In 1977, the 59-storey CitiCorp building finished construction in Manhattan. It was just over half the height of the World Trade Center towers completed earlier in the decade, but was still distinctive in the skyline because of its 45-degree top, and because its bottom nine floors are stilts. This unique and bold architectural choice, was made because a condition of their building on the site was that they accommodate St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, which occupied one corner of the land.
The building had a chevron bracing structure, (rows of Vs, which would make the building lightweight, and allow it to sway in winds that came across either of its sides.) But years after the building’s completion, its chief architect, William LeMessurier, got a phone call from an architecture student. The student claimed that while the building could easily withstand strong winds directly on its sides, it could be knocked over by quartering winds — winds that came towards the corners and blew on two sides. This seemed preposterous, but if he was right, thousands of lives were at stake, not to mention LeMessurier’s career.
He was right.
This story is one of my favourite episodes of 99% Invisible, a podcast which describes itself as “a tiny radio show about design.” Other episodes include: How banks are built to prevent them being robbed (but still sometimes get robbed anyway); how, despite the ugliness of brutalist buildings, some people are able to find beauty in them; and how entire subdivisions and towns in China are works of “duplitecture” — life-size replicas of Paris, London, and even Venice. But the designed world that 99% Invisible covers extends well beyond architecture.
It also explores technology: the Acheulean hand axe, believed to be the first kind of tool ever created by humans, and sometimes used by men to show prospective mates their skill; barbed wire, sometimes called “the devil’s rope,” which solved the problem of keeping cattle in and predators out; the development of the mouse as a primary computer controller; and the emotional reaction of thousands who were devoted to the Sims Online world when its makers, after failing to make a profit off it, chose to scrap the world.
Design can also mean the ritual of fortune cookies, the hope of finding lost children by putting their faces on milk cartons, and the allure of the Ouija board at middle school sleepovers. Systems are also designed: what happens at the dead letter office when your package becomes undeliverable? How did the shipping industry work before shipping containers? What effect did the New York power blackout of 1977 have on the development of hip hop? How many seconds would it take Central Casting to choose an actor to play you in the movie of your life?
Radio producer Roman Mars has a smooth voice, and frequently flatters his listeners by calling them individually a “beautiful nerd.” If any of what I’ve just told you appeals to you, then 99% Invisible is designed for you.