Dialogs: 99% Invisible Team Explores Hidden Beauties of Urbanism. Always Read the Plaque

Screenshot of ChF conversation. Top, Kohlstedt and Mars; bottom, Green.

Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt have a new book. It’s a beautiful city field guide with almost 400 pages of stories, history and illustrations on the “hidden world of everyday design.” You can also follow their peregrinations of urbanism on their website, thru their podcasts and via their newsletter. They participated in a vigorous dialog with moderator Hank Green last week as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival’s digital fall season of CHF at Home.

The book is The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design. Their introduction notes that this is “a guide to the overlooked and ordinary; the boring stuff. The truth is that the mundane objects we pass by without noticing or trip over without thinking can represent as much genius and innovation as the tallest building, the longest bridge, or the most manicured park.” This is also the perspective of the podcast, for which Mars is creator and host and Kohlstedt is digital director and producer. Host Green is CEO of Complexly, a producer of YouTube channels and podcasts. Mars is a former WBEZ journalist and now lives in San Francisco. His motto and the motto of the podcast, is “Always read the plaque.” Kohlstedt studied architecture and design, worked for a while in graphic and industrial design, in freelance construction and carpentry, and also designed theater sets.

Early in the conversation, Mars observed that “Noticing is self-rewarding.” You have to train yourself to notice and give yourself permission to stop and explore the invisible part of the built world. Green said that many people seem to have a “bias for the natural world” and against the built environment. What makes something fascinating (in the built world), he asked.

A big story needs to have a big idea and a takeaway that you remember, Mars replied. When we enter into a world, we think that’s how it should be.* But things change. Now with the pandemic, it’s interesting to look at the past because the future is more dynamic than we thought it would be, he concluded.

Green asked, “What might be different about cities in the future?”

“I’m concerned about the future of mass transit,” Mars said, alluding to changes in commuting. “But cities bounce back; they’re resilient organisms,” Kohlstedt said.

Mars commented on the way elevators changed the way buildings were marketed. Before electricity, the first floor was the most valuable space. After the invention of elevators and the availability of electricity, the top floor was the most desirable.

Green observed that roads take up a lot of space. Could we have fewer roads in the future?

Kohlstedt pointed out the design of Barcelona with its superblocks, an urban plan that reclaims streets from automobiles and turns them into walkable, mixed-use public spaces.

Green said that his favorite icebreaker question at parties (back in the era of parties) is not What’s your job? but “What’s your favorite bridge?”

Mars said his is the Golden Gate Bridge. Kohlstedt told his favorite bridge story—about a Chicago guy who found a way to get up to the space under a drawbridge. “He moved in a TV and furniture,” Kohlstedt said, and lived in the space under the roadway—a working drawbridge over the Chicago River. When the drawbridge opened, the “apartment” tilted on its side. The man lived there for years, but eventually, his “adult treehouse” was discovered and he was evicted.

The 99% Invisible show’s name comes from architect Buckminster Fuller, who once said, “99% of who you are is invisible.” That’s how Mars guides us thru his storytelling—we learn that even the most prominent facade is hiding something more interesting.

The 99% Invisible book is not meant to be an encyclopedia that provides a few paragraphs and the origin story of an invention, the authors say in their introduction. “You have Wikipedia for that.” This is about “breaking down the cityscape into its more fascinating subparts. Rather than tell you about the first traffic light, we’d rather tell you about the most interesting traffic light in the world; the one in Syracuse, New York, that has the green light above the red light in a display of Irish pride.” For its bridge section, the book tells the story not of the Brooklyn Bridge, but of the Norfolk Southern overpass in Durham, N.C., that shears off the tops of tall trucks passing underneath.

The book (with illustrations by Patrick Vale) is divided into six chapters: Inconspicuous (with subchapters titled Ubiquitous, Camouflage and Accretions); Conspicuous (chapters on Identity, Safety and Signage); Infrastructure; Architecture; Geography; and Urbanism. The identity chapter addresses vexillology or the study of flags.

CHF host Alison Cuddy said in introducing the program, “Chicagoans are such nerds about our city. We love every bit of its lore, its history, its architecture and of course, its design.” She mentioned Mars’ TED talk about vexillology—city flags and “the genius of the Chicago flag.” The talk has received 6.6 million views on the TED website and 4 million more on YouTube. Mars said that since his TED talk, 200 municipalities have changed their flags. They realized how a great flag will be translated into many elements of civic pride, such as t-shirts, caps, mugs, commercial signage and COVID face masks. (See TED talk video below.)


*Colson Whitehead says in The Colossus of New York, his book of essays about being a New Yorker, “No matter how long you have been here, you are a New Yorker the first time you say, That used to be Munsey’s, or That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge…. You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.”

The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design (Houghton Mifflin, published October 6) is available from the Seminary Co-op, CHF’s bookstore partner, and other booksellers.


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