Instant Gramification

Roman Mars:
Hello, Beautiful Nerds. There are a lot of intense actions and discussions going on in the world today, many long overdue, and much of it is happening on social media… for better or worse. The story we have for you today is about how Instagram and architecture interact and feed back on each other. It was reported and produced before the COVID lockdown and before the protests over police brutality that have swept the country so if it feels like it’s from another era, it is, but as we witness social media platforms evolving to meet this moment, I think it’s worthwhile to report on how they evolved up to now. It’s also just a delightful piece and I think you’ll like it. So, here it is.

[MUSIC]

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

[MUSIC]

Roman Mars:
Instagram has never really been my thing. I just don’t tend to use a camera when I’m out in the world. I just like to use my eyeballs. But I do like scrolling through Instagram occasionally, mainly because there’s a lot of good architecture on there. The app is awash in pictures of brutalist towers, graffitied walls, and elaborate staircases. And if you’re on Instagram there’s a decent chance you’ve seen a picture of one particular building… It’s called the Yardhouse.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The Yardhouse was designed by a London-based architecture collective Assemble.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Emmett FitzGerald.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Assemble is kind of a big deal. They won the Turner Prize for visual art in 2015 for their work reconstructing derelict buildings in Liverpool. But the Yardhouse was the first building that they ever built. The designers had just moved into this new studio in Stratford, near where the 2012 Olympics were being held. It was on a street called Sugarhouse Lane. They wanted to build something on the empty yard out front, a collaborative workshop for designers and artists.

Joe Halligan:
There was the idea that this Yardhouse could be the new model of affordable workspace.

Emmett FitzGerald:
This is Joe Halligan, one of the architects in Assemble.

Joe Halligan:
So that artists no longer have to live or work in cold warehouse spaces on the fringes, but they can be in these new warm, insulated buildings

Emmett FitzGerald:
The problem was that they only had a short-term lease. The property, like a lot of properties in Stratford, was going to be redeveloped after the Olympics, and so they knew that they needed to build a cheap structure that could be disassembled.

Joe Halligan:
So knowing that we only had the lease for three years or something, it was like, how can you build a building as kind of affordably and efficiently as possible?

Roman Mars: The designers focused on things that made the building functional and inexpensive. They used a simple timber-framed structure and cheap mass-produced components.

Joe Halligan:
Everything’s bolted, screwed so that you can take it down again.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The building was like an urban barn, with high ceilings and lots of open workspace.

Roman Mars:
But the reason you may have seen this building has nothing to do with any of that. The Yardhouse isn’t Instagram-famous for its DIY design or its off-the-shelf affordability. No, it’s famous for one design decision that had very little to do with Assemble’s larger vision.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The architects knew they were going to have to look at this very functional building all day long, so they allowed themselves what seemed at the time like one small concession to beauty.

Joe Halligan:
So on the one facade that faced the yard, we knew we wanted to do something special that would kind of elevate it in some way.

Emmett FitzGerald:
One special wall.

Joe Halligan:
I guess it is a bit like an Italian church or something. You know, where the front facade is marble and it’s got this kind of incredible marquetry. But then the back is really just like bricks slapped together

Emmett FitzGerald:
They wanted to make their facade themselves, and so when they found a book on traditional handmade shingle work lying around the office, they took it as a sign. They started pouring cement shingles in the studio and mixing each batch with a different colored pigment. And after making thousands of tiles they ended up with this gradient of different colors

Joe Halligan:
“So together, when you see them on the facade, it becomes a bit like a lizard’s skin or something but pastel, so quite surreal.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
“To me, it looks like the side of like a whimsical tropical fish.”

Joe Halligan:
“Yeah. Yeah. Fish scales. But definitely a tropical fish. It’s not something you would find in the channel, something around Britain. It’s definitely like Bahamas or something, I think.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
A beautiful tropical fish of a building tucked away in a post-industrial hinterland right next to a highway.

Joe Halligan:
Which isn’t that friendly to kind of pedestrians, particularly tourists.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But if Joe thought that tourists weren’t going to find this hidden pastel wonderwall, he thought wrong.

Joe Halligan:
You know, in the summertime, we would eat our lunch outside in the yard. And what we started to notice would be groups of people kind of wandering in and then getting their photograph taken in front of the building. In front of the wall, really.

Roman Mars:
Soon photos of the wall started circulating on Instagram with the hashtag #sugarhousestudios, and a geotag of the exact location of the Assemble offices.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Which only drove more people to the wall.

Joe Halligan:
It was quite frequent. Maybe like 20 people every day would turn up. You kind of… they just become part of the furniture of what it is to work there. But really people were not interested in the work that we were doing.

Emmett FitzGerald:
They weren’t interested in affordable workspace for the artists, or the fact that Assemble had managed to build something so cheap and yet functional.

Roman Mars:
They were only interested in that beautiful facade.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Professional photo crews starting calling the office to try and “book the wall” and people were showing up from all over the world.

Joe Halligan:
Definitely like lots and lots of international guests. It was an international community. (chuckles)

Emmett FitzGerald:
An international community of people, coming together to take more or less the same photo over and over again.

Joe Halligan:
It was quite entertaining to watch them. People always do this jump. So it kind of looks like they’re floating within space against this backdrop.

Emmett FitzGerald:
People would take photos of couples kissing, and babies crawling, and kids doing handstands in front of the wall.

Joe Halligan:
Someone brought their pug and they placed their pug there and take photos of their pug in front of this wall.

Roman Mars:
What was happening with Assemble’s wall was an extreme version of a pretty common phenomenon. People take a photo of something cool out in the world — like a waterfall or a piece of graffiti or a sculpture — and other people see that photo and they say, “Hey, I want my own version of that picture!”

Joe Halligan:
“I take photos. You know, it’s like if I went to the pyramids, I’d definitely take a photo. I’m not comparing our wall to the pyramids!”

Emmett FitzGerald:
“Did you ever get an answer on kind of, like, how it went viral? Was there an instigating event or was it just the slow accretion of “likes”?”

Joe Halligan:
“I don’t know. I can’t pinpoint one particular blog or like this influencer took a photo of it or something, but-”

Emmett FitzGerald:
“Maybe it was the pug.”

Joe Halligan:
“Maybe it was the pug! Yeah, maybe it was the pug. Maybe it was the pug…”

Roman Mars: The architects in Assemble weren’t trying to lure people to the backlands of East London, but they accidentally designed the perfect Instagram fly trap — a wall that met all the criteria of what stands out on the app. Because Instagram is creating new rules about what kind of design looks good and what deserves our attention.

Alexandra Lange:
Visuals that look good in Instagram are actually very simple.

Emmett FitzGerald:
This is Alexandra Lange, architecture critic for Curbed and long-time friend of the show. She says that for an image to look good on a tiny screen in the palm of your hand, it has to have certain characteristics. Bold colors and patterns are good.

Alexandra Lange:
It can just be, you know, a colored wall or a patterned wall.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And not too many fiddly details.

Alexandra Lange:
It has to be relatively few elements, centering is good, a pop of color is good. And the lighting has to be good enough so that the colors stand out.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And, in general, flatter is better.

Alexandra Lange:
The thing is a good Instagram photo is really a pretty shallow photo. So walls and floors and pretty simple geometric patterns really look best on Instagram. If you go through the feed what pops, it’s this kind of flat patterning.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Alexandra Lange is particularly interested in patterned floors.

Alexandra Lange:
I feel like the first cool floor that I noticed getting Instagrammed all the time was the blue and white tile floor in the intelligentsia Coffee in Silverlake which was by Bestor Architecture

Emmett FitzGerald:
This hip LA coffee shop had these amazing geometric tiles.

Alexandra Lange:
And they ran all the way across the floor and then up the front of the coffee bar and kind of over the lip. So it was basically almost like a carpet of tiles.

Emmett FitzGerald:
A carpet of tiles that made the perfect background for an Instagram picture of a customer’s desert boots.

Alexandra Lange:
And then suddenly it was like every new coffee bar had patterned tile.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Just like Assemble, the Intelligentsia floor designer didn’t set out to make something for Instagram.

Roman Mars:
But in recent years designers have begun to intentionally design spaces that will look good on the app.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Lange says that hotel and restaurant interiors, in particular, have been designed to lure you with their Instagrammabilty.

Alexandra Lange:
One architect told me that it’s really important to have an Instagrammable bathroom. So like good lighting, a cool feature wall behind the mirror. People want to pop into the bathroom and take their selfie and sort of say, like, “I was here.”

Roman Mars:
These days clients often ask designers to create “Instagram moments,” which basically means some feature in a space that is just there so that people can take a photo with it.

Verda Alexander:
Every time we’re asked to do it, we’re like, “Ugh… not another Instagram wall or whatever.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
Verda Alexander is the co-founder of O+A, an interior design firm in San Francisco that primarily works on office spaces for tech companies. And she says that even when clients aren’t demanding a designated selfie spot, platforms like Instagram are still impacting how designers do their work.

Verda Alexander:
So we know that when we photograph projects, we need to have that first image, that first shot, that it’s going to draw people in, that’s going to get people excited, are gonna want people to pin it or look at it twice. Right? And so whether we do it consciously or subconsciously, we’re always designing for that Instagram moment

Emmett FitzGerald:
And Instagram isn’t the only app that’s impacted the architecture and design world. Verda Alexander was a judge this past year at a few design competitions, and she says it felt like everyone was just copying what was cool on Pinterest.

Roman Mars:
Which at the time was this very particular style of Italian postmodern design associated with the 80s architecture firm the Memphis group.

Verda Alexander:
So I would be looking at these projects that all had pastel pink or round mirrors or narrow arched doorways like they were all the same details.

Emmett FitzGerald:
She says that when designers rely too heavily on platforms like Pinterest for inspiration, they can get stuck in this derivative loop.

Verda Alexander:
Snake eating its tail, right? They stay within this circle and don’t expand beyond that. And I guess that’s my fear.

Roman Mars:
That by focusing on digital trends designers lose track of livability, workability, climate — all things that you really can’t capture in a photograph.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Joe Halligan from Assemble says that as a designer it’s impossible not to think about how something you make will be photographed later on.

Joe Halligan:
I think you have to be aware, slightly of that. That when you finish this building that you spent five years on the way, the way most people will view will be through the image.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Which raises tough questions.

Joe Halligan:
Do you then pander to that or do you still ensure the kind of main focus is on the person who visits the building and experiences it?

Emmett FitzGerald:
It’s not hard to imagine what the world would look like if everyone just went full-on with Instagram pandering. In some ways that world already exists. Just look at so-called Instagram playgrounds-

Alexandra Lange:
Which are essentially stage sets made for taking the greatest concentration of amazing selfies in the shortest amount of time.

Roman Mars:
The Museum of Ice Cream and the Color Factory aren’t really museums or factories. They’re spaces filled with colorful rooms and sculptures and ball pits—all of which seem to be designed with the purpose of being the backdrop of an iPhone picture.

Alexandra Lange:
And I’ve written about those as kind of like the least fun playgrounds for grown-ups that you could possibly make.

Roman Mars:
You aren’t really supposed to play in them at all, just take a few pictures and move on to the next room.

Alexandra Lange:
It reduces architecture to a photo-op. It turns architecture into basically a flat experience.

Roman Mars:
Right now this flat, photo-op architecture feels pretty contained to the cafes and boutique hotels and the Instagram playgrounds, although it’s not hard to imagine it escaping from the Color Factory and slipping out into the broader city.

Emmett FitzGerald:
On the other hand, maybe our collective Instagram moment won’t last all that long. The kids these days are on TikTok or using Instagram more for its story function. We’re seeing less of the carefully composed selfies against the perfect backdrop and more short videos with a lot of jump cuts.

Roman Mars:
Get ready for TikTok architecture! Which actually sounds pretty delightful.

Emmett FitzGerald:
I honestly don’t even know what that would look like. But regardless of what happens next, Alexandra Lange doesn’t want us to get carried away with this narrative that Instagram has been bad for design.

Alexandra Lange:
I feel like people are always trying to goad me into saying, like, Instagram is ruining architecture.

Emmett FitzGerald:
I would never do that! Ok, maybe I did that.

Alexandra Lange:
And I just, I don’t want to say that because I can still feel that joy that I felt in Melbourne.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Alexandra was in Melbourne, Australia about ten years ago when Instagram was just getting going, and it turns out Melbourne is an underappreciated mecca for bizarre postmodern architecture.

Alexandra Lange:
And I’m just completely wowed by these buildings because they’re spiky. They’re covered in neon. They’re just, they’re really kind of crazy. And they’re like, nothing I’ve ever seen before. And I suddenly have this overwhelming desire to share.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And so she posted picture after picture on twitter until someone was like…

Alexandra Lange:
“Alexandra, this is very terrible twitter etiquette, like, take it to Instagram.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
Lange had an Instagram account that she barely used, and so she started using it and posting all these pictures of buildings.

Alexandra Lange:
“The Australians are like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know.’ But everyone else was like, ‘Wow! We don’t know what this is.’”

Emmett FitzGerald:
“What is this magical place, Melbourne?”

Alexandra Lange:
“Exactly. And so I just realized that there is a super direct way for me to share my architectural experience, which is mostly joy, because I just love looking at new buildings. And Instagram was the perfect platform for that.“

Emmett FitzGerald:
And it turns out, a lot of people love joyful pictures of buildings.

Alexandra Lange:
My son, who’s twelve, told me the only time he ever mentions me is when he wants to flex to his friends that his mother has 42,000 Instagram followers.

Roman Mars:
Alexandra Lange’s time using Instagram led her to believe that the app can have a positive effect on architecture. Sure you might get a few too many selfie walls, but the app can offer a window into the built world and encourage people to notice overlooked buildings.

Alexandra Lange:
I feel like for a long time, architecture was really associated with specific capital cities. And so most people were only seeing a really limited slice of architecture. And I think something that I do, and a lot of other people do, is show the architecture is everywhere.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And even on the design end, Alexandra doesn’t think that those Instagram moments get in the way of good architecture .

Alexandra Lange:
The truth is, you can simultaneously, you know, design a good building and make sure that it has a good Instagram moment in it. And those things are not mutually exclusive and they don’t… like one doesn’t undermine the other.

Roman Mars:
But there’s another reason why it probably isn’t accurate to say “Instagram is ruining architecture” because designing for the camera is really nothing new.

Keith Eggener:
Certainly in the 20th century from the 1920s and 30s onward, any ambitious architect has been conscious of and very attentive to the role of photography in conveying his or her work to a broader public

Emmett FitzGerald:
This is architectural historian Keith Eggener from the University of Oregon.

Keith Eggener:
Architects like Neutra, like Le Corbusier, like Luis Barragán in Mexico, begin to use photography to convey certain things about their architecture that they wanted the larger public to see.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Luis Barragán worked closely with one photographer in particular, a man named Armando Salas Portugal.

Keith Eggener:
I would go so far as to say there are very few major architects, in fact, I can’t really even think of another major architect whose reputation is so tightly bound up with the photographs of a single photographer.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The most famous photos of Barragán’s work are really a collaboration between two visual artists. Eggener doesn’t think that Barragán designed his buildings for the photographs.

Keith Eggener:
But he was an architect who was supremely interested in the way things looked. Not just in fully dimensional lived experience, but also on a two-dimensional photographic surface.

Roman Mars:
When Barragán won the Pritzker Prize for architecture in 1980, he wasn’t very well-known outside of Mexico. And many of his best buildings, the ones that Salas Portugal had photographed, had fallen into disrepair. But there were still beautiful photographs of them.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Keith Eggener actually wrote to the members of the Pritzker jury to ask how they had picked Barragán.

Keith Eggener:
And most people politely wrote back and said, “Well, we can’t really talk about those deliberations.” But one member of the jury did write back and said, “Well, in fact, most of us had never actually seen any of Barragán buildings except in photographs.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
Not surprisingly, Luis Barragán’s buildings are really popular on Instagram. In fact, the Barragán house in Mexico City charges extra if you want to take photos on your tour, and people gladly pay the fee to get onto the roof.

Alexandra Lange:
Which has the really famous pink walls that people tend to want to photograph themselves with.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The truth is that most people aren’t taking Alexandra Lange-style pictures that make you think about Barragán’s architecture in new ways. They want a selfie against one of those beautiful bright pink walls that really make a perfect selfie background. It’s understandable. And those selfies are consumed by thousands of people on an app, who may or may not have any idea about the real-world context. That picture of your friend in front of a pink wall could be at the Barragán house in Mexico City, or it could be in front of the bright pink wall at the Paul Smith’s store in Los Angeles.

Alexandra Lange:
You can get almost the same photo. And, you know, Paul Smith has said he was thinking of Barragán pink when he painted that wall.

Roman Mars:
People aren’t always posting a photo on Instagram because they’re interested in telling the world about some cool building. Sometimes they’re using some building to create a cool image. And it doesn’t necessarily even matter which building they use to do it. And as the number of images grows, they start to lose their connection with the physical world. Just look at what happened to the Assemble wall.

Emmett FitzGerald:
As more and more people came to the offices, thousands of images of their colorful wall started to circulate online. And then the architects started noticing the cement tiles appearing as a stock photo like a generic wallpaper you might use for your desktop or a zoom background.

Joe Halligan:
So where you can’t see the building itself, but you just see a crop of these kind of colorful tiles.

Roman Mars:
And then they noticed that stock photo was actually being printed onto stuff… laptop cases, rugs, picture frames.

Joe Halligan:
I remember being in Copenhagen and seeing someone sitting on the bus there with a phone cover with this building that, you know, we’d built in east London. And they have no idea. Well, I don’t think that I would have any idea of the context of where that image has come from. And that’s super weird. I think that’s like super weird.

Roman Mars:
And then to make matters weirder, the wall that became a photo, became a wall again

Joe Halligan:
“What we saw then was a request from I think it was in a shopping mall in China and it was a request to kind of rebuild a part of the wall so the people within this shopping mall could get their photograph taken against this image. So it’s almost like they’ve seen the stock photo and they want to get their photo taken against the stock photo.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
“Wait, so did they build it?”

Joe Halligan:
“Yeah, they built it. Yeah. It was built. And I think if you look on Instagram, you can then see people you can see photos of people against that wall.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
I’ve seen these photos, and it’s just so strange to picture this journey from architecture to image, to architecture, to image. As for the real wall, the Yardhouse eventually had to come down when the lease ran out. That had always been the plan. They unscrewed the screws, unbolted the bolts, and packed up their building.

Roman Mars:
Assemble sold the structure. The Yardhouse is currently sitting in pieces in storage somewhere in London.

Joe Halligan:
So it still exists. But just in, um, just in parts

Emmett FitzGerald:
I asked Joe who they sold it to, but he said it was a secret.

Joe Halligan:
I don’t think I could tell you anyway. I don’t think I could say. We didn’t sell it to Instagram. We should have made that offer, I think

Emmett FitzGerald:
Today, Joe and the rest of his colleagues work out of a new studio in South London. Although they kept the name Sugarhouse Studios.

Roman Mars:
Which may have been a mistake because to this day people continue to show up unannounced.

Joe Halligan:
And it’s really, you know, it’s quite sad in a way. When someone comes all the way and then they ring the doorbell and they say, “I’m outside. There’s three of us.” And, you know, “I’m in a wedding dress and we’ve got our photographer here. We just want to know where the wall is.” And you have to say, “Oh, unfortunately, we took that down two years ago.”

Roman Mars:
As for the old lot in East London, it looks very different now. Stratford was completely transformed by the Olympics. It’s a fancy neighborhood now with boutiques and wine bars. But the old photos are still tagged to the old location. So if you ever see someone wandering around Stratford, carrying a pug and looking confused at their phone, don’t worry. They’re probably just chasing a ghost geotag on the hunt for the most Instagrammable wall in the world.

[MUSIC]

Roman Mars:
The wall that became a photo, that became a wall, that became a photo became a blanket. That story, after this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
Okay, so I’m in the studio with Emmett FitzGerald, who reported that story. How are you doing?

Emmett FitzGerald:
Good.

Roman Mars:
Good. So this is where we often have these, like, little tangents in the story that don’t always make it into the story. And the coda is a good place to do them. So what do you have for us?

Emmett FitzGerald:
A funny thing about this story for me, in general, is that this is such a side story for Assemble. They’re this really kind of impressive and cool group of architects, and as I was kind of reading more about them and learning about them, I could have done a bunch of stories about them. And this felt like kind of a funny disservice to them as an organization to do this thing about Instagram. But, you know, but it also is funny, I think, for them that, you know, no matter how many cool projects they do, it’s hard to imagine that they’re ever going to design something that gets seen by more people and appreciated in a lot of ways by more people, at least photographically than that wall. And I think that for the most part, Joe Halligan is okay with that.

Joe Halligan:
I wonder how many people know it’s building though. The whole wall, the building is. I guess that’s what’s a bit funny about it, isn’t it? It’s like it normally gets described as a wall. And I don’t think people know that it’s like affordable workspace, you know, which is a kind of pilot project for what could happen, of the legacy of the Olympics. You know, it could be deployed to allow artists to continue to work in the city. And I think it is kind of a shame that all of that stuff gets lost. It just becomes this kind of pretty candy thing. But I guess, you know, it’s nice that people like it.

Roman Mars: (laughs)
I like his attitude about that.

Emmett FitzGerald: (laughs)
In general, I was very impressed with Joe’s attitude about this whole thing. Towards the end of our interview, Joe just kind of… in the studio in London I could tell he had pulled out his phone and was scrolling through and looking at some of these pictures. And it’s interesting because people… you know, the way Instagram works, that a lot of old things will get kind of resurfaced and reposted. So even though the wall in London is not up anywhere, the photos of it still kind of tend to resurface on Instagram as if it still was. So as we’re scrolling through, he was, you know, coming across all these different photos.

Joe Halligan:
Yeah, they’re still posting about it, aren’t they? Mad. Completely mad. There’s a wedding here. Look at that. Unbelievable. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a beautiful thing to see. It brings back memories of memories.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And, you know, most of these photos are kind of what we describe in the piece. It’s like either someone standing in front of the wall or jumping or holding a dog or their baby or just a lot of shots of the wall itself. But as Joe was scrolling through, we came across one that was kind of special.

Joe Halligan:
See, look, there it is on a bedsheet. Oh, my God. Look. That’s so cool. That is the coolest one yet. You’ve got to feature that. This blanket was inspired by the much-photographed tiled wall at Sugarhouse Studios. Someone made a quilt of it. So it’s not that it’s a print. Someone’s actually bought different fabrics and kind of crocheted them together.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And what I love… I mean, I just love, you can tell he’s just like a little bit enchanted by this.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, totally.

Joe Halligan:
It’s like the best merch that we would ever be able to make.

Emmett FitzGerald:
That’s so cool. What is it? Could you show me a picture of it? Yeah. Here, take a look.

Roman Mars:
Oh, it’s really nice. It’s not really a quilt. It’s like a crocheted blanket.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, I think it’s more like a throw blanket on your bed. But it’s really beautiful and you can just tell, you know, how much work went into making that.

Roman Mars:
Totally. Totally. So who made this?

Emmett FitzGerald:
So this is someone named Gillian Roe who has the Instagram handle talesfromahappyhouse.

Joe Halligan:
Talesfromahappyhouse. She’s based in Hampshire and it looks like she finished the quilt in September this year. Maybe we’ll message her. And say that it looks fantastic.

Emmett FitzGerald:
So I’m not sure if Joe messaged her but I did.

Roman Mars:
Oh, that’s good.

Emmett FitzGerald:
So I DM’ed her on Instagram as she agreed to chat on the phone. And, you know, I called her up. I didn’t have a whole lot of questions, but I just, I wanted to let her know that the people who designed the wall, really thought her blanket was really cool.

Emmett FitzGerald:
“I was talking with one of the designers of the wall and we were scrolling through Instagram. The reason that I found you is that we were scrolling through Instagram together and we came across your blanket and he was kind of genuinely moved by how beautiful your blanket.”

Gillian Roe:
“Oh, that’s so nice! I’m really glad you told me that. Lovely.”

Roman Mars:
Oh, that’s sweet. Oh, I love that.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah. She just seems like a really sweet person. And one thing that I figured out in talking to her was that she had never actually visited the wall. Like her experience of this wall was entirely Instagram, was only on Instagram.

Gillian Roe:
“Yeah. No, I’ve never been there. I’d like to go there. Spare time is limited and if I was going to go somewhere today, there would probably, if I’m really honest, I’d probably go there to meet a friend or maybe have a day out with my family. If I’m going with my family, then I’m not dragging them all to a wall to look at. We’re going to go to the Natural History Museum or something, aren’t we?”

Roman Mars:
That makes sense. That’s one of the things that’s kind of amazing. You could view this as decontextualization of the imagery of a piece of architecture in lots of different ways. And I think you could have kind of a cynical view of it that erasing the meaning of a wall or a building has some negative side effects. But in this case, and in probably lots of cases, I mean, this is a pattern that people experience just through Instagram and gave them joy. And in this case, you know, another piece of beautiful art was created. And so, it’s not like this is negative. This is just what it is.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah. And I think that was the entire experience of reporting this piece, was kind of being like, is this bad? Is this good? Is this dystopian? Is this Utopia? I just kind of kept going back and forth on that. And, you know, in the end, I think it’s just like a mixed bag. It’s just weird. Like living in the Internet age and trying to interact in the digital and physical world at the same time is just like a weird, messy thing. But yeah, I think that this, this example was for me a really nice one, where it’s like here’s someone that found something online and made something real in the world out of it. Like she didn’t even have a relationship with the physical place.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. And Joe and the Assemble team could feel mixed about some of the uses. But there’s really, truly nothing more amazing than being an artist who makes art that inspires other artists to create beautiful things. So, that’s just the greatest gift in the world.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right, totally. I think that there’s nothing negative you could think about this blanket.

Roman Mars:
That’s so good. Well, thanks for this little addendum to the story. That’s awesome.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Absolutely. Thank you.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Emmett FitzGerald, mix and tech production by Sharif Youssef. Music by Sean Real. Katie Mingle is our senior producer. Kurt Kolstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team is senior editor Delaney Hall, Vivian Le, Joe Rosenberg, Chris Berube, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars.

Astute listeners will notice that for the first time in nearly seven years, Avery Trufelman is missing from this list. If you didn’t catch the announcement at the end of her brilliant Articles of Interest series, you should go listen to it. But just know that she is moving on to do some new things. And I’m confident that those projects will be as inspiring, beautiful, and as interesting as all her work has been here at 99pi. She brought so much to the show and shaped who we are today in incalculable ways. I know you will miss hearing her stories on the air and just know that we’re going to miss her a thousand times more. Godspeed, Aves.

In regards to this episode, special thanks to Diana Buds from Curbed and Cooper Rogers. We have a handful of thank-yous from the thousands of people who support Radiotopia, including Paul Thomas, Ali Paul, Selena Dixon, Deo Augustus Prime, and Karina Mikucka.

We are a project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row, which is now distributed in multiple locations around the East Bay, but our heart, it will always be in beautiful downtown Oakland, California. We are a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a fiercely independent collective of the most innovative, listener-supported podcasts in the world. Find them all at Radiotopia.fm. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show at @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit too… but if you want old-fashioned words to go with your pictures, we’ve got it all at 99pi.org

Credits

Production

Producer Emmett FitzGerald spoke with Joe Halligan, co-founder of Assemble; Alexandra Lange, architecture and design critic; Verda Alexander, co-founder design firm O+A; Keith Eggener architectural historian from the University of Oregon.

  1. J Barragan

    Never cringed so hard at the anglofication of Barragán. Couldn’t bother to google the pronunciation?

    1. James

      Hey, that’s a pretty rude way to express yourself. Having a bad day?

  2. Seth

    Hey. I am a huge 99PI fan. Disclosure- I have not listened yet but I am excited to hear your latest offering.

    I dislike social media in every way. I think its existence makes people unhappy, jealous and Instagram has encouraged people to brand themselves, oftentimes making everyone all the worse for the experience not to mention more fake.

    So, while you are using your social media to virtue signal, vent snarky observations or just self importantly broadcast “hey! look at what I’m standing in front of”…pour a little bit out for that tweenage girl who needs to find the perfect lighting and suck in her belly before taking 20 pics before finding the perfect one to post.

    99PI opened my eyes to design and awakened an absolute passion for it. The norman door, Thomasons, flags and even teddy bears have taught me not only about design but about myself.

    when they designed the “like” button it created an endless feedback loop of gratification. The first hit was free.

  3. I couldn’t help but ask, “why is this wall so attractive?” “Why do people want to take photos in front of it?” Yes, it’s flatness, repetition, and colorfulness all play a part. I’d argue that its mix of angular (diamond shapes) and round forms (the rounded corners producing a scalloped effect) also play a part. But most importantly – as anyone who paints portraits will know – these colors/tonal values are found in human skin and in the play of light and shadow on the skin, truly making the wall the perfect backdrop for a portrait.

  4. Chelsea

    Thanks for this wonderful insight. I know you address this was recorded pre-COVID but it was so good to listen to now amidst COVID and unrest. I enjoy listening to stories like this as creative outlets and mental breaks from the news of the current world. Thanks for sharing unique stories!

  5. Chris

    Pedantry alert! I’m sure that 99pi has mentioned this in a show before, but the tiles are made of concrete, not cement, as is shown in the video. Cement is almost never used on its own; when you mix it with sand or gravel and water, it becomes concrete.

  6. Mack Whitney

    Hey Roman and team, thanks for another great episode. It reminded me (some counterpoint, some congruence) of Stewart Brand’s “How Buildings Learn”. If you haven’t read it, you are in for *such* a treat. And surely there’s the germ of an episode waiting to be discovered in Brand’s dark black loam?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Playlist