Skip to content

Books on Cities: 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 Minneapolisunder-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.

Read the whole thing at Substack.