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.