The 99% Invisible City

“Always read the plaque.”

This is getting out of control. I now have 13 books on my list of Top Ten Favorite Books! The 99% Invisible City is now the thirteenth. Something has to be done.

And why, you ask, are there 13 books on my Top Ten list? I’m not going to answer that.

But I will tell you some of the reasons why I so highly recommend this magnificent book.

First, it is jam-packed with information—much of it new to me—about hidden things to observe in the built environment. Most of these are things you pass by every day and just never notice. Some are things you notice but don’t think about. A few are things that are intentionally hidden. Although the theme is design, much of the information comes from other disciplines, especially geography and history—lots of history, all told in an engaging style.

Second, the book is visually gorgeous. Of course that is to be expected in a book about design, but it’s remarkably unobtrusive. More surprising is that there are no photographs! How is that possible, given the subject matter? I’m guessing that it comes from the origin of the book: the 99% Invisible podcast. As a podcast, it is audio-only, so the book is more-or-less the print equivalent. But it does have illustrations! Not very many of them, but they are all hand-drawn, not photos and not computer-produced. This “limitation” adds to the feeling of the book. I am reminded of the time I was looking through a book about birds (by Audubon? Or Peterson? I don’t remember), and I was surprised that the illustrations were hand-drawn, when I had naively expected that photos would be more accurate. But the author explained that photos would contain too much information, much of which would be irrelevant to the goal. By hand-drawing the figures, the author can let you focus on what’s important and ignore the rest. The bird book had color illustrations—necessarily for the subject—but 99% Invisible has monochromatic ones, not black-and-white but black-and-yellow, to add a little accent color to the proceedings. Yellow is also used (very sparingly) as an accent color for the text itself.

The authors—Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt—invite the reader to skip around, but don’t do that too much. I went in order through all of the more than 100 topics, reading at least the first paragraph of each topic and then deciding whether to continue. Much more often than not, I continued. Usually I was hooked after one paragraph. I’ll discuss below the remarkable structure of the book, as saying “more than 100 topics” makes it sound unstructured, and nothing could be further from the truth. But first let’s cherry-pick three specific observations:

  • In a paragraph about an 1856 book by Owen Jones, The Grammar of OrnamentMars observes that “Abstraction is the key. When nature is rendered mathematical, something chaotic and organic is turned into something regular, comprehensible, repeatable, and ultimately beautiful.” This is what makes math courses successful (to the extent that they are).
  • We all know the never-ending struggle for security and defeating it in a cycle: Person A creates a physical lock or cryptosystem or password regime, then Person B breaks it, then A makes a better one, then B breaks that one, and so forth. Mars writes about the so-called “detector lock,” created by Jeremiah Chubb in the middle of the 19th Century, quoting an advertisement: “My name is Chubb, that makes the patent locks. Look on my works, ye burglars, and despair.” This not-so-subtle reference to Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias” of course struck a chord with me. (If it doesn’t strike a chord with you, take some time out to go back and re-read the sonnet; how long, after all, can it take you to read 14 lines and think about them?)
  • One of my favorite topics in The 99% Invisible City is street patterns, whether the mostly rectangular arrangement of Manhattan or the chaos of downtown Boston. Mars describes “how cities can be understood through the eccentricities of their roadways,” using Detroit as a prime example. Never having been there, I expected Detroit to have a strictly rectilinear, Midwestern-style grid, but it turns out to be vastly more complicated than that.

Before we end, I promised you an explanation of the remarkable structure of the book. Here’s the organization:

  • There are six chapters, each with a one-word title:
    1. Inconspicuous
    2. Conspicuous
    3. Infrastructure
    4. Architecture
    5. Geography
    6. Urbanism
  • Each chapter is then divided into several sections, each with a one-word title. For instance, Chapter 4 (Architecture) consists of these sections:
    • Liminal
    • Materials
    • Regulations
    • Towers
    • Foundations
    • Heritage
  • And each section contains 3–6 topics, each with a two-word title and two-word subtitle. For example, study the topics of the Towers section:
    • Braking Good: Modern Elevators
    • Cladding Skeletons: Curtain Walls
    • Topping Out: Skyscraper Races
    • Unanticipated Loads: Managing Crises
    • Perspective Matters: Redefining Skylines
    • Beyond Above: Engineering Icons
    • Grouped Dynamics: Street Canyons

I stand back in awe and admiration.

And remember: “Always read the plaque.”

Categories: Books, Dorchester/Boston, Life