Review | The 99% Invisible City

G.T. Dempsey


Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020), pp. x, 384  ISBN: 9780358126607  $30 Amazon | Bookshop (affiliate links)

     This is a wonder of a book.  Literally.   As in, have you ever wondered about the small metal circles, spheres, and stars fixed to the exterior of older buildings?  Decorations?  No.  They’re the visible ends of wall anchoring systems designed to hold these old buildings together and to prevent bricks from falling off facades.  Or, have you ever wondered about those small metal boxes fixed next to the entrances of buildings, generally at eye-level?  They’re small safes containing entrance keys or codes allowing emergency personnel to open them with a master key and, thus, gain rapid entry in case of an emergency.  

     If you wonder about such small mysteries in our everyday urban geography, then this is your book.  It’s revelatory.  Grouped in six chapters, it uncovers the origins of hundreds of such urban phenomena, from fire escapes (or their absence) to street signs to the boundary stones of Washington, D.C.  Comprehensively illustrated with line drawings and just as comprehensively researched (a 20-page bibliography details the sources), it explains how our cities work.

     The book has its origins in the podcast 99% Invisible, focused on the stories ‘baked into the buildings we inhabit, the streets we drive, and the sidewalks we traverse.’  It revels in the small-seeming things, celebrating urban ‘design and architecture in all its functional glory and accidental absurdity.’   Roman Mars is the podcast’s creator and host; Kurt Kohlstedt the digital director and producer.  This shows.  Throughout the book, the descriptions are light-handed (reflecting their conversational origins) but rigorously accurate.

     Let’s take those small metal circles and spheres and stars as an for-instance.   Here’s how our authors explain them.  ‘In many old brick row houses, floor and roof joists run side to side, connecting load-bearing walls that run perpendicular to the street.  As a result, the front and back facades of these homes aren’t very well connected to core building supports.  [These] end walls can start to bulge outwards, since they’re only connected to the rest of the houses at their edges…..  A common engineering retrofit [involves] a rod run through the bricks and threaded into the joists…to create a structural connection between the façade and the interior supports.  On the outside, tension rods are braced by what amount to big wide washers [our metal circles and spheres and stars] which spread loads across adjacent bricks.’  The bibliography for this item lists four sources, pre-eminently the Preservation Committee of the San Francisco Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

     A sampling of the items covered:  Utility Codes, Sidewalk Markings, Stink Pipes, Fake Facades, Ventilation Buildings, Electrical Substations, Wireless Towers, Production Wells, Relay Nodes, Civic Monuments and Historical Plaques, Traffic Lights, Shelter Markers, and dozens and dozens more, from the essential such as Power Grids to the ephemeral Inflatable Figures (those towering dancing blow-ups found at car dealerships).  There’s even a Fun with Flags section – Vexillology Rules:  Municipal Flags. (Apparently this is a particular concern of our authors; their bibliography reveals two podcasts devoted to this subject, plus a public lecture.)  They do note, ‘like most fields where the stakes are quite low, opinions can be very intense.’  Still, they follow this with the five key principles for good flag design drawn from Good Flag, Bad Flag:  How to Design a Great Flag.  Sheldon would be delighted.  

     Insight follows insight.  Have you ever wondered, even when driving through familiar neighborhoods in your hometown, why some buildings don’t align with their street?  The likely reason is that the buildings were urban infill of an abandoned thoroughfare for trains or other form of transportation.  At street level, the effect can be barely noticeable.  Seen from above, the resulting pattern ‘is a kind of architectural scar tissue – as if the built environment were filling in and healing old wounds.’  

     Or what about the humble street curb?  Today, they’re designed and built with small ramps, or curb cuts, at intersections to provide access for wheelchair users.  Not so in the not-so-distant past.  Enter the Rolling Quads of Berkeley in the activist ‘60s and their commando raids, under cover of night, ‘using sledgehammers to bust up curbs and build their own ramps.’   Such direct action forced the city into approving remedies; the impact went national.  ‘When the sweeping Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was hung up in the House of Representatives, disabled demonstrators left their wheelchairs and crawled up the marble steps of the Capitol building.’   This physical demonstration of an exclusionary built environment proved decisive.   

     Not all accounts are so emotive but, throughout, in the fashioning of their explanations, a master craftsman is at work.  The result is a book as delightful as it is informative.

Disclaimers: A review copy of this book was received from the publisher.  This site contains affiliate links to products. When you buy something through our retail links, we earn an affiliate commission.  This does not impact our reviews and comparisons.

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About the author
G.T. Dempsey
G.T. Dempsey is a Research Associate in the history of Late Antiquity at the University of California at Davis and, as a retired American career diplomat, he is also a commentator on American foreign policy.

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