If any such podcast were to produce a city book, it was going to be 99% Invisible, one of the most popular and respected podcasts of its kind. Not that there are many others of its kind: what Walter Benjamin said about great works of literature also applies to podcasts, if less so to podcasts-turned books.

99% Invisible debuted in 2010, before we knew podcasts could hit it big. Just a month into its run I wrote it up in Podthoughts, a review column I then contributed to podcast network Maximum Fun. "As unsuitable as design and architecture would seem as podcast subjects, I can’t get enough shows about 'em," I wrote, beginning the piece in a manner I certainly wouldn't today. "Design and architecture" was, I recall, a vogue pair of terms in the 2000s, as well as how 99% Invisible's early adherents described its subject matter — not inaccurately, but even in those days without doing justice to its true ambit. Under the broader mandate of exposing the "design work underlying the built environment," its first few episodes covered a variety of topics including, as I listed them, "toothbrushes, space travel, the TransAmerica building, and, my personal favorite, city flags."

I didn't describe 99% Invisible as a podcast about cities then, but I suspect its creator, public radio producer Roman Mars, wouldn't flinch at my doing so now. In the past three months alone, he and his collaborators have put out episodes on such urban phenomena as the skyways of Minneapolis, under-bridge bat infestations in Austin, Texas, the adobe buildings of Santa Fe, and the recovery of "ghost streams" beneath cities, in addition to a five-part miniseries on homelessness. A decade ago, the city per se had less cachet than "design and architecture," a situation that now seems to have reversed. I can relate to the change 99% Invisible has undergone in that time, given that I've made a similar journey myself. Even the other podcasts I thereafter chose to review — Curious City on Chicago, Dear HK on Hong Hong, Monocle's The Urbanist — revealed where my interests lay.

It thus makes sense that late last year, just after I launched this newsletter about city books, out came 99% Invisible's own city book: The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design. Written by Mars and producer Kurt Kohlstedt, its text covers a range of subjects familiar to their urban-minded listeners. That range includes city flags, the one that so impressed me back when I Podthought about the show — and which impressed a great many others as well, in large part through Mars' subsequent TED Talk, a medium better suited to such thoroughly visual material than podcasting, however "sound-rich" it may be. That public-radio term is indicative of public-radio priorities, certain of which clearly shaped 99% Invisible early on: as a Podthinker, my biggest complaint about the show (and, admittedly, about most podcasts from the public-radio world) was that it was too short.

Those first episodes, just over song-length, have stretched out to twenty, thirty, forty minutes over the years, but have all the while kept telling stories. I'm tempted to chalk this tendency up to the influence of This American Life, which deepened the story-preoccupation entrenched by U.S. public radio's existing journalistic sensibility. Thanks in part to the maturation of podcasting, the English-speaking world is today experiencing an explosion of nonfiction storytelling, a means of packaging information — ideally surprising, useful, or both — in easily and repeatedly consumable forms. In fact, reading the short essays that make up The 99% Invisible City, each one titled with a pun or quasi-pun and ended on a note of finality or quasi-finality, feels not unlike binge-listening podcast episodes. Preceding that experience is this introductory message: "You are about to see stories everywhere, YOU BEAUTIFUL NERD."

Though I don't regard the rise of nerd culture as a particularly welcome development, I did in my younger years attempt to align myself with it. "Overturn the log of life," I'm embarrassed to have written in that review of 99% Invisible, "and you get all kinds of colorful, squirmy knowledge bugs." Still, to those of us fascinated by the urban realm, The 99% Invisible City constitutes a gallery of prime specimens. Before home delivery, post offices were "social spaces for men, where it was not uncommon to find liquor, prostitutes, and pickpockets." In that same era, oysters grew so plentifully in the waters off New York City that "ground-up shells were even used as construction materials." The energy needs of Los Angeles' citrus industry made that city an early adopter of street lighting. Today, "by some estimates, as many as a fifth of all power outages are squirrel related."

Nerds do enjoy facts, which this book offers in two broad varieties: historical facts, and what I might call functional facts. All of them come attached to some physical element of the city, from sidewalk graffiti to cellphone towers camouflaged as trees, neon signs to dancing car-dealership windsock giants, the green Ampelmännchen that appear in German traffic lights to the cryptic yellow signs that point Los Angeles film and television crews toward shooting locations. Examining these things intently, as if pulling on loose ends of string, Mars and Kohlstedt unravel arrays of of historical and functional facts, the former explaining how they came to exist in the city, and the latter explaining what purpose they now serve in it. This, as they put it, "is a guide to the overlooked and ordinary: the boring stuff," the "mundane objects we pass by without noticing or trip over without thinking."

In America mundanity and oddity have long tended toward coexistence, and in The 99% Invisible City this takes such built forms forms as Durham, North Carolina's "can-opener bridge," whose unusually low clearance of eleven feet and eight inches resulted in decades of mishaps with trucks passing — or attempting to pass — beneath. Around Austin stand about a dozen "moon towers," 150-foot tall steel platforms originally topped with arc lights, a fairly common form of street lighting when originally installed in the late 19th century. Added in the to the National Register of Historic Places ("with all the rights, privileges, and annoyances that this entails") in 1976 — the same year in which Richard Linklater set Dazed and Confused, whose depiction of a moon tower remains cinema's most notable — these incongruously fin-de-siècle structures have become pillars of a distinctive Austin culture, extant or lamented.

As an American living in Asia, I'd like to think distance has cultivated within me a deeper appreciation for — or at least fascination with — the country's can-opener bridges, moonlight towers, and so on. Though Mars and Kohlstedt make no mention of anything here in Seoul or other Korean cities (even in their section on urban streams, of which the Cheonggyecheon has so often been held up as an example), they hardly ignore this side of the world. Among other skyscrapers they discuss Taipei 101 and its wind-counterweighting damper, "a gigantic pendulum that slows the sway of the structure" and has become "the star attraction of the building." I myself stood in the damper's dedicated photo zone on my first trip to Taiwan, and even beheld the Sanrio-designed Damper Babies, "little cartoon figures with the body of a tuned mass damper, a big head, and little arms and legs."

Taiwan has an attractive capital, the tourist-trappiness of Taipei 101 notwithstanding, though I've paid more visits to the formidable urban civilization of Japan. The 99% Invisible City finds most of its Asian stories there, including in my favorite Japanese city — or at any rate, in one detail of its infrastructure. "There is a lovely metal manhole cover in Osaka," write Mars and Kohlstedt. "On it is a relief of the Osaka Castle wrapped in blue waves and white cherry blossoms that was commissioned to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Osaka becoming a municipality." Seriousness about aesthetics in even the most utilitarian endeavors will surprise no one even faintly aware of Japanese culture, though fewer Western readers will be familiar with the 1974 alteration of the "go" light on Japanese traffic signals to properly reflect ao, a color word that refers to shades English calls both blue and green.

Located at the intersection of Japanese language and urbanism, the matter of ao traffic lights could hardly sit more neatly in my own wheelhouse. Most in the book's target audience will feel the same way about at least one or two of the subjects it touches on, and in fact its structure practically encourages seeking them out at will rather than encountering them in the course of a cover-to-cover read. Though Mars clarifies that the book consists not of "transcripts of past episodes" (which probably would also have sold) but material written entirely anew, it does have in common with the podcast — and with podcasting itself, as I resentfully noticed when I was doing it — this accommodation of the interest-motivated picker-and-chooser. This, too, strikes me as a facet of nerd culture's new prominence, or put more specifically, of the ascent of the enthusiast over the connoisseur.

Indeed, stoking enthusiasm for the built environment could plausibly be stated as the entire 99% Invisible project's mission. No matter how inherently interesting the city in which you live, you eventually go blind on some level to the surroundings it presents after passing enough daily life within them. Bollards, anchor plates, stamps in the concrete of the sidewalk: to make listeners and readers aware of the provenance and purpose of these seldom-acknowledged features — of the "stories" behind them — constitutes, in its way, an act of re-enchantment. But then, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, especially if it leads to the increasingly obscurantist acquisition of additional related knowledge. In the same way that past generations of nerds amassed information about, say, streetcar transfers, some of today's city enthusiasts seem to know (and say) a little too much about easements, sharrows, and curb setbacks.

In cities as in many other areas of life, it would perhaps be more accurate to say that enthusiasm has come to substitute for connoisseurship. To draw further from the Francophone well, the savoir-faire and even joie de vivre so deeply associated with the city now seems conspicuously lacking in many of the city's most ardent champions, even the youngest division of whom has more than its share of pedants and reformers. Nor do the articles and books written for them suggest any special connoisseurship of English prose: in the young cities of the United States, Mars and Kohlstedt inform us, "ancient architectural ruins of Western civilization are not really a thing." This from one of the better-written general-interest city books in recent memory, and almost certainly best-written book to come from a podcast (not that I could bear the research needed to back up that claim).

Such seeming infelicities reflect the book's origins: podcast listeners seem to value a conversational tone and recently popularized expressions, even in a narrated, intricately constructed show like 99% Invisible. (Again This American Life comes to mind, and in particular the deliberate-sounding notes of unprofessionalism sounded in creator Ira Glass' monologues.) On the whole, both the podcast and the book are, in composition and design, paragons of good taste — especially as conceived of by millennial American urbanites — and its occasional shots of broad humor sometimes make sound points, if perhaps inadvertently: the story heading "URINE TROUBLE," for instance, speaks volumes about the state of Western cities today. When it again becomes possible for me to visit a Western city, or even to a western Japanese city, I'll flip again through The 99% Invisible City beforehand and so as to put its urban ways of seeing to the test.


Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His current projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.