Some Other Sign that People Do Not Totally Regret Life

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

Sean: So I think we are actually– are we on that side?

Roman: And this is radio producer Sean Cole in New York City.

Sean: This is a reenactment.

Roman: We’re just going to lay this out the way it happened.

Sean: I’m here with my friend Melissa, at the Hudson River on the piers where we were almost exactly a year ago. Walking along casually, pretty drunk.

Melissa: We were.

Roman: Drunk, talking about poetry as you do when it is late and you’re in a part of town you’ve never been before and it feels like anything could happen. Spontaneously, Melissa asked Sean to read her a poem.

Melissa: That one about things being dirty.

Roman: By the late, great Frank O’Hara.

Sean: Is it dirty?

Roman: He read it to her before.

Sean: Does it look dirty?

Roman: He carried that O’Hara book around with him everywhere.

Sean: That’s what you think of in the city. Does it just seem dirty? That’s what you think of in the city. You don’t refuse to breathe, do you? Someone comes– [crosstalk]

Roman: Sean’s a huge O’Hara fan, which will become important in about two minutes. So anyway, they kept walking and walking until finally, they wind up in a little plaza.

Melissa: Now we’re at like, a plaza.

Roman: A plaza frame by two decorative fences with an opening between them. Two fences.

Sean: Right.

Roman: They hung out there for maybe 20 minutes, not noticing anything.

Melissa: And then we kept walking to keep on going. And I went, “There are words!”

Sean: Actually I remember me being, “There are words.”

Melissa: Okay, fine. It can be you, it’s fine. [laughter]

Roman: Words, in one of the fences.

Sean: I said like, “Wait!”

Roman: Not carved or inscribed into it…

Sean: “It says something!”

Roman: But wrought…

Sean: In–

Roman: Into the very metal of the fence.

Sean: The fence, it says, “Contributions here. City of the sea.”

Roman: they go down in length of the fence,

Sean: City…

Roman: slowly–

Sean: ….of wharves

Roman: reading

Sean: and stores…

Roman: word by word

Sean: “City of tall facades of marble and iron. Proud and passionate city. Meddlesome, mad, extravagant city.” -Walt Whitman

Roman: It was a passage from Whitman, another poet Sean loves and a big influence on Frank O’Hara.

Sean: Walt Whitman?!?

Roman: They’ve run back to the beginning of the sentence.

Sean: It starts over here.

Roman: In the fence. The Fentence. City of the world, for all races are here, all the lands of the earth made contributions here. City of the sea, cities of wharves and stores, city of tall facades, of marble and iron. Proud and passionate city. Meddlesome, mad–

Sean: –extravagant city.

Melissa: And there’s more. Holy crap it’s Frank O’Hara! [laughter] It’s Frank O’Hara!

Roman: That’s right. The second fence is forged into a line by Frank O’Hara, and it goes like this: “One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes. I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy or a record store, or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.”

Sean and Melissa: “….that people do not totally regret life”

Roman: It’s from O’Hara’s poem, “Meditations in an Emergency.” If you’re a madman fan, you’ve probably heard of it. Sean bent down and scooped his brains up off the concrete.

Sean: You have to understand, I write poems, and poetry is just never treated with this kind of reverence and architectural permanence. Do you know what I mean?

Roman: No, no. I totally don’t.

Sean: You see the poetry in motion placards on the subway, and that’s nice. This is like the balusters of the fence, I looked that word up. The spokes of the fence, come down and bend around each letter and they sort of hug each letter, and each letter is painted gold! [laughter] And then like, Oh, wait! It’s these two poets with whom I have like, an entire life of obsession. I mean I wrote, I promised I won’t go on too long about this but, I wrote 50 pages of academic gobbledygook about Whitman for part of my college thesis. And O’Hara is like my poetry boyfriend. [laughter] For one thing, I thought he was my poet. You know what I mean? You have those artists that you carry around with you and you’re like, “You’ve heard of him?” that kind of thing. [laughter] So to see him A, rot in metal, is one thing and B, rot in metal next to the poet, he, O’Hara saw as like, I think he called him, “my greatest predecessor” is his big influence. It was the last thing I expected to encounter that night. And I’m glad we went back because it occurred to us, sitting there this time. I bet it’s dated somewhere.

Melissa: Really?

Sean: I bet there’s a date on it. Yes, in fact, it says the plaza, Caesar Pelli, that’s P-E-L-L-I, Scott Burton, Siah Armajani, and M Paul Friedberg, 1989.

Melissa: We definitely did not see that last time.

Sean: No, we didn’t.

Melissa: We were like, “Who? Who did these things? And when? How will we ever know?” [laughs]

Sean: Always read the plaque.

[music]

Sean: I looked him up. Caesar Pelli is one of the most influential architects in the world. Scott Burton is an artist, he died of AIDS in 1989. Siah Armajani is alive, he’s another artist living in Minnesota, and M Paul Friedberg? M Paul Friedberg’s office is down the street from my apartment in Manhattan. Turns out, he is really one of the forerunners of urban landscape design. We sat down for 15 or 20 minutes, which quickly became almost an hour. Impart because of this Homeric merit feud behind the building of this fence. Are you ready?

Roman: Yes, in a Homeric-sized way.

Sean: Okay, so Caesar Pelli was the main architect for the entire plaza and he tabbed our guy, Friedberg as his consultant.

M Paul Friedberg: And I was very pleased. Normally after the design was built, you would find places for the art to be located and then you would go out and select the artist that you wanted. That is the traditional– historically, the traditional way to go.

Roman: I hear a but coming.

Sean: But this time, someone else was calling the shots. A planning official, basically.

Friedberg: God, I can’t remember his name, I’m sorry.

Sean: Anyway, this official comes along and says, “We want you guys to work with an artist” and the architects are like, “Sure of course.” But then the official goes–

Friedberg: No you don’t quite understand. We want you to use an artist as a co-equal member of the design team.

Roman: Woah.

Sean: That is the artists are going to have just as much control as the architects. So that was unheard of, kind of.

Friedberg: It was really unheard of, exactly.

Richard Kahan: Architects, in general, were unhappy. We’re taking away an assignment, a piece of turf that architects have always had.

Friedberg: Richard Kahan is the guy’s name.

Sean: Richard Kahan.

Richard: I am Richard Kahan.

Sean: Former head of the Battery Park City Authority, which controlled this project.

Friedberg: We argued him and then he said, “You don’t quite understand, that’s the way it’s going to be whether you work on it or not, okay?”

Sean: Oh wow, so he was threatening your jobs, basically.

Sean: So the artists were chosen, as usual, through a competition.

Friedberg: Yeah, we were not part of the judging either.

Sean: This was a fait accompli for you guys!

Friedberg: Absolutely! We were handed these two guys–

Sean: Siah Armajani and Scott Burton, the two other names on the plaques. So they’re both artists, and Scott happened to be acquainted with Frank O’Hara.

Scott Burton: And I brought them all into a room.

Friedberg: We met them for the first time.

Scott Burton: And I said, I would like you to come up with a wonderful plan for the public space. So it started with a very chilly, hostile environment–

Sean: They were eyeing each other suspiciously?

Scott Burton: They just knew what the others were saying about each other, and how badly each didn’t want the other to be involved. And again, it was on principle. So I just left them alone, and closed the door, left alone and said, “Call me when you have something to show.”

Friedberg: So we met once–

Scott Burton: And they went on for a number of weeks.

Friedberg: Met twice, met three times and began to develop a certain trust in each other.

Scott Burton: They fell in love with each other.

Friedberg: And we established rules. And the rules I think, were essential. If any of us, there were four, if any of us, any one of us did not want the design that was proposed, of the other three, it had to be discarded.

[music]

Friedberg: It got time to do the fence and Siah’s idea, not Scott’s, okay? It was primarily Siah’s idea because it also was part of his tradition.

Sean: Siah’s from Iran, where poetry’s actually not mocked openly.

Sean: “One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes–”

Friedberg: He selected the quote, not the rest of us–

Sean: “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy–”

Friedberg: and we then took Siah’s idea.

Sean: “Or record store–”

Friedberg: And made it work physically–

Sean: “or some other sign–”

Friedberg: in the fence. That’s my job in this.

Sean: “that people do not totally regret life.”

[music]

Sean: So I called Siah Armajani, and he did not want to be interviewed for the radio. He did however want to go out for coffee sometime and talk about poetry. He said many people, many poets, of what was known as the New York School of Poetry– John Ashbery, an them, called him after the fence was unveiled to thank him for such a wonderful tribute to their friend and colleague, Frank O’Hara. O’Hara’s sister Maureen, called. There were tears, he said, to thank him.

Maureen: I just wanted to be in touch with him.

Sean: This is Maureen O’Hara. Can I just say how electrocuting it is to talk with someone who shares the same genetic material as your personal messiah? Your brother is my favorite.

Maureen: Oh Sean, aren’t you wonderful?

Sean: It’s true. She says she loved the idea from when they first mailed her the design on paper.

Maureen: The drawings were sent to me in 1985.

Sean: And when she finally saw it in the flesh,

Maureen: I was just absolutely astonished and delighted and it was very emotional.

Sean: Plus just aesthetically she said, the thing is brilliant.

Maureen: And the ways the letters are formed, they’re set into the railing and how they shine and they sparkle, you know?

Sean: It really must have been quite a surprise.

Maureen: It still is today to me. I feel the same way and Frank would have loved it so much just to see love collaborating with his friends.

Sean: [laughter]

Maureen: Because really it is in the spirit of it is so collaborative.

Sean: So collaborative!

Maureen: And it’s especially interesting and the poets do not get this kind of attention.

Sean: I know! That’s why I was so shocked! I’m like, not only is it poetry but it’s Walt Whitman and Frank O’Hara. I feel like that’s a deep cut and normally poetry is either so maligned or ignored

Maureen: Yes and it was so wonderful for Walt Whitman.

Sean: Yes, let’s not forget.

Maureen: Oh, it’s just such a thrill.

Friedberg: But to me, I think poetry should be in our gardens, in our parks.

Roman: And this again is?

Sean: M Paul Friedberg.

Roman. Right.

Sean: And this actually taps into a major design principle of his.

Friedberg: I think information should be layered in our environment. Cultural information! It should be layered in the environment. Not didactically, it should be an integral part when I say layered. If you are interested, you extract it. A wall, it’s a structural entity. How do you express that? It has force, it has power, okay? That’s the very important part. The way you design the wall, but then again the wall is also a billboard, okay? So how do you then express, what kind of information do you express on the billboard? It could be decorative, it could be color, right? It could be anything, right? Like that. The idea that you’re looking at a fence and yet you walk away with a thought as well. The fence is a barrier, so you almost have a contradiction here. It breaks the barrier. Okay? Poetry breaks the barrier. The idea that it doesn’t stop you, it begins something. I’m making that up as I go.

Sean: That’s great.

[music]

Roman: So where do you end up with all of this?

Sean: It’s funny. Melissa and I sort of had the same thought about it when we went back again for the second visit this time, about Whitman and O’Hara looking down on the fence from….. someplace.

Melissa: I hope they know. I don’t even know if I believe in the afterlife but it would be cool if they knew.

Sean: It really would be. I think about that all the time.

Melissa: Really?

Sean: Yes. It would especially be cool for O’Hara, and it really makes me want to go back in time and say to Frank O’Hara, “It’s going to be okay because one day, a line from a poem that you wrote or in fact that you may have yet to write, will be ensconced in bronze in a fence in New York City, next to a line by Walt Whitman, so don’t worry.” If somebody came and said that to me, I think I would feel a lot better than I usually do.

[music]

Roman: 99% invisible was produced this week by Sean Cole, Melissa O’Donnell and me, Roman Mars.

Sean: Two gay poets too, I might add.

Melissa: Really?

Roman. Yes. It is a project of KALW 91.7 local public radio in San Francisco, and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco.

Melissa: It’s the punctuation that gets me. The parenthesis in a fence, come on! [laughter]

Roman: Support for 99% invisible comes in part from the Facebook design team; who believes that design can bring positive change to the world. Visit them at Facebook.com/design. Support is also provided by TinyLetter, email for people with something to say. Sean Cole has one more thing to say.

Sean: Somebody locked up their bike to Whitman over there.`

Melissa: [laughter]

Comments (7)

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  1. Caitlyn

    Hi Roman,
    What is the piano song around 10 minutes in? I am wracking my brain for the name but I just can’t remember it!

  2. Usman

    I remember when I first came across this fence around 1997 or 1998, when I had been shipped out to live in a residential hotel in Battery Park City at NYU’s behest – a blessing in disguise. It was during a late night of solitary wandering, and it made me feel like part of the city, filled with love for the world.

    It was maybe a block or two from the World Trade Center; I am so glad that this fence, and these words, survived to inspire what must be thousands of others by now.

  3. cwodtke

    I have my heart in my pocket; it is Lunch Poems by Fran O’Hara. He died the day I was born.

  4. After discovering 99% Invisible last year, I am working my way through listening to all of the past episodes, and this one is so beautiful! Thank you Roman and all of your colleagues!

  5. Heard this today in Spokane on 90.3 FM(I can only get it in my car). I have been a lover of Whitman since forever and came right home and looked up Frank O’Hara. Wow!

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