REVIEW: The 99% Invisible City by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt
A beautifully designed guidebook to the unnoticed yet essential elements of our cities, from the creators of the wildly popular 99% Invisible podcast
Have you ever wondered what those bright, squiggly graffiti marks on the sidewalk mean?
Or stopped to consider why you don’t see metal fire escapes on new buildings?
Or pondered the story behind those dancing inflatable figures in car dealerships?
99% Invisible is a big-ideas podcast about small-seeming things, revealing stories baked into the buildings we inhabit, the streets we drive, and the sidewalks we traverse. The show celebrates design and architecture in all of its functional glory and accidental absurdity, with intriguing tales of both designers and the people impacted by their designs.
Now, in The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to Hidden World of Everyday Design, host Roman Mars and coauthor Kurt Kohlstedt zoom in on the various elements that make our cities work, exploring the origins and other fascinating stories behind everything from power grids and fire escapes to drinking fountains and street signs. With deeply researched entries and beautiful line drawings throughout, The 99% Invisible City will captivate devoted fans of the show and anyone curious about design, urban environments, and the unsung marvels of the world around them.
I’ve never listened to the 99% Invisible podcast but this sounded intriguing so I requested an arc. Wow – there are a ton of interesting things packed into this book.
The next time I’m near a public building, I’ll have to look and see if I can spot the emergency boxes for firefighter access. I sure see enough of the sprayed street markings but now I know what they mean. I think there’s actually a “residential home” building hiding an electrical substation near me but cell phone towers are out in the open. The history of warning signs for biohazards was new to me and I’d never thought about the fact that 10,000 years in the future they will still need to be understood. But using bioluminescent cats to do it? Um, no.
I learned there are stravenues in Tucson, AZ and a city of the dead, south of San Francisco. Once SF passed an ordinance forcing graves to be removed from the city, the bodies were taken out but many of the tombstones remained and were repurposed throughout the city. Why are there so many palm trees in CA? What building floor numbers are reappearing in Vancouver, Canada? What did the drought of 2018 reveal in the fields of England, Ireland and Wales? What landscaping tradition that was brought to the New World to ape the elites of Europe is now being used to terrorize homeowners in some cities? Hint – soon crabby people might be yelling at kids to “Get off my xeriscape!” Learn it all here.
While most of the time cities try (or say they try) to make things livable for the people who live there, there are times when they deliberately don’t. Anti-loitering, anti-sitting, anti-peeing, and anti-sleeping devices have been installed for centuries. Some cities install different colored lighting to deter certain activities (pink to highlight acne in teens, blue so drug addicts can’t see their veins to shoot up). On the other hand, people sometimes try to adjust things to make life easier for their fellow citizens even if it’s without authorization. Sometimes cities end up adapting what these people do as – it works!
The book has some hand drawn sketches which I wish had actually been photographs to better see what I suppose was being illustrated. There are different sections which can be dipped into, read completely, or skipped if the information isn’t of interest. Discover the hidden stuff all around you and what it really means. B