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The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to The Hidden World of Everyday Design By Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt

I sort of stole this book review from my husband, meaning that I robbed him of the opportunity to review it himself as soon as I set eyes on it after his discovering and sharing it with me. The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt is as beautiful as it is brilliant. But first, who are these guys and why everyday design?

Roman Mars is the creator and host of the fascinating and entertaining 99% Invisible podcast (est. 2010). Initially, 99% Invisible was a one-man show, but has since grown into a talented staff, including Kurt Kohlstedt, who is the digital director and a producer, as well as co-author of this book. On 99pi.org, they describe the podcast as being “about all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about — the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world.” In other words, it’s about everyday design. The premise for the book reflects that of the podcast. Now, let’s tune in to the book proper.

The 99% Invisible City is tangibly splendid, making it clear that careful consideration went not only into the design of the book, but the touch and feel of its materials. The texture and weight of its matte pages are pleasant to the touch and the embossed cover and half-sized jacket are nice features. Of special note is the cover image. Spanning both covers, several figures within the image are labeled numerically, corresponding to the legend printed inside the book jacket. I repeat: the legend printed inside the book jacket—almost too cool!

Content is organized into six chapters, each of which is further arranged into three to six sections containing short entries. I appreciate a well-organized book, especially when, like in this one, an array of topics is covered. It’s as well-researched as it is organized, with an expansive bibliography that, if you’re interested, doubles as a “further reading” list.

Although I wouldn’t necessarily call this a coffee table book, as it’s not glossy and oversized (or overpriced), I’d say it’s like a coffee table book in that it’s interesting to look at, makes for a great conversation piece, and is suitable for casual reading while still appealing to avid readers.

The 99% Invisible City is exactly as it claims, a field guide to the hidden world of everyday design. Like most field guides, it can be read in its entirety or in bits and pieces. I skipped ahead to chapter four – Architecture, my favorite – after reading chapter one only in part and wandering about here and there in other parts of the book. Regardless of how its read, it recalls visuals of everyday things I’ve seen and wondered “What/why is that?!”

Have you ever heard of stink pipes (think obelisks)? According to Mars and Kohlstedt, obelisks and “other seemingly innocuous sculptures in cities around the world” are, by design, meant to ventilate their sewer systems. So, if you find yourself near such a structure, then you might give the air a sniff to see whether the sculpture is functional or purely aesthetic.

The standardization of utility codes, such as those one sometimes sees spray painted on the ground, came into being after a massive explosion killed/injured at least two dozen people in Los Angeles, California, in 1976. Today, the American National Standards Institute maintains the codes: red means electrical, orange signals telecommunications, yellow identifies combustive materials, pink is for “temporary markings, unidentified facilities, or known unknowns,” and so on. Though not hidden but generally unnoticed, these markings are, by design, meant to make our communities safer.

The authors also explore how regulations may influence everyday design. Perhaps this is best seen in architectural landscapes. For example, the British government once implemented an individual brick tax, thereby causing manufacturers to create larger bricks or builders to use other building materials. A similar window tax, again in Britain, caused people to board up or otherwise cover up their windows. The effects of these taxes can still be seen (or, as in the case of the windows, hidden) today.

Planned failures (e.g. breakaway posts), municipal flags, inflatable figures, towers, foundations, graveyards, water, technology, illumination, property markers, manhole covers, and so much more are covered within the covers of this book. The 99% Invisible City is everyday design presented and written about in an extraordinary manner. What’s more, it’s all remarkably illustrated by Patrick Vale. Though “for all you plaque readers and curious urbanists” is inscribed on the title page, this book has something for everyone. Check it out!

As always, happy reading.

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A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia Savage McAlester

May is Preservation Month, a celebration that promotes our heritage through our historic places. As such, I’m glad to share my impressions of a preservation-related title, A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia Savage McAlester.

I was first introduced to this book years ago, by my friend Leslie Simpson, who said, “One of the best ways to learn about the history of a community is to study its buildings.” Indeed, architecture has a story to tell. But first, we must learn to listen. Through this title, McAlester teaches us how to listen to the stories of American domestic architecture.

Spanning centuries of the development of American houses, from the 17th-century to present, this guide is for anyone interested in learning how to identify the style of American houses through architectural features, from frame and form to embellishments or the lack thereof.

Initially published in 1984, McAlester expands the 2014 revision to include an overview of the house styles built during the millennial housing boom, 1990-2008, and a section on neighborhoods that describes the ways American houses are usually grouped together. Also, the second edition provides new information based on research that wasn’t available at the time the first edition was written.

Readers may reference this book in a variety of ways, as discussed in the brief ‘How to Use This Book’ portion, which I recommend (actually) reading. For quick identification or for a sort of crash course in the basics of American houses, both the Pictorial Key and the Pictorial Glossary that follow the how-to section are helpful. Roof form, chimneys, railings, windows, and more are depicted in the Pictorial Key, whereas the Pictorial Glossary depicts common descriptive house terms as well as classical elements often applied to houses.

The first chapter is an overview of American houses, including information about style, form, structure, and neighborhoods. The seven chapters that follow go into greater detail about the types of houses found within specific styles. For example, Native American, Pre-Railroad, National, and Manufactured houses are types of houses within Folk Houses. Italianate and Gothic Revival are types found within Romantic Houses (1820-1880); Richardsonian Romanesque, Queen Anne, and Shingle are found within Victorian Houses (1860-1900); Craftsman and Prairie within Modern Houses (1900-present); and so on. Frankly, the fun is in the details rather than the overview, though the latter is the foundation for the former.

In addition to abundant depicions of architectural elements, photographic examples, and textual information, McAlester chronicles how geography, innovation, materials, weather, and more have impacted the development of American homes. Heating innovations, for example, literally shaped American houses, as did automobiles. In fact, automobiles continue to shape our homes: the space used to house automobiles when compared to a 1,000 square foot house in 1915 was 0%, which grew to 15% by 1930; to 25% by 1950; to 45% by 1970; and to 75% by the 2000s. McAlester also touches upon some of the sufferings of old houses brought on by so-called improvements.

McAlester’s book is comprehensive, including something for everyone and for anyone with a desire to know more about how our dwellings came to be, how they’ve developed over time, how we have shaped them and, interestingly, how they have shaped us. I recommend this field guide to everyone, whether the desired outcome is to simply identify the house up the street or to survey and develop a narrative for an entire neighborhood.

I might add that we are able to provide a copy of this title for checkout, rather than for reference-only, as is typical, thanks to a donation made by the Joplin Historical Society in memory of Martha Elizabeth Belk. You’ll find A Field Guide to American Houses in our Memorial Book section, which is located at the beginning of our New Nonfiction.

Happy Preservation Month and, as always, happy reading.

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