All the Buildings

Roman: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

[background music]

Sean: Oh, look at that it’s like a– those three houses all in a row, are like a set of stairs.

Roman: I love those moments when you’re walking in your neighborhood and suddenly nothing is familiar.

Sean: It’s like a staircase for a giant. I don’t want to meet that giant.

Roman: Not that you don’t know where you are but where you are, where you’ve always been, seems foreign somehow. In a good way.

Sean: I’ve never noticed this gym before. It’s a beautiful little street, little boxy houses.

Roman: It happened to Sean Cole, a friend of the show, back in the spring. He lives in Brooklyn up in the Northern part near Queens.

Sean: You know. Gallagher, the comedian, talks about when you have a kid and you start seeing the world with new eyes. I’m kind of seeing the world, my neighborhood with new eyes.

Roman: Except you don’t have a kid. [laughs]

Sean: I do not have a kid. In with my case, it was due to this artist that I was going to meet that’s why I was walking through the neighborhood.

Roman: What’s his name?

Sean: His name is James Gulliver Hancock. And here we are. He told me to meet him at this cafe, not far from where I live called– Cookie Road. Right on time. And he goes “The old Cookie Road though, not the new one on Manhattan Avenue” and I’m thinking, “What do you know about the new one? You live in Australia.” James, I have a microphone in hand.

James: Hey, how’s it going?

Sean: How are you?

James: Good.

Sean: It’s good to meet you. But the thing about James Gulliver Hancock is that he just knows the city so intimately. He did use to live here from about 2010 to 2012. Back when he lived here, and this is why I was going to meet him….back when he lived here, he started this pretty obsessive little project that ultimately culminated in a book. Yes, so I have the book.

James: Oh, great.

Sean: And the name of the book. I have to say I love the title, it’s so earnest is, All The Buildings in New York….

Sean and James: ….That I’ve Drawn So Far.

James: Yeah.

[background music]

Sean: It’s like what a six-year-old would call. [laughs]

James: Exactly. It’s what I like about it.

Sean: Is that what, it was that intentional?

James: That’s naive.

Sean: It implies that you’re going to draw more.

James: Sure. All these–

Sean: Buildings.

James: I like the first part of the title the most.

Roman: So he’s saying he wants to draw all the buildings in New York?

Sean: I think he would like too.

Roman: How many buildings are there in New York?

James: Nine hundred thousand buildings.

Sean: Are there nine hundred thousand buildings?

James: I think so, or maybe just in Manhattan.

Sean: Wow It would– You would probably need to spend a lot more time here.

James: Sure.

Sean: I actually looked this up later. In the New York City property tax annual report of 2011, it said, there were one million thirty thousand two hundred and two parcels. But I think parcels also include separate condominium and rental units. Then I found myself on the website of something called Emporest which bills itself as a global provider of building information. The number it said was closer to seven hundred twenty-eight thousand four hundred and fifty-two.

Roman: They’re closer to that. [laughs]

Sean: Close roughly. In the book, there are only about 170, most of them in Manhattan. But you also draw around here in Brooklyn and then-

James: Everywhere.

Sean: Together with the Queens and the Bronx and the burrows and the places.

James: Yeah. Trying to mix it up a bit.

Sean: Yeah. He’s hit every burrow except Staten Island though he did draw the ferry. Despite the title, these are not all the buildings in New York that he’s drawn so far. The book is just the sampling of his blog of the same name. Actually, the blog is just called “All the buildings in New York.”

Roman: Without the “that I’ve drawn so far” display [cross-talk] anyway.

Sean: Without the that I’ve drawn so far. Yes, because it’s ongoing. You know. This just about five hundred drawings on it, something like that. Some of them are just black and white wiggly sketches, others are these really loving color treatments with all kinds of intricate details. Just one per page mostly. The way a little kid draws superheroes.

James: The empire state, the Chrysler all the classics.

Sean: But also these anonymous down at the heels ones.

James: Apartment houses, synagogue.

Sean: Rigorously labeled with the address. 53 Pitt Street, 222 West 23rd Street.

James: Skyscraper, Brownstone, massive black monolith.

Sean: But even the intricate drawings are still kind of cartoony. Little squiggles and dots hovering above the roofs. As though the buildings were saying “Look out!” or maybe “Ta-da!”

Roman: I mean. Why exactly?

Sean: Oh, right. Yes. Okay. So–

James: Well, I’ve done this project in different fashions in different cities. I’ve done all the rain in London and all the cars in Los Angeles.

Sean: And all the bicycles in Berlin but he was just passing through those cities. He didn’t dig in like with the buildings. It’s like he would parachute into a place and immediately try to find its noun.

Roman: The thing that the city was “about” in some way.

Sean: Yeah.

James: I mean Berlin might not be about bikes forever on but when I was there, everyone had a bike and there were bikes all over the place so just focusing on one thing and getting to know that one thing about that place. Trying to record it as obsessively as possible. But yeah, New York was definitely the buildings. That’s what I’m going to draw when I’m here. So I just started doing it and on it went.

Sean: James and his wife moved home when she got pregnant so they could raise their kid in a place with one more than one blade of grass sprouting from the ground.

Man: I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy.

Sean: The book and the blog have gotten a fair amount of buzz. A couple of big newspaper write-ups and a lot of mentions on the blogosphere, including one that due to a glorious typo said James is on a mission to draw “on” the buildings in New York. A lot of the coverage really frames James as a kind of Don Quixote with a pen.

Host: All right. Okay. How’s it going so far with your dream of painting all the buildings in New York?

James: It’s going pretty well.

Sean: This is from a segment on Good Day, Sacramento. They talked to James via Skype.

Host: Now, what it is that you– this is New York. It’s a tough city. Do some people yell at you like, “Why are you painting my building? What’s going on?”

James: [laughs] No. It’s more– It is New York so people let you do whatever you want really. It’s a guy drawing on the street is probably one of the most normal things you see.

James: Go back the way we came. Do you mind?

Sean: All right. There’s plenty more weird things in that around.

James: Because there’s a building just on the corner that I’ve drawn a couple of times.

Sean: What I wanted to do with James was go to some of the buildings he’d drawn and hold up the drawing next to the building. Maybe to try to see what he sees. I’m only realizing this now, but you don’t ever get to do that, to sit with the artist in front of the thing that they made into a picture. Look out. There aren’t a lot of Brooklyn buildings in the book, but I had my smartphone with me so I figured we just call up his blog. The first drawing on his blog is in Greenpoint actually. A little apartment complex at 587 Manhattan Avenue. It’s one of the loose shambly charcoal sketches, looks more like an idea for a building. James uploaded that picture on May 20th, 2010. He was still brand new to the city at that point and this was sort of his way of keeping a diary of his time here. It also had the very real pragmatic function of helping him get around town.

James: That was one idea for the project, to map this place that I didn’t know very well for myself, through drawing. Lots of different places.

Sean: I mean, was it an effort to sort of contain– I mean, I lived here. I’ve only lived here two years, but I’m like, “Ah. Oh, I can’t.”

James: Yes. It’s like where do you start?

Sean: Yeah.

James: Yeah.

Sean: You can’t take it all in.

James: Yeah.

Sean: Were you trying to bring the city down to 8×11 size?

James: Yeah, yeah. Totally. You get a much deeper understanding of the place. You don’t just sit in front of the Chrysler building or the Empire State which I’ve done, but just stood in front of Joe Blow’s house on 5th Street or wherever it is now.

Sean: It’s the inner way those buildings then become as kind of special as the Chrysler and the empire.

James: Yeah, yeah. Exactly, yeah. As iconic. I think that I’ve drawn that before. That grocery store with the three stories above it and I think that’s just classic.

Sean: He’s pointing to 97 Franklin Street. We walk past it to Greenpoint Ave. Plop down on a bench, James takes my phone and scrolls back on the blog to another bodega across the street from where we’re sitting.

James: Well, this one is the deli down the bottom. It’s a similar one to the one we were talking about before.

Sean: Oh. Oh, look at that!

James: So that one’s a bit different. It’s a bit messy.

Sean: You’ve really captured it. I mean, I have to say it’s like–

James: Well, it’s a quirky version of it. That’s what I like about drawing. It’s not exactly. I might have missed a few things and this isn’t actually that. That’s a bit further over the bit down the middle. So it’s also sort of a bit of–

Sean: The windows down the middle, you mean?

James: –wobbly sobby. It’s a bit of organic.

Sean: It’s almost like you’ve made it more what it is.

James: Yeah. You bring out its character of it.

Sean: Yeah.

James: Yeah.

Sean: Yeah.

James: I can pull up this one, too. That one.

Sean: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. This is 144 Franklin Street. An older three-level apartment building that’s lavished with all kinds of intricate design frills. It’s one of those places that makes you think of two things, One: Who decided that this building, out of all of the buildings on this block, should be so crazily ornate? Two: You know they just don’t build places like that anymore. Do you know architectural terms? What do you call that sort of filigree, the flowers that repeat going across the frieze up top? I’m talking straight out of my bottom here.

James: [laughs] I mean, I know the top part is like a Cornice, right?

Sean: Cornice.

James: But that’s the funny thing because I’m doing this largely architectural project, I constantly get asked about architecture. I haven’t trained in architecture and I don’t know the terms outside of the standard terms that everyone knows. So yeah, it’s hard to say what those things are. I just appreciate them and draw them and show them to others.

Sean: I mean, I’d never have noticed them if he hadn’t drawn them, or if I wasn’t sitting there with him. Sitting with James, it’s like the whole city is a museum. Usually, buildings are too big or too cookie cutter to notice, but because he’s drawing every window, every fire escape railing, he’s eventually going to hit the funny little decisions or awkwardness’ that make that building that building, that nobody would notice otherwise.

James: –way that bottom of that window made so that thing and then touches the other window…..

Sean: James used to have a studio in the old pencil factory just half a block down. The pencil factory is funny actually. The top of it all the way around is appointed with these pencils. They are vertical. It’s like an incomplete crown going around the top storey.

Roman: Yeah.

Sean: Just in case you forgot what they were making in there. I mean, it’s like a 15– these are 15-foot long pencils. They’re like pencils for a giant.

Roman: That’s the second time you mentioned giants.

Sean: Thank you for keeping track.

James: I’ve drawn a few on the roof of the building. We can get up there if you want to look?

Sean: Can we? Oh, I loved to.

James: Yeah. I hope it’s open but we can try.

Sean: Let’s try. Yeah.

James: Yes.

Sean: We duck around the corner into this warehouse-y looking lobby and go right up to the top floor. I love these old elevators. We jog around to the stairwell and James stops at a window for a second to point something out to me, the weirdest thing. Just under the roofs on the buildings, across the street are stenciled the address numbers of those buildings.

James: See the numbers up the top? Just there the– where it’s above where it says ba.

Sean: Oh yeah!

James: The 68?

Sean: Oh, how about that?

James: It’s really cute.

Sean: You would never know. It’s like who is that for? A giant?

James: [laughs] Yeah. Just walking down the street.

Roman: What is up with you with giants? [laughs]

Sean: Anyway, so– oh, man. Oh, wow.

James: It’s pretty cool up here.

Sean: It’s amazing up here.

James: 360-degree view of Manhattan and Brooklyn and Queens.

Sean: This is like a helipad.

James: [laughs]

Sean: It’s a huge roof. One of the iconic water towers on top that I love.

James: So yeah. The Empire State, the Chrysler, all the classics over there.

Sean: It’s crazy like, now that I’m looking at the skyline from up here, I mean, it feels like because I spend so much time looking at your drawings, it feels like I’m looking at a drawing as opposed to reality.

James: Not a lot. When you see really like the vibrations?

Sean: Yeah.

James: The wiggly lines?

Sean: I see someone’s perspective, that’s what I see.

James: Sure.

Sean: I see someone else’s perspective.

James: Right. I’ve tainted your eyes. [laughs]

Sean: Damn you!

James: You’re going to see everything as quaint.

Sean: [laughs] I’d never thought I’d see this city as quaint.

James: Everything is pastel.

Sean: Exactly.

James: [laughs] Well, that’s the thing about reading someone’s diary which kind of what this is I guess. You have a different view of the world afterward. Get inside someone’s head, see their personal perspective. Just doesn’t happen to be in words this time, it’s in pictures.

Sean: You know I picked up the book again the other day and just leafing through it for a minute and then walking outside to the street and looking up at the buildings I look up at all the time and kind of hate. Now, I don’t know how else to say this, i’s like they seemed fun all of a sudden and kind of carefully– it’s like now they were this carefully made objects.

Roman: I mean, you know that when you see the care that someone put into something and the genius of everyday decisions, I think it makes you almost pathologically optimistic. Somebody put care into this. The world is better because of it.

Sean: I think that kind of optimism feeds James. I mean, it’s funny that you say that because I’ve been wondering like, “Why is he such a happy person?” But I think that’s why.

Roman: Yeah.

Sean: The while we’ll say that he had a pessimistic little moment there on the roof. Because of course, he’s not just looking at the city, he is looking at the impossible job he’s carved out for himself.

James: Makes me anxious that I can’t do it all. You look here at this amazing view and there’s like that one. Look at that the sleep lines taking off.

Sean: That’s amazing.

James: But that one over there that sort of Rosemary’s baby, Ghostbusters-style on the brown with the creamy brickwork up the top decorative with the–

Sean: Oh, yeah.

James: –grain copper roofing. I don’t know what that is. I’ve never been there, but it makes me anxious that I might not get there. I want to do it. I want to draw that one.

Sean: Makes you anxious why exactly?

James: Because I want to spend time drawing all of the different buildings. Especially when I’m crossing a bridge, you see the lie of the land and you remember the name of the project. You want to do it, you know? The nine-year-old in me wants to just “Let’s do this!” [laughs]

Sean: But what would it mean if you don’t get to all of them or you don’t get to the ones that you want to do?

James: I don’t know. Die an unhappy death. [laughs] I don’t know. Force my son to start drawing them.

Sean: There you go. You could get–

James: Carry on the legacy.

Sean: Yeah. It’ll be a legacy.

James: Yeah.

Sean: It’ll be generations and generations of Hancock’s.

James: He’s probably going to be an accountant though. [laugh]

Sean: Why do you say that? He’s one.

James: I don’t know.


Sean: Is he already doing maths?

James: His mom’s a performer and his dad’s a drawer. I don’t know.

Sean: Oh, I see. So he’s going to rebel?

James: Yeah.

Sean: Well, he may be a politician.

James: Maybe. He can do whatever he wants.

Sean: That’s a good dad.

James: Sure. I love being a dad. It’s great.

Sean: Do you?

James: Yeah.

Sean: I’ve thought about it. I’ve only thought about it.

James: Yeah? Don’t think too hard.

[background music]

Roman: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Sean Cole. Our own Sean Cole. Sam Greenspan and me, Roman Mars. We have a new intern. Her name is Avery Trufelman. We are a project of 91.7 Local Public Radio KALW in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architect in San Francisco.

  1. Nice spot by Mr. Cole! A great way to “see” a city.

    To add to the party google for drawings by Aurora Altisent of Barcelona.

  2. Listened to the podcast and decided to visit the website for the first time – great to see the drawings. I’m from Australia too, but grew up in England and love a tall building!

  3. I am an atheist.
    I mention this as background; so you understand when I say that listening to 99 percent invisible is a quasi-religious experience for me.
    You make me feel hopeful and happy and nostalgic, sometimes all at once. You have my full support on the kick starter.
    My only request is that you keep making these amazing, inspiring radio programs.

    A young engineer.

  4. Fun way to show the city. I’d love to see his drawing of Alwyn Court on 58th and 7th. He’d be there for two months drawing that one!

    When I lived in NYC, I covered the city to photograph the various gargoyles and ornamentation on the buildings. It teaches you so much about the history and craftsmanship of those old great buildings.

    Great episode!

  5. Jeff Williams

    After seeing the drawings I am struck by how much they look like they belong in the New Yorker. Lovely feelings of warmth and comfort result.

  6. interesting episode, but this time thanks most of all for the music tip: loving both OK Ikumi and Mooninite. Great finds, both of which I purchased on bandcamp. the big wheel keeps on turning… Stephan Mathieu does some beautiful pure ambience stuff that could sound great on the show. I wrote much of my phd diss listening to him. try hidden name, perhaps, for starters…

  7. This is my fav 99% invisible episode .. Love the content, the narration and the sound ! Waiting for more like these . So lively and interactive, even though it’s just radio !

  8. Catherine Chicoine

    Very sad I’m discovering this podcast so late, but so happy I have a gazillion episodes ahead of me! I think you should take a look at Raymond Biesinger’s Canadian Cities maps or The Lost Building of Canada’s series… design, architecture, history… (and he’s even a musician if you need a soundtrack!)
    Keep up the good work!!

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