Tuning into the Invisible: Roman Mars’s 99% Invisible

Tuning into the Invisible: Roman Mars’s 99% Invisible,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 73:2 (June 2014) [draft with images + sound files]


Tuning Into the Invisible: Roman Mars’s 99% Invisible

Poster by Steve McCarthy

The following is a “working paper” — an edited draft of a review that Kazys Varnelis has kindly asked me to write for the multimedia reviews section of the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. It will be published as “Turning Into the Invisible” JSAH (2014), and be made available via JStor. There should be three Soundcloud files embedded below; if they don’t appear, try refreshing.

Update 6/18/14: The article’s here, in JSAH 73:2 (2014). 

Presaging today’s age of quantification and Big Data, Buckminster Fuller habitually wielded exponents and percentages as rhetorical devices. He famously aimed to “make the world better, for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time,” and claimed that the Union Internationale des Architectes was on board, committing to “the reuse of the world’s intellectual and physical resources” so that “100 percent instead of 44 percent of humanity” might enjoy a higher standard of living, better education, more travel, and other intellectual and physical comforts. Complicating such improvement efforts, however, was the fact that much of Spaceship Earth had become non-empirical.

Technology expanded reality 999-fold to include the whole range of the invisible events of Universe. These had been held previously by humans to be magical and superstitiously mystical. Now they had become the realities of everyday pure and applied science. With the inclusion of this 99-percent invisible world of reality, along with its as yet myriad of unsolved problems, into our everyday strictly sensual reality came the radio-introduced concepts of tuning-in and tuning-out (Fuller, Critical Path).

More and more contemporary designers, scholars, and artists are tuning into this invisible terrain, mapping the “signal space” of cell phone and internet infrastructure, exploring the subterranean structures and immaterial networks that inform how our visible and material spaces take shape (see Center for Land Use Interpretation, Michael Chen, Shannon Mattern, and Kazys Varnelis). This same invisible landscape has captured the attention of one fantastically named radio producer, Roman Mars, who explores the stories behind design in his fantastically popular radio show, 99% Invisible. Launched at the end of 2010, the show – produced as both a 4.5-minute series, supported by the San Francisco chapter of the AIA, for KALW and an expanded podcast – raised $170,477 on Kickstarter in 2012, far exceeding its $42,000 goal, making it the most successful journalism Kickstarter campaign to date. The funding allowed Mars to hire producer Sam Greenspan and revamp the show’s website.

In his appeal to funders, Mars admitted that a radio show about architecture and design, “disciplines usually appreciated through the eyes,” might sound crazy – but “I don’t need pictures to talk about design…. I like making stories that tell us about who we are through the lens of the things we build.” In an interview with Mother Jones, Mars said, “I really wanted to focus on the everyday, even the mundane, and not the things that were shiny and new and exciting. And not things that people think of as designer things” – in other words, no coverage of starchitects and product releases. “Manhole covers, that’s my beat.”

As of this writing, in October 2013, Mars had produced 91 episodes and was seeking funding, through another Kickstarter campaign, to “go weekly” for Season 4. Up to that point, he and his team of collaborators had explored such varied topics as: culs de sac, hospital logistics, steering wheels, queue theory, the design of solitary confinement facilities, Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City, ship camouflage, skateboarders’ love of Philadelphia’s LOVE Plaza, slot machines, maps, hand-painted signs, cities’ secret staircases, rebar, city flags, background art for Warner Brothers cartoons, the design of paper currency, Trappist beers, the structural engineering of the Egyptian pyramids, privately-owned public spaces, pneumatic tubes, toothbrush design, the periodic table, and parking.

Of course we can’t see any of these objects or phenomena on the air, so Mars relies heavily on description and the personal stories of various people behind the designs. But he also infuses each broadcast with a rhythm and sense of musicality that impart dimension and texture to his subjects. He designs a soundtrack to set the scene and provide intellectual cues: “[M]usic will drop out when I need a key point committed to memory,” and “when I’m explaining something, I tend to use this plucky explaining music; when I’m making you feel the… bigness of something, [the music] tends to have that awe-inspiring… [drone-type]… feel to it.” Plus, the show as a whole has a song-like structure, with repeated choruses and a signature cadence.

Mars also leans in close to the microphone, creating that “inside-the-head” voice, suggesting that he’s in the same space as the listener. Since the podcast audience is likely using headphones, the sense of intimacy and interiority is all the greater. Plus, the cooly animated “grain” of Mars’s voice – which he describes as a mash-up of the “plaintive wail” of Benjamen Walker from Your Radio Nightlight, the “soothing, explanat[ory]” sound of Jad Abumrad from RadioLab, and the “conversationalist” tone of Ira Glass from This American Life – contributes a texture to that sonic architectonic. Other voices, including those of other reporters, often join the chorus. Of particular note is the lispy voice of his toddler son Mazlo, who tells wildly entertaining stories as part of various promotional spots at the end of the show. The incorporation of family thus welcomes the listener even farther into Mars’s interior space.

Mars spoke with designer Debbie Millman, host of the Design Matters podcast, about “being radiophonic” – exploiting radio’s distinctive properties to tell the story of design in new ways, not least of which is highlighting the sonic – the literally invisible – properties of our designed environments and the designed objects and systems we fill them with. Some of my personal favorite 99% Invisible episodes have explored urban noise; musical iPhone apps; deaf composers and blind architects; Max Neuhaus’s sound art; design for the hearing impaired; sirens, both Odyssean and mechanical; telephones; the noises our interactive devices make; and the honks and squeaks of Washington D.C.’s Metro escalators, which, in various locations, sound like “whales mating,” “Indian drone music,” or an “aviary of…ravens taunting you as you ascend into your workday.”

One particularly striking and uncharacteristically long episode, produced by On the Media’s Alex Goldman, explores Joseph Kinnebrew’s Heydon Pavilion, a mysterious and much mythologized structure that sits off the beaten path outside Ann Arbor, MI. Greenspan and Mars began the episode with a dramatization of Alex and friends’ teenage visits to “Heyoon,” as it was known to the locals. As How Sound’s Rob Rosenthal explains, “[]
he result is a lively, visual, radiophonic telling of events from many years ago. While a montage of quotes would have worked well, the dramatization definitely takes the story to the next level.” The soundtrack – composed of the expansive drone of Stars of the Lid (a personal favorite); the sparse, whimsical sounds of Lullatone; and the mechanical rhythms of Hauschka’s prepared piano – recreates both Heyoon’s physical and emotional landscapes.

It is this construction of an affective architecture – one built of texture and sound – that is Mars’s forte. As he told Boots Riley of The Onion’s A.V. Club, one of his overarching interests is the “art form of information.” He explores these aesthetics of communication not only through his chosen subject matter – queues, monuments, logistics, interaction design, etc. – but also through the way he gives form and feeling to his own communication, to the way he gives texture and shape to the invisible.

“I’m often approached to do something in print, do a book or something,” Mars said. “I would like to do a graphic novel, because I think a radio script and a graphic novel script are…similar; they’re more conversational, they’re more plain.” They both “tune into,” as Fuller might say, the richness and multisensoriality of our experiences in the designed landscape, by translating them into an abstracted architecture – one composed of sound, the other of lines and color. Such forms work well for the stories Mars chooses to tell, which, by focusing on the stories behind design rather than on the shiny designed objects themselves, “[don’]
require a perfect picture in someone’s mind.”

Chris Ware, Building Stories
Chris Ware, Building Stories

Not coincidentally, in his pre-99% days Mars produced for KALW a show called “Invisible Ink,” a “radio zine” that, as he explained to Millman, allowed you to “see [its] staples.” It called attention to its techniques of construction and highlighted its structure, its own “art form of information.” We can see a similar approach in recent architectural graphic novels like Chris Ware’s Building Stories and the work of Jimenez Lai. Yet while Ware and Lai tell design stories through the architecture of the page, Mars constructs a textured, rhythmic space though the invisible medium of sound. And in those 4.5 minutes of airspace, he brings into focus the “99 percent invisible world of reality,” and amplifies those everyday aspects of design that we so often tune out.


Lynn Spigel on George Nelson’s Storage Walls

via DesignHistoryGroup:

We ended our Media + Architecture class early tonight (which unfortunately meant curtailing a really great discussion on architecture and film!) so that several of us — those of us who didn’t have 6:00 classes to attend — could trek uptown to the Bard Graduate Center to hear Lynn Spigel’s talk, “Media Walls: From Mid-Century Domesticity to Smart Home Environments.” We had read her Make Room for TV and discussed television and architecture last week.

[We arrived 10 minutes late — damn New School elevators, stupid A train! — so we missed the introduction.] Shortly after Spigel started showing some historical images this evening, I thought, ein minuten bitte! This looks familiar! Once I got home, a quick consultation of my still un-transcribed notes from last May’s ICA conference confirmed that, yes, I’d heard her give an earlier version of this talk last year in Boston! I was glad to hear tonight how her work has progressed.

For those students who couldn’t join us, I’ve promised to post my notes from the talk. My fellow note-taking attendees are welcome to amend these notes in the Comments section.

*   *   *   *   *

Mark Weiser, the “father of ubiquitous computing,” believed that “the most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are undistinguishable from it.” Spigel traces the disappearing technical object back to architecture — specifically to mid-century design. Architect/writer George Nelson, for instance, was a strong advocate for the disappearance of objects.

With Henry Wright, Nelson wrote Tomorrow’s House (1945), a book featuring sections on lighting and heating, living and dining rooms, sleeping and sound conditioning and storage (among others). Spigel noted that this book is also where he “invented” the term “family room” — a room that, as it was depicted in the book, allowed for separate gendered activities to happen simultaneously [full text of the book here].

via Modernism101:

Spigel then presented a selection of experimental, tech-infused houses (I don’t recall the specific argument she was making here):

  • the plastic, modular Monsanto House of the Future at Disneyland (Monsanto was among Nelson’s clients; others included Abbott, Alcoa, BP, Ford, Gulf, IBM, General Electric, and Olivetti)
    • The house featured Nelson’s famous coconut chair
  • the 1939 World’s Fair’s House of Tomorrow

Tomorrow’s House also introduced the storagewall, a unit that would make objects disappear. Such a device was necessitated, Spigel proposes, by three converging trends: (1) the shrinking size of modern homes; (2) the decreasing number of domestic servants; and (3) the increase in the amount of “stuff” (my term) in the home — all of which contributed to clutter.

source unknown!

The cluttered home was, at the time, a target for social reformers; Spigel cites the Hoover administration’s cleanliness campaigns and the 1922 Better Homes in America campaign. We should take note of how the problem of clutter was gendered (see the image below).

According to Spigel, Nelson was particularly interested in addressing the mess that media — radio and television sets (the “horrible eye”), for example — created. He wasn’t a fan of the ornate cabinetry — much of which was in the ghastly Chippendale style — that had been developed to house these new media as they entered the home (Spigel talks about this in Make Room for TV).

via Treehugger:

[Spigel showed a fantastic image of the storagewall from MoMA’s 1949 “Modern Art in Your Life” exhibition; I can’t find it online, so the image above will have to suffice.]

The storagewall was modular, and, because it was intended to work as a room divider, it was accessible on both sides. Nelson explained that it made more efficient use of the otherwise-wasted space between the home’s interior walls.

via Modern Findings:

Tomorrow’s House presented the storagewall as “the key to the imagination of the home as a media space“; it contained modules for the radio, record player, speakers, television, phone, print media, and writing implements, and featured a fold-out desk. In the image above (two above, actually), in the blonde wood section to the left, above the open drawer, we see a module with a round portal; this section housed the radio, and that circle’s the speaker. The storagewall imposed an order on these technologies and structured functional relationships among them. It fashioned domestic media — both “old” and “new,” both media of reception (e.g., TV and radio) and production (e.g, pens and paper for writing letters) — into a “media network” that Spigel likens to a “makeshift computer” (more on this later).

The storagewall also often contained space for board games, which, when grouped with all the home’s entertainment media, fashioned the unit into the home’s leisure center, too. Yet, according to Spigel, popular press coverage of the storagewall — which appeared regularly in publications like Life and Better Homes & Gardens — rarely showed the unit housing sports gear (the above image may be a rare exception?).

via Stylepark:

Press and publicity also commonly presented the storagewall as a “communication medium for the housewife” — a means to express herself through strategically placed vases or houseplants. Nelson’s 1957 Problems of Design contains a chapter titled “Design as Communication,” in which he explains that “[e]very design is in some sense a social communication, and what matters is…the emotional intensity with which the essentials have been explored and expressed” [p. 6]).

While the wall created a structure for leisure, it was also an “edifice for domestic labor.” In supporting both of these activities, it embodied the (gendered) tension between work and leisure. The wall was a site for women, as the (new?) “managers of family life,” to perform their managerial labor — to handle the filing of bills, to organize the family entertainment, and to coordinate the cleaning. Even when dad and kids are pictured lounging in front of the storagewall’s TV, mom is often seen fetching drinks and snacks — managing her family’s leisure activity. [Spigel commented during the Q&A that designers of the period attempted to “rebrand” the kitchen, too, as the home’s “work center.]

The storagewall was thus a site for “reassembling the social life of the home.” It was a material site where women in particular renegotiated the relationship between homeowners and their (“disappearing”) servants and coordinated relationships among family members — between genders and generations — themselves.

Spigel emphasized that the storagewall was not meant to be an all-purpose storage unit; there were certain objects it simply wasn’t meant to contain. Sentimental objects, for instance, which typically comprise a huge proportion of domestic clutter, had no place in the storagwall. Spigel suggests that this is because Nelson conceived of domestic space as a space for “storage and organizing data” rather than a space for memories. She contrasts Nelson with Bachelard, who, referring to literary spaces of the 19th century — an era preceding the rise of domestic media — describes the home as a memory space, a “maternal paradise.” Bachelard’s home is an enclosed space that “doesn’t communicate with the outside world”; the only means of escape is through daydreams.

Nelson focused instead on active storage — the storage of stuff that would be used, not momentos or nostalgia pieces. If I understand her correctly, Spigel attributes Nelson’s focus on utility and efficiency — and particularly his conception of the storagewall as a site for “organizing data” — in part to his experience in working with computers. He worked with the Eameses on the US pavilion at the Moscow world exhibition in 1959; he consulted with IBM engineers on the design of the SABRE scheduling/reservation system for the airlines; and he designed typewriters and computer terminals (John Harwood writes about much of Nelson’s IBM work in The Interface). This experience cultivated a very particular understanding of storage, and led to the conception of a storagewall that managed only particular kinds of clutter.

Nelson’s 1954 “Storage” — via Modernism101:

Despite this desire to push away the clutter of nostalgia, and to model the home as an efficient data storage device, Spigel says, memory persists. The home “has never been modern,” to borrow a phrase from Latour. The storage wall never cleaned up all the mess. Two competing models of the home coexist, and live in dialectical tension — the concept of the home as a memory space, and the concept of the home as a storage space.

The digital world creates its own clutter — both in the material form of obsolesced machines and useless adapters; and in the conceptual form of “information overload.” It’s interesting to note that Mark Weiser, Mr. UbiComp/UI/OS, lists “garbage collection” among his hobbies and has written frequently on the topic.

Let’s attend to this garbage, examine the clutter. Rendering objects invisible, Spigel says (echoing many other theorists), “hides the social/political apparatus that creates them.” Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell, in their recent Divining a Digital Future, advocate for studying the mess of digital infrastructures.

They sell these at my dad’s hardware store. I have at least a hundred in use in my  apartment.

In her May 2011 talk at the ICA, Spigel recommended focusing on “the mess of infrastructures that arise out of Nelson’s creation” — which I’m guessing would include the wires stuffed behind the TV, gathering dust; the power outlets sourcing multiple storagewall modules. Did they have powerstrips and CableClamps in Nelson’s day, too?

How would we design contemporary domestic interiors (or other interiors?) that, rather than “disappearing” the technological object, highlight its infrastructures — that somehow call attention to the “social/political apparatuses” that make this technology possible? Do we aestheticize our wires? (Pipes have already become “decorative” in renovated “raw” spaces.) Visualize our wifi? Amplify the hum of our 60 Hz electrical current?

via HowardLake on Flickr:

We talked in my “Libraries” class spring about designing libraries and archives that make people aware of the infrastructures (and their attendant politics) that deliver their “free” information. How do you do this without  turning the building into a big, dumb digital “duck”?

Digital Beijing – Studio Pei-Zhu