A few months ago, in a little Bavarian town, far far away, an architect, by the name of Peter Zumthor (you may have heard of him), was asked to design a gate. Zumthor designed a transcendent, transparent structure, and unveiled it to the town. Upon seeing the marvel, the townspeople said it looked like a pair of “Glass Underpants.” And there our story ends.
Your first instinct may be to blame those uncouth Bavarians. But, like Jody Brown did in an excellent blog post, you could also fault Zumthor. Zumthor couldn’t “sell” his gate, because, like many an architect, he speaks “architect,” not “human.”
Roman Mars, on the other hand, is fluent in both. A population geneticist who went to college at age 15, Mars jumped off the science boat to follow his passion: radio. His show on architecture and design, 99% invisible, has become a sleeper hit, earning over $170,000 in a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign.
Its popularity comes down to its story-driven approach, which opens your eyes to the 99% of our reality that goes un-noticed: a building’s unknown history, a detail’s un-obvious purpose, a place’s hidden treasures. Through its stories, 99% invisible lives in the place where the “human” and the “architect” meet.
And, be you architect or nay, it hooks you from the start.
For the second part of our new series “Disruptive Minds,” which features people who are challenging the norm in Architecture and Design, we wanted to find out how (and why) Mars – neither a designer nor an architect himself – got so good at talking about design. Read on to discover how Mars uses sound to express space; how his show makes him see everything differently, even a cardboard box; and what’s in store for 99% invisible after its massive Kickstarter success.
Your show is about architecture and design, and yet you are neither an architect nor a designer yourself. In fact, you started out as a scientist (a population geneticist, to be exact) before becoming a radio show producer. So why, since you showed no inclination towards design in your past, do you think it was design that “unlocked” 99% invisible?
Well, I wouldn’t say I had no inclination for design in my past. I’d thought that it was incongruous that I had this show, and then someone reminded me that I named my boy Mazlo, but instead of M-a-s-l-o-w, which is who he’s named after, I spelled it M-a-z-l-o, because typographically I liked it better. So, even though it was never my job, it was always my thing. So in a way it was the culmination of a lot of interests.
But, the main thing about design that really works for me, as a person who does stories on the radio, is that there’s a process involved, and when there’s a process, there’s a story. It’s also a great lens to view all of human activity, and human activity is exactly what we’re here to talk about on the radio – so it just kind of works. It’s both my interest in the minute details of fonts and type and stuff but also the grand scheme of things of what we try to do in radio.
So you don’t think your lack of background in architecture and design limits you in any way?
I don’t think so. I think the show sounds the way it sounds because of my exact level of knowledge. Its good parts are because of that and its bad parts are because of that. I think the show will probably evolve and change as I become more schooled in these fields, but it is a reflection of what I know at this point. And that allows me to find wonder in things that architects would find boring, it allows me to get excited about things that some architects might not care about. But it also allows me to be free of any baggage, and just enjoy things in a certain way because I have no history with a certain object.
And I can also relate to the audience more – and I make it so it’s not for an architectural audience necessarily, although I’m glad a bunch of them really enjoy it. And I’m totally excited when someone writes me – especially an architect, and thinks I’m an architect – that just fills me with giddy glee. But it’s not required, and [the show’s] basically what I know, and it will probably change, but right now I think it’s a good mix of me not knowing and me being curious, and me knowing a little bit, at least to know I’m not making a huge mistake – of course I do a lot of research too.
Since your show’s geared towards the architectural layman, you don’t really talk about visual aesthetics (unless the building be bright purple of course). So what’s relevant to you when you see a building?
What’s interesting to me is if there’s a story to tell that I think will stick in someone’s brain, so that they might repeat it. That’s my criteria. I really like finding the interesting things in mundane items. So I’m more interested in a boring building with a cool thing I can say about why it is the way it is, than a really fancy, awesome, new building.
I usually don’t do stories about the high-end, amazing, new building. That’s not my thing. I just like anything that has a story to it that I think someone can get behind, and kind of awaken their imagination about that building or maybe even about the building that they’re in, or a building they encounter in their lives.
How have architects responded to your different perspective?
I think, for the most part, they really dig the attention, they dig this attempt at mass media entertainment about architecture.
Since you can’t focus on visual aesthetics, how do you go about depicting a building or an environment through sound?
Well, fundamentally it’s built on the words. So you have to do your best describing it, and make sure that you’re being as plain as possible. Or, you’re telling a story that doesn’t require a perfect picture in someone’s mind.
And then the other part is to cut the music or the sound so that it focuses the attention on the parts that I really need you to focus on. So music will drop out when I need a key point committed to memory, that will come up later. I’ll sound like I’m just stumbling through it, or maybe just doing it as an aside, but I’m doing it on purpose so that they remember those words later. That’s part of the audio design that’s more subtle, which has to do with priming people to remember certain parts that are important.
Then, the other part is to set the scene in a state of mind, so that when I’m explaining something, I tend to use this plucky explaining music; when I’m making you feel the sense of awe of the bigness of something, it tends to have that awe-inspiring kind of drone, kind of “God Speed, you black Emperor,” type feel to it.
And then the other part is a little bit of getting into the scene, but I don’t do a ton of environmental reporting because a lot of it is about ideas. It’s about getting into the head space of those ideas more than actually setting you in front of the building.
Your show is called 99% invisible, taken from a Buckmister Fuller quote, because you like to explore the things that most people use everyday, but never notice. But how can architecture, generally quite noticeable, be invisible?
Well, just because a building is big doesn’t mean it’s noticeable.
In Chicago, I worked at WBEZ and I used to walk past this building everyday, in the Montgomery Ward Complex along the Chicago River. And there was this one building that I never really paid attention to, I never really noticed – it’s like a square, cereal-box kinda deal. And then I went on an architecture boat tour and I heard the story about it. What it has is these four concrete columns at each corner. The Montgomery Ward Company at the time prided themselves on having an egalitarian structure to the organization, and they made a building that would have no corner offices because that would just be a thing the executives would fight over. So to eliminate that as a temptation, a perk, a way to differentiate types of executives, they made a building with no corner offices, with concrete pillars at each corner.
And I had passed this building and never thought much of it at all – I mean, it’s not particularly notable, the glass is kind of bluish, it’s not ugly in any way, but it never really made any impression on me at all, until I heard that story. And for some reason, that became – if you were to ask me my favorite building in the city, for some reason that jumps out to me as my favorite building, because that story changed the way I thought about that building, and it actually changed the way I thought about all buildings afterward.
Because of what’s “Invisible” about it?
Yeah, now I know that has the potential to have something that excites me about it, and that’s way I know I could do this show for ever, until the end of time. Because there’s that aspect to almost any building, where someone really thought about something and there’s some sort of story to it, and it doesn’t have to be about the pretty or the grand or the catastrophically horrible mistakes, or any of those things. I mean, there are terrible buildings too that you could tell stories about, but it could be something that’s outwardly kind of dull, something that I passed everyday for years and never noticed – until someone told me the right story about it. And now I kind of love that building – it has nothing to do with the way it looks.
You’ve said in the past that you think your show came in at just the right moment, when design-awareness is at an all-time high; but I also think you came in at the right moment in the architectural community. Especially post-Recession, architects are kind of tired of this idea of “starchitecture,” obviously they still enjoy it and find it visually-interesting, but I think there’s a lot more interest in different types of architecture that maybe aren’t as high-budget. So I think you came in at the right time in both of these communities.
Yeah, I think so. And I think that the cool parts of new architecture can be less flashy and more clever and interesting, and they don’t necessarily make you stop on the street. You know, it might be the greywater system they have set up, or something like that, and that requires explanation. So I think you’re right.
So, what is your creative process like? Where do you think your creativity comes from?
I don’t know. I know that the show changed the way I look at things. As soon as I started doing the show, I began seeing the world differently. I began to notice the choices of things, and the thought of things.
Like, we got this set of posters in from the Kickstarter Campaign, and I was opening them up, and I was using, like you do, a key to break the tape. And I noticed that, more than a normal box, it had an underlying flap, so that when you’re an idiot like me and you open it up with a key, you’re not gonna cut the poster underneath. And I was like: Oh, someone actually thought about this! I would have never noticed that two years ago, that’s just something that would have never crossed my mind.
But that’s the kind of thing that’s on my brain a lot more. So the show has changed the way I view the world. And, anecdotally, that’s the response I hear from other people too. In a way, it’s developed my ability to see things and then be creative about how I present them.
I won’t ask you which show is your favorite, because I’m assuming they’re like children to you, but which show was the most fun to do?
There’s one I did with Sean Cole, called “Some other sign that people do not totally regret life” about this poetry embedded in these fences along the Hudson River. That was fun because I got to read poetry and be dramatic, and then the one on “Frozen Music” was fun because I constantly think about the format of music. I’ve talked about that for dozens of years, at least since the CD came out. And so they each have their joys, but they’re very different in lots of ways.
I liked doing the one about money because I get to be ranty and opinionated about Federal design, which is I think pretty horrible. So they each have their own thing.
I remember the poetry one, because the reporter just seemed so excited about poetry, every single time he spoke.
Yeah, Sean is so sweet, and it comes out, his character comes out on the tape. And that’s something that I get to do, that in a reported piece of public radio you couldn’t do as much. I really want the opinion of the reporter and the effect that the built world has on their emotions to be front and center – so all that stuff, the way the reporter feels about the building or the thing they’re talking about is the focus of the piece.
I don’t know. You know, I like it the way it is. I like them short – I get some pressure to make them longer. But I think I want the show to be whatever it is in five years. I mean, I like the basis of the show to be radio. But I could see it developing – I mean, there are some stories that are impossible to tell with audio – and I’m doing a video episode, and if they’re fun to do, I could see myself doing more of those.
And I’m often approached to do something in print, do a book or something. I would like to do a graphic novel, because I think a radio script and a graphic novel script are more similar, they’re more conversational, they’re more plain. I like the idea of that. So I could see it developing, and being a way of seeing the world, as much as an audio product – that’s one thing I could see. Otherwise, I kinda like it right now!
Do you almost feel like it’s too good to be true? Why wouldn’t you keep it as it is?
Yeah, I mean I love it being a series, rather than just an episode with a theme, because I can build on this idea of telling the story of design over a long stretch of time, so that no one episode has to answer all the questions, no one building has to talk about all buildings. As a body of work, I am (a) very proud of it, but also (b) I like that if I do something about a big, old, grand, building, then next time I can do something about a piece of vernacular architecture. I kind of course-correct the ship over time to create this regression plot of what the show is, what the theme of the show is. So I’m allowed to take these digressions, and talk about the “Origin of Ideas” or something, and have that not represent the totality of the show, but just an aspect of the show. And that’s what I really like about an on-going series of short episodes – nothing seems too far afield, and if it ever does, the next episode will be something completely different.
That part I never want to change. I want to be able to decide what the next episode is, and rearrange it, and go from the gut of what I want the show to be, week to week.