The speaker at the Smith Memorial Student Union building asked those in attendance if they knew where the name originated. When they were stumped, he told the story of young Michael Smith, who helped lead the Portland State University College Bowl trivia team to an underdog victory in 1965, only to die from cystic fibrosis shortly after graduating. When asked how he knew of this connection, the speaker — writer John Marr — replied that he had read about it on the prominent plaque outside the building. His motto is to “always read the plaque.”
As always, this Weekly Reader features links to recent books and articles that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy.
That motto is a mantra for Roman Mars and the folks who produce the podcast 99% Invisible, and it infuses the delightful 2020 book by Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design. The motto’s literal meaning is quite clear, but the broader point is that we should be “constantly on the lookout for stories embedded in our built environments.”
I was introduced to 99% Invisible several years ago by my son, a passionate enthusiast of cities. We share similar interests and he knew that the stories about the little known, often overlooked, but nonetheless fascinating aspects of our cities and towns would captivate me. He was right, and given that experience I grabbed a copy of this new book late last year.
The 99% Invisible City is not a travel guide, but is instead a set of stories based around the various subsets that make up a city with a focus on problem-solving, historical constraints, and human drama. Here you will discover:
- The meaning behind those seemingly ubiquitous red, orange, and yellow markings, spread out along our streets like graffiti. (Hint: think underground utilities.)
- How engineers in 1920 took care of exhaust problems in the Holland Tunnel. (Hint: think beautifully designed ventilation buildings that have a Wrightian look and blend into the New York/New Jersey urbanscape.)
- The traffic light that the authors believe is the most unusual, so much so that the city where it is located has a municipal park nearby with sculptured figures of kids with slingshots aiming at the light. (Hint: think about why the green is now on the top in this heavily Irish neighborhood.)
One can go on-and-on. This is an entertaining and informative book to sit with for a few minutes or a few hours. Each story is a maximum of three pages in length, usually interspersed with delightful graphics. Even if the reader is familiar with a particular topic, you nonetheless learn small facts to flesh out the meaning and humanity around our built environment. And there are plenty of great stories that are bound to surprise most readers.
Stories such as the tale of Audrey Munson, the first “supermodel” in the U.S. whose figure was used for statues in cities across the nation, usually on buildings from the Beaux Arts era. The three muses that sat in the lobby of the Hotel Astor — all patterned after Munson and all in the nude — came about after her mother gave the famous sculptor Isidore Konti permission to use her daughter as a model. Munson later called the set, “a souvenir of my mother’s consent.”
There are stories about municipal flags because Mars is a big fan of vexillography, or flag design. We learn that San Francisco installed over 200 large, underground cisterns following the earthquake and fire of 1906, to provide water in the event of future natural disasters. Who knew that Carmel, Indiana, has more than 138 roundabouts, saving the city money while reducing collisions by 40% and crashes with injuries by 80%? The piece on revolving doors and locks informs us that the most secure mechanical lock was developed by English inventor Josephy Bramah way back in the 1700s.
And the book also includes Andrew’s favorite story of how his friend’s mother —Diane Hartley — discovered a major structural design flaw in the famous Citicorp Center in Manhattan while trying to replicate engineering calculations for her thesis on the building. She didn’t know that her calculations had led the building’s engineers to confirm her concerns and then work to secretly reinforce the building in the middle of the night for three months. It all happened without public notice since there was a newspaper strike at the time.
This is a remarkable book for any lover of cities. Graphic designer, author, and friend Michael Bierut writes in a jacket blurb, “Just as Jane Jacobs did fifty years ago, Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt provide a new way of seeing urban life, finding secrets and surprises behind every sewer grate, storefront, and street sign.”
More to come…
Image: To prove the point, I recently found this plaque, and the adjacent artwork, along my regular route for my morning walk. The angle was such that I didn’t notice it, until I made a conscious decision to “read the plaque.”