Some Other Sign that People Do Not Totally Regret Life

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

Sean Cole:
“So I think we are actually… were we on that side?”

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

Sean Cole:
“This is a reenactment.”

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

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

Malissa O’Donnell:
“We were.”

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

Malissa O’Donnell:
“That one about things being dirty.”

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

Sean Cole:
“Is it dirty?”

Roman Mars:
He read it to her before.

Sean Cole:
“Does it look dirty?”

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

Sean Cole:
“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?”

Roman Mars:
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.

Malissa O’Donnell:
“Now we’re at like, a plaza.”

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

Sean Cole:
“Right.”

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

Malissa O’Donnell:
“And then we kept walking to keep going. And I went, ‘There’s words!’”

Sean Cole:
“Actually I remember it me being, ‘There’s words.’”

Malissa O’Donnell:
“Okay, fine. It can be you, it’s fine.” [laughter]

Roman Mars:
Words, in one of the fences.

Sean Cole:
I said, like “Wait!”

Roman Mars:
Not carved or inscribed into it…

Sean Cole:
“It says something!”

Roman Mars:
But wrought…

Sean Cole:
“In–”

Roman Mars:
Into the very metal of the fence.

Sean Cole:
“The fence. It says, ‘Contributions here. City of the sea.’”

Roman Mars:
They go down the length of the fence…

Sean Cole:
“City…”

Roman Mars:
Slowly.

Sean Cole:
“….of wharves”

Roman Mars:
Reading.

Sean Cole:
“And stores.”

Roman Mars:
Word by word.

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

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

Sean Cole:
“Walt Whitman?!?”

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

Sean Cole:
“It starts over here.”

Roman Mars:
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 Cole:
“-extravagant city.”

Malissa O’Donnell:
“And there’s more. Holy crap it’s Frank O’Hara! [laughter] It’s Frank O’Hara!”

Roman Mars:
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 Malissa O’Donnell:
“….that people do not totally regret life.”

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

Sean Cole:
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 Mars:
No, no. I totally get you.
Sean Cole:
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! And then like, “Oh, wait!” It’s these two poets with whom I have 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. 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. So to see him A) wrought in metal, is one thing and B) wrought in metal next to the poet that he, O’Hara, saw as like, I think he called him “my greatest predecessor”, 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, you know, I bet it’s dated somewhere.

Malissa O’Donnell:
“Really?”

Sean Cole:
“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.”

Malissa O’Donnell:
“We definitely did not see that last time.”

Sean Cole:
“No, we didn’t.”

Malissa O’Donnell:
“We were like, ‘Who? Who did these things? And when? How will we ever know?’” [laughter]

[ALWAYS READY THE PLAQUE]

Sean Cole:
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?

[INTERCOM BUZZING]

Sean Cole:
M. Paul Friedberg’s office is down the street from my apartment in Manhattan.

Sean Cole:
“Hi. I’m looking for M. Paul Friedberg”

Sean Cole:
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 feud behind the building of this fence. Are you ready?

Roman Mars:
Yes, Homericise away.

Sean Cole:
Okay, so Caesar Pelli was the main architect for the entire plaza and he tapped 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 historically, the traditional way to go.”

Roman Mars:
I hear a “but” coming.

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

M. Paul Friedberg:
“God, I can’t remember his name, I’m sorry.”

Sean Cole:
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-

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

Sean Cole:
“Woah. “

Sean Cole:
That is the artists are going to have just as much control as the architects.

Sean Cole:
“So that was unheard of, kind of.”

M. Paul 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.

M. Paul Friedberg:
“Richard Kahan is the guy’s name.”

Sean Cole:
“Richard Kahan.”

Richard:
I am Richard Kahan.

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

M. Paul 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 Cole:
“Oh wow, so he was threatening your jobs, basically.”

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

M. Paul Friedberg:
“Yeah, we were not part of the judging either.”

Sean Cole:
“This was a fait accompli for you guys!”

M. Paul Friedberg:
“Absolutely! We were handed these two guys-”

Sean Cole:
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.”

M. Paul 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 Cole:
“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. I closed the door, left alone and said, ‘Call me when you have something to show.’”

M. Paul Friedberg:
“So we met once-”

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

M. Paul 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.”

M. Paul 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]

M. Paul 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 Cole:
Siah’s from Iran, where poetry’s actually not mocked openly.

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

M. Paul Friedberg:
“He selected the quote, not the rest of us-”

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

M. Paul Friedberg:
“and we then took Siah’s idea.”

Sean Cole:
“Or record store–”

M. Paul Friedberg:
“And made it work physically–”

Sean Cole:
“or some other sign–”

M. Paul Friedberg:
“in the fence. That’s my job in this.”

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

[MUSIC]

Sean Cole:
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 and 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 O’Hara:
“I just wanted to be in touch with him.”

Sean Cole:
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?

Sean Cole:
“Your brother is my favorite.”

Maureen O’Hara:
“Oh Sean, aren’t you wonderful?”

Sean Cole:
“It’s true.”

Sean Cole:
She says she loved the idea from when they first mailed her the design on paper.

Maureen O’Hara:
“The drawings were sent to me in 1985.”

Sean Cole:
And when she finally saw it in the flesh-

Maureen O’Hara:
“I was just absolutely astonished and delighted and it was very emotional.”

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

Maureen O’Hara:
“And the ways the letters are formed. They’re set into the railing and how they shine and they sparkle, you know?”

Sean Cole:
“It really must have been quite a surprise.”

Maureen O’Hara:
“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. Because really it is in the spirit of it is so collaborative.”

Sean Cole:
So collaborative.

Maureen O’Hara:
“And it’s especially interesting in that poets do not get this kind of attention.”

Sean Cole:
“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 O’Hara:
“Yes, and it was so wonderful for Walt Whitman.”

Sean Cole:
“Yes, let’s not forget.”

Maureen O’Hara:
“Oh, he’s just such a thrill.”

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

Roman Mars:
And this again is?

Sean Cole:
M. Paul Friedberg.

Roman Mars:
Right.

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

M. Paul 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 a 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 Cole:
“That’s great.”

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

Sean Cole:
It’s funny. Malissa 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.

Malissa O’Donnell:
“I hope they know. I don’t even know if I believe in the afterlife but it would be cool if they knew.”

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

Malissa O’Donnell:
“Really?”

Sean Cole:
“Yeah. 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’d feel a lot better than I usually do.”

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

Sean Cole:
“Two gay poets too, I might add.”

Malissa O’Donnell:
“Really?”

Sean Cole:
“Mm-hmm” (affirmative)

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

Malissa O’Donnell:
“It’s the punctuation that gets me. Parenthesis on a fence, come on!” [laughter]

Roman Mars:
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 Cole:
“Somebody locked up their bike to Whitman over there.”

Roman Mars:
Tinyletter.com, the simplest way to write an email newsletter. From the people behind MailChimp. We are distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Making public radio more public find out more at prx.org. You can find the show and ‘like’ the show on Facebook. I tweet @romanmars but the most important thing you can do this week is go to Kickstarter. Type in “99% Invisible” or just find a link on our website and pledge. Anything. Everything. You can do enough to get a prize and there are some amazing prizes that are great or you can just pledge 5 bucks. And that $5, that single pledge, could be the one that puts us over the edge of 5,000 pledges total and then this show will get an extra $10,000 thanks to Debbie Milman and the Design Matters Institute. Isn’t that cool. Every little bit that you do will matter right now on Kickstarter. You can find the link on 99percentinvisible.org.

Car Radio:
“Turning off.”

Malissa O’Donnell:
“Bye-bye, radio”

Sean Cole:
“Bye-bye, radio”

  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!

    1. Teddi Litman

      It’s adjacent to the North Cove Marina. (I think, or very close to there.) The official address of the North Cove Marina is 250 Vesey St.

  6. Teddi Litman

    I clicked the area on the map around where I figured the fence might be and kept getting “Brookfield Place” but I didn’t know what that was so I picked the North Cove Marina. Then I looked up “Brookfield Place” and read it’s the new name of the World Financial Center. (They renamed it I guess when the new owner, a company called Brookfield Office Properties, finished their renovation. It’s been a few years since I’ve been to NY.) Anyway, “Brookfield Place” is the “World Trade Center’s” next door neighbor. It’s a combination mall and office complex. Cesar Pelli was the main architect of the whole World Financial Center not just the plaza. Anyway, I do recall parts of the World Financial Center did sustain damage on 9/11 but it was restored and later I guess renovated and expanded.

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