Have you ever wondered about those rows of metal stars stamped on to the sides of old buildings? Or the brick circles at the center of some San Francisco intersections?
The stars are a design flourish of anchor plates, which help stabilize seismically unsafe buildings, while the brick circles denote subsurface cisterns, built following the 1906 earthquake and fire to ensure the city never again runs out of water. They are just two of the oft-overlooked pieces of urban infrastructure meticulously explained in The 99 Percent Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design.
The new book, by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt, is a holdable, readable, skimmable version of the hit design podcast, 99 Percent Invisible, which the two men host and produce, respectively. While the podcast excavates all manner of design problems — like the origin stories of credit cards, sports bras, and generic food products — the book zooms in, real close, on cities.
“I’ve been doing the show for 10 years, and there are so many stories kind of locked up in this linear format,” said Mars, who, along with Kohlstedt, joined me for this week’s edition of the SF Weekly Podcast (tune in this weekend to hear our entire chat). “There was just something about breaking open this information and making it perusable and possible to go through it in a different way that made sense at this point in the life of the show.”
A comprehensive work — 350 pages, not including the bibliography — the Field Guide contains a lot more information than you’d ever imagine you wanted to know. The authors recommend carving your own “desire path” through its pages, a favorite 99 Percent Invisible concept that describes the paths that naturally form across an unobstructed area as people seek the most pleasant and convenient route.
If you’re struggling to navigate between the telephone poles and the oil production wells, hunting for San Francisco references could be a good way to go. There are lots of them, ranging from the high-profile — the way locals initially perceived the Transamerica Pyramid — to the obscure — Adolph Sutro’s quixotic quest to mark the geographic center of San Francisco.
That’s not surprising, given that 99 Percent Invisible got its start as a KALW segment, and Mars and Kohlstedt continue to live and work in the Bay Area. “This is a book made by humans who live in a place and therefore it is reflective of the place where we live,” Mars said. “When you do a show about the things you encounter every day, you tend to do stories about the things you encounter every day.”
Along the way, you’ll be accompanied by black, white, and yellow illustrations by London-based Patrick Vale, which look like a combination of expressive architectural sketches and scientific blueprints.
Which is to say, this is a coffee table book specifically geared toward urbanism and design nerds. The authors literally say so, in a full-page warning following the introduction: “You are about to see stories everywhere, YOU BEAUTIFUL NERD.”
The point is that we should all be nerds about the physical world we inhabit each and every day, because there’s so much to learn from the cityscape itself.
One such tale told in the book concerns San Francisco’s Chinatown. Before the 1906 earthquake, the buildings in Chinatown looked more or less like those in other neighborhoods. After the neighborhood was destroyed during the fires — partly due to efforts to protect wealthier areas like Nob Hill — some racist city leaders saw an opportunity to wipe the neighborhood off the map for good.
In what can now be seen as the city’s first urban renewal battle, the Chinatown community organized and beat the forces that were trying to destroy their neighborhood. But in the community’s own economic self-interest, and in the hopes of appeasing the white political class, Chinatown was rebuilt to maximize its potential as a tourist attraction. Chinatown community leaders hired a white engineer and architect who had never been to China to draw up designs for the neighborhood’s “oriental” architecture, combining elements from Chinese religious architecture and diverse regional styles.
The end result turned out to be a huge hit with tourists, and was copied by Chinatowns across the country. Mars and Kohlstedt concisely sum up the complex legacy of this architectural history: “Such Western-friendly remakes helped improve the public image of Chinese immigrants in various cities — but they also perpetuated stereotypes and misunderstandings about Chinese culture. Ultimately, these places are neither Chinese nor American, neither historically accurate nor fully fanciful, but something in between: unique cultural and architectural hybrids of Chinese-American history.”
The book isn’t just about history, though. Perhaps the most recent event it describes is the saga of the anti-homeless boulders on Clifton Park in the Mission District. This dramatic example of “hostile architecture” — interventions in the built environment to deter loiterers or homeless people from hanging out — became a “sisyphean battle.” Homelessness advocates would push the boulders aside in the night, only to have Department of Public Works employees replace them the next day. Eventually the boulders were removed for good, but they remain a potent symbol for how urban design reflects societal priorities.
“One of the things that I hope this book raises awareness of is who’s served by different designs,” Kohlstedt said on the podcast. “Design isn’t necessarily good or bad in itself — it’s goodness or badness is a function of who it impacts and how.”
Yet the book is full of plenty of more uplifting urban design interventions that originated in the Bay Area, like Berkeley-born curb cuts that enable wheelchair users to cross the street, and San Francisco’s pioneering guerilla bike lanes and parking-spot-replacing parklets.
The latter two examples, in particular, are precursors to some of the dramatic urban design changes that have taken place during the pandemic, which Mars and Kohlstedt weren’t able to include in their book. However, they did get a chance to dive into these changes, and share their more general thoughts on urbanism in the Bay Area, on the SF Weekly Podcast.
But even as they look forward to the constructive ways cities can change in the wake of the pandemic, Mars and Kohlstedt reaffirm the importance of learning about the hidden parts of the city that already exist.
“Knowing these histories allows you to affect change because you realize that, hey, roads don’t have to be this way if we don’t want them to be,” Mars said, “because they weren’t always this way.”