The Pool and the Stream Redux

Roman Mars: So we’re doing something a little different this week. Um, Avery? I’m in the studio with Avery Trufelman. Say hi.

Avery Trufelman: Hi.

Roman Mars: One of the things about this story in particular is that it’s about the process of ideas and how they move through the world. Correct?

Avery Trufelman: Yeah, exactly. It follows the seed of an idea from one unexpected place to a kind of other unexpected place and without giving away the whole story it’s an episode that I did in 2017 that has become very near and dear to me because of what it’s about, because it’s about where ideas come from and that’s something I think about a lot. But it’s also because the story isn’t over. It just continues to unfold like the sequence of inspiration is continuing to unfurl. And now in the telling of this story we have become a part of it which is a cryptic way of saying that there are updates.

Roman Mars: So we want to play the story that you did. Is it called “The Pool and the Stream”?

Avery Trufelman: Ah, it was so long ago. Yeah. Yes, I think it’s called “The Pool and the Stream”.

Roman Mars: We’re going to play “The Pool and the Stream” and then we’re going to tell you a whole other story about how this story went out in the world and change the world a little bit more.

Avery Trufelman: Yeah.

Roman Mars: Check it out.

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

When people ask us where we get our stories from, the answer is usually hard to pin down. It could be something one of us noticed walking around, or something a friend mentioned, or some forwarded link on Twitter. It’s nearly impossible to say where inspiration comes from, in any art form. It’s a long way from the seed of an idea to its execution. The brilliant architect, Alvar Aalto, put it very well in an extended metaphor about a fish in a stream. He wrote, “Architecture and its details are in some way all part of biology. Perhaps they are, for instance, like some big salmon, or trout. They’re not born fully grown. They’re not even born in the sea or water where they normally live. They are born hundreds of miles away from their home grounds, where the rivers narrow to tiny streams. Just as it takes time for a speck of fish spawn to mature into a fully grown fish, so we need time for everything that develops and crystallizes in our world of ideas.”

This is a story about one idea born hundreds of miles away in a far off stream. An idea that would travel from Northern Europe to Southern California, where it would take on a whole new life before making its way back again. It’s a story in three parts, by producer Avery Trufelman.

PART ONE: CALIFORNIA

Skateboarder 1: “This looks pretty fun.”

Roman Mars: Two skaters in a plaza are confronted by a guard.

Skateboarder 2: “Can’t skate here?”

Guard: “Nope.”

Skateboarder 2: “Aw man. It looks so good!”

Skateboarder 1: “Just one broken leg, please.”

Avery Trufelman: It’s kind of a pity that skateboarding is banned in so many places because skateboarders appreciate the small details of architecture more than anyone. They recognize the quality of concrete, the grain of wood, the incline of a structure. They recognize the way a landscape flows.

Avery Trufelman: “Can I ask you to start by introducing yourself?“

Jake Phelps: “My name is Jake Phelps. I’m the editor at Thrasher Magazine from San Francisco, California – born and raised. Yeah? What do you got?”

Avery Trufelman: Thrasher is a skateboarding magazine that skaters call “The Bible”. Visiting its headquarters is kind of surreal. It’s like if you went to a skate park and yelled out to all the punks “Hey, you guys wanna go hang out in an office?” They’re all there, in sneakers and beanie caps, slumped behind monitors like caged animals. You can tell they’d rather be skating.

Jake Phelps: I’m a skater. I dress like a skater, these are the costumes I’ve been running all of my life. I don’t wear fuckin’ Louis Vuitton clothes and sh*t. I wear sneakers, and that’s just the way it is. We’re utilitarian, we skate. It’s the greatest thing in the world.

Avery Trufelman: Jakes Phelps is 55 years old. Tattoos all over his arms, big thick glasses over his face, and close-cropped gray hair. He blatantly hits on me in the interview and invites me to his punk band’s show over the weekend. I don’t think he’d mind that I told you that.

Jake Phelps: Skateboarding never says no. Girlfriends, jobs, life, people, always say “No, you can’t do that”. I’ve been doing this for 40 years, you can’t tell me I can’t do it. “F*ck you. Stay the fuck away from me.” Skateboarding is, you know, an extension of me. It’s an art. It’s something you have to understand.

Avery Trufelman: So where does the artistry come in?

Jake Phelps: It’s your whole “joie de vivre”, how you hold yourself.

Avery Trufelman: And that “joie de vivre”, that sort of badass, devil-may-care attitude that skaters have perfected, that’s kind of funny because skateboarding was pretty dorky back when it was just getting started.

Stacy Peralta: The very first skateboard was called the skateboard scooter, and it was a scooter.

Avery Trufelman: This is Stacy Peralta, skateboarding pioneer, and director of the excellent documentary “Dogtown and Z Boys”, which is all about the birth of modern skateboarding. Stacy says at some point, no one really knows when, but someone knocked the handlebars off the scooter, and just road the board.

Stacy Peralta: And probably emulated surfing, and so what happened was, skateboarding had a very, very brief appearance in 1964 and 65.

Avery Trufelman: Skateboards were sold in toy stores, and skateboarding briefly became a fad. But then, ask quickly as it started, it died out again.

Stacy Peralta: It was like the Hula-Hoop. It has come and gone.

Avery Trufelman: As the skateboard fad was receding into the distance, Stacy was growing up in Venice Beach, California. It was the early 70’s, and Stacy was a little surf rat with long blonde hair. And when the waves were bad in the middle of the day, he and his friends wanted something to do.

Stacy Peralta: What we really wanted to do was emulate surfing.

Avery Trufelman: They wanted to surf – on land. And they discovered old skateboards.

Stacy Peralta: One of my friends, his older brothers had skateboarded in the very early 60s, and they had two skateboards left in their garage that they never touched. So we started riding those boards.

Avery Trufelman: Those early skateboards had these hard, clunky wheels made out of clay or steel. So you’d eat dirt if you ran over a pebble or a penny on the ground. And that meant tricks had to be very simple, like “I can stand up straight” or “I can balance on the tip of the board”. Maybe a wheelie. You could just kinda scoot back and forth on a flat, smooth surface.

Stacy Peralta: Flatland tricks. That’s basically what you could do.

Avery Trufelman: Stacy was really young, like maybe 7 years old. But he can remember skating for the first time. Even with those big, clunky clay wheels, little Stacy found a blissful stillness.

Stacy Peralta: It was so profound that from that point forward, I needed to get back on that board and find that stillness because I’m more relaxed when I stand on a skateboard than I am when I walk.

Avery Trufelman: But Stacy and his friends were discovering skateboards, while the rest of the country was forgetting them. Stacy had that old board he’d unearthed in his friends garage.

Stacy Peralta: But after I wore that out, there was no more boards, you know, that I could buy in stores. You couldn’t buy a skateboard back then.

Avery Trufelman: So, instead, Stacy and his friends would go to a thrift store and buy a pair of roller skates, which had clay or metal or hard plastic wheels, and maybe Stacy would take the left skate, and his friend would take the right skate, and they’d cut the bases off the wheels and put them on a plank of wood, and then ride that back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth for hours.

Stacy Peralta: And the hours that we spent doing it would be the equivalent to a kid today, you know, jumping up and down for 8 hours on a pogo stick, you know, every single day, seven days a week. And you’d probably go “Geez, maybe we should tell this kid that there’s no future in this”.

Avery Trufelman: Then, in the early 70s, an invention comes along that would revolutionize skateboarding: the urethane wheel. This soft, plastic wheel had more give to it, and held the ground, unlike those clunky, dangerous clay wheels that proceeded it. These soft wheels were intended for roller skaters at the dawn of the roller disco era, but a small company called Creative Urethanes began producing urethane wheels specifically for skateboards.

Archival Tape: “Put the cord together back there, and then I’ll put the wheels on up here, okay?”

Avery Trufelman: The wheels were sold at surf shops, since there were no skate shops, and they were advertised in Surfer Magazine.

Archival Tape: “$58.46 all together.”

Avery Trufelman: And in the summer of 1974, sales of urethane went gangbusters.

Stacy Peralta: Suddenly we had a wheel that could grip, and it could roll over bumps and little rocks. And it allowed us to attack terrain that, previously, we were not able to attack.

Avery Trufelman: Now they could stake all surfaces. Greater Los Angeles was theirs to claim.

Stacy Peralta: And so that meant schoolyards, and that meant in garages, city buildings, it was any place. Anything was rideable. But none of this was designed for us. None of it.

Avery Trufelman: These young kids were jumping fences and trespassing, breaking things, all in search of new surfaces to ride. They were reinterpreting the city around them, finding the beauty in the pavement and the concrete of their world. And then, in the mid-70s, there was a drought in California.

Radio: In Southern California, the driest part of the state, there have been dozens of brush fires. Some have been big, and expensive, and more fires are threatened as Californians pray for rain. But right now, forecasters say none is expected.

Stacy Peralta: The drought was so bad in the 70s that the water company ran billboard ads that encouraged couples to shower together to save water.

Avery Trufelman: And to further save water, people didn’t fill up their swimming pools. And in Los Angeles, there are a lot of swimming pools. And they’re very distinctive looking.

Stacy Peralta: What we had in Los Angeles, is we had the big, beautiful, voluptuous shapes that you did not see anywhere else in the world, that you’d find in Los Angeles. Except in very, very, very, very small quantities.

Avery Trufelman: The pools of Los Angeles are shaped like peanuts, like keyholes, like kidney beans. They have these curved undulating edges. They are paved in even, smooth concrete with gently varying rounded depths that slope back up to the lip. And, during the drought in the 70s, they were all empty. They were… perfect.

Stacy Peralta: They just were so beautifully conceived and designed, and we fell in love with the shapes.

Avery Trufelman: Stacy and his friends would hunt for pools. They’d find a house under construction, or patrol the fancy parts of town where they knew they’d find the most sumptuous, luxurious pools.

Stacy Peralta: “Tony!”

Avery Trufelman: They’d hop the fence, they’d break in.

Stacy Peralta: “We’ll bail, we’ll lift it up to you guys.”

Avery Trufelman: If there was a little bit of old, dirty water in the pool, they’d drain it out themselves with buckets they brought, or trash cans they found, or, eventually, they’d bring an industrial vacuum along with them. And then, they’d skate up and down in the pool. They’d go so fast they could go up the wall! They could skate like they were surfing a wave.

Stacy Peralta: When we finally got to ride swimming pools and feel weightless, like going up a vertical wall, weightlessness is pretty extraordinary.

Avery Trufelman: Skateboarding became a form of choreography, where you’re trying to do as much as possible in the limited space of the pool, and look graceful while doing it.

Stacy Peralta: Here we were, a bunch of scruffy kids, and here we are riding in backyard pools and we know what we’re doing is beautiful, and we get to feel beautiful.

Avery Trufelman: And this beauty attracted attention. Back in the first wave of skateboarding in the early 60s, there had been a magazine called simply “Skateboarder”. It went out of business when the skateboarding fad died out. But in the mid-70s, the magazine came back, and it featured Stacy and his friends riding in backyard pools.

Stacy Peralta: At that point, every kid in America, and all over the world, wanted to get inside a swimming pool. That was it, that was the Holy Grail. And so the drought really acted as a wonderful midwife to the skateboarding revolution.

Avery Trufelman: Eventually, Stacy and the other skateboarders got so good at pool skating they were able to skate up, over the edge of the pool. They could kind of jump up, up in the air, and maybe do a spin or something before dropping back into the pool. And these aerial tricks led to another genre of skateboarding.

Stacy Peralta: So style became less important, and extreme maneuvers became more important.

Avery Trufelman: Aerial tricks paved the way for the X-Games, half pipes, and Tony Hawk. This whole chapter of the sport where skaters were trying to vault themselves really, really high up in the air. And that can all be traced back to the rounded, biomorphic pools of Los Angeles. The ones shaped like peanuts, and keyholes, and kidney beans.

Stacy Peralta: LA was the backyard pool Mecca. But not just the backyard pool Mecca, the properly, beautifully designed backyard pool. And I don’t know of any place in the world that has that proliferation of that kind of voluptuous, sensuous design.

Avery Trufelman: The pools of Southern California, and their proliferation lead to the proliferation of skating.

Jake Phelps: More people are skateboarding now than ever. It’s a $7 billion dollar industry. God damn.

Avery Trufelman: That’s Jake Phelps at Thrasher, again.

Jake Phelps: People are skating pools every day. People are skating right now. Somebody just broke their arm in a pool right now, trust me.

Roman Mars: And the pools of California bring us to our next chapter.

Avery Trufelman: “Do you know the story about, like, where the bean-shaped pool comes from?”

Jake Phelps: “The bean shape? What’s the bean shape? I don’t know, the right-handed kidney?”

Avery Trufelman: “Is that what it’s called?”

Jake Phelps: “Well, yeah. You don’t call it a bean shape.”

Avery Trufelman: “I don’t know.”

Jake Phelps: “Well, obviously it would be some esoteric design to someone’s backyard.”

Roman Mars: Well, Jake Phelps doesn’t have to be all like that about it, but he’s right. It starts with one esoteric design in someone’s backyard. But it might be the most famous private backyard in 20th century American history.

PART TWO: SONOMA

On top of a remote hill in Sonoma County, in Northern California, at the end of a long, curvy dirt road, a car pulls into a driveway. Three small dogs rush out to meet Avery Trufelman.

Avery Trufelman: “Hi!”

Justin Faggioli: “So you got a little lost.”

Avery Trufelman: “Sorry, we overshot it a little bit.”

Justin Faggioli: “A little bit? Sounds like a lot, a bit.”

Avery Trufelman: Justin Faggioli and Sandy Donnell are the owners and caretakers of this property, which is known as the Donnell Garden. It’s really famous in the world of landscape architecture. But if you want to visit it, it’s kind of a challenge. You can’t find it on Google Maps, that address is wrong. And there aren’t any public listings or sites with contact information for it, because it’s just a private home. A modest sized, retro-modern looking house on a hill. It was Sandy’s parents’ place.

Sandy Donnell: I grew up on the Donnell Ranch property. Born in 1951, the youngest of three children.

Avery Trufelman: The Donnell Garden was planted in 1948, and it was revolutionary at the time. Traditional gardens of the early 20th century had been, more or less, symmetrical rows of different kinds of flowers. They were kind of like plant museums, maybe accented by a geometric hedge or a fruit tree. The Donnell Garden is nothing like that. It’s mostly lawn.

Justin Faggioli: The lawn is a unifying feature. It meanders through everything, and it becomes the river, the green river, that goes from space to space.

Avery Trufelman: The garden looks like a sea of clean-cut grass, with floating islands of tropical plant clusters, or groups of rocks, and a few ancient oak trees. And there are large swaths of concrete and a big wooden deck. From above, the garden is almost like a Matisse collage: an arrangement of abstract shapes on a green grass canvas. And the most distinctive shape, of course, is the pool.

Avery Trufelman: “Oh my God!”

Justin Faggioli: “Here’s the object of your search. A kidney pool!”

Avery Trufelman: This, from what we know, was the first kidney shaped pool in California.
It’s every bit as beautiful as I thought, actually. It is bright, pristine, electric blue. And in the center of the pool is an abstract sculpture by Adaline Kent, which has two holes through it. One above water, and one below. And you can swim through the holes in the sculpture like a dolphin, and it’s insanely fun. I know, because I tried it. (splashing sound) The pool overlooks acres of dusty ranching property. You can hear the hum of cars on a racetrack off in the distance, and you can see the hodgepodge skyline of San Francisco looming hazily beyond it. I couldn’t help but think that a skater would kill to drain this pool. It’s beautiful.

Avery Trufelman: “Wow.”

Avery Trufelman: It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Donnell Garden, to both formal landscape architecture and every day American backyards. Sandy Donnell told me that a picture of the garden was in the Encyclopedia Britannica, under ‘landscape architecture’. The property also helped create what we think of as the modern suburban backyard, with the lawn, the deck, and the pool.

Mark Tribe: I would guess, with the exception of possibly Versailles, that the Donnell Garden is probably the most published garden, at least in the 20th century.

Avery Trufelman: Architectural historian Mark Tribe. The Donnell Garden was designed by Thomas Church, a landscape architect who wanted to create outdoor spaces that people would use and love. The title of Thomas Church’s book was actually ‘Gardens are for People’.

Mark Tribe: In ‘Gardens are for People’, he asked hypothetical clients, “How much do you really like to garden”. If you don’t want to garden, you know, the paving makes a lot of sense.

Avery Trufelman: Church said that gardens didn’t necessarily have to be those traditional rows and rows of flowers. And this was a revelation for modern families like the Donnells. They wanted a place for parties and relaxing and lounging. They wanted their yard to be a piece of functional art, that their kids and dogs could clamber on. The Donnell Garden became the epitome of outdoor California lifestyle. Throughout the 1950s, lifestyle magazines like “Sunset”, and “House Beautiful”, featured the Donnell Garden on their covers.

Mark Tribe: In many ways, it became the icon, certainly of American modern landscape architecture. A lot of it being, of course, is why we’re here, for the swimming pool.

Avery Trufelman: As images of the Donnell Garden began to spread, newly minted suburbanites across Southern California began to imitate it. And West coast landscape architects were inspired by its creative use of paving and lawn, and it’s beautiful, biomorphic, curvy pool.

Roman Mars: The pool inspired thousands of imitators, and eventually, thousands of young skaters in Southern California. Now, we can’t know for sure exactly where Thomas Church came up with the idea of using the original kidney shape. Retro boomerang shapes were appearing in everything from fine art to mass-produced textiles and formica tables.

Mark Tribe: By 1947 these shapes were everywhere. They were on everything and everywhere, so it’s really hard to say.

Roman Mars: But, there is a really interesting and widespread theory about where Church got his inspiration for the kidney pool.

Janne Saario: Skateboarding came to my neighborhood at the end of the 1980s. We got a little bit of magazines and videos coming from the Californian scene.

PART THREE: FINLAND

Roman Mars: Avery Trufelman actually went to Finland.

Avery Trufelman: “How did you get those videos of the skaters in California?”

Janne Saario: “The first ones came when someone’s dad went to, you know, a business trip, to the states, then they brought back some videos.”

Avery Trufelman: Janne Saario grew up in Finland watching videos of California skaters, and he caught the bug in a big way. He started skateboarding and then became sponsored and started skating in cities all over the world.

Janne Saario: Thought skateboarding I fell in love with architecture and design.

Avery Trufelman: Janne went to university and studied architecture, in part to have more control over the spaces he skated.

Janne Saario: I’ll just sneak into that business and I won’t tell anyone that I’m a skater, and just make sure that the handrail is skateable, or that the stairs have good materials and curves.

Avery Trufelman: And in architecture school, Janne distinctly remembers a lecture he heard about the origins of the kidney pool.

Janne Saario: There was a professor coming from California, and she was having a lecture and talking about the Donnell Garden. I think she was saying that it’s the mother of all kidney pools.

Avery Trufelman: But that didn’t seem right to Janne. He knew about another kidney pool.

Janne Saario: It’s actually a grandmother of all pools. It’s in Finland, in the middle of Finland.

Avery Trufelman: And it was designed by an architect and designer named Alvar Aalto.

Antti Ahlava: Alvar Aalto’s work and his life was exceptional in that sense that he was a pioneer in cross-disciplinary, thinking and design.

Avery Trufelman: This is Antti Ahlava, an architect and Vice President of Aalto University, which is named after Alvar Aalto.

Antti Ahlava: He designed marvelous furniture, and also he had a flourishing business.

Avery Trufelman: Alvar Aalto is the man in Finland. There are busts of him everywhere. He designed a lot of the public and government buildings and meeting halls in Helsinki. And Alvar Aalto’s furniture is in, I kid you not, almost every single building.

Antti Ahlava: Almost every home has something designed by Alvar Aalto.

Avery Trufelman: Aalto is beloved and venerated beyond Finland, too. Frank Lloyd Wright loved Aalto, and he hated other architects. Frank Gehry also cites Aalto as one of the only other architects that he admires. Alvar Aalto was an architect’s architect, and his work helped create a unique Finnish aesthetic, which was an important part of developing a unique Finnish identity because Finland is a relatively young country.

Antti Ahlava: Okay, Finland was first, for about 500 years, part of Sweden, and then for 100 years part of Russia.

Avery Trufelman: There are some movie theaters in California that are older than Finland. It was only in 1917 that Finland became independent. Before that, it was Russian. And it looks like it. The architecture in downtown Helsinki is unexpectedly regal and intimidating. The buildings line the streets like towering pastel cakes with white ornate trim. Helsinki has stood in for Moscow and Leningrad in a number of films.

Antti Ahlava: And at the end of the 19th century it became very important to create our own national identity and try to get independent.

Avery Trufelman: Finland wanted to step away from Soviet romanticism. Especially because the rest of Europe was experimenting with a new approach called ‘functionalism’. Functionalism was a reaction to the dirty, nasty, polluted cities of the 19th century, which were loaded down with extra trim and ornaments and statues, and functionalism was like an architectural cleanse.

Antti Ahlava: Functionalists wanted to be healthy. There was lots of sunlight and air between buildings. It was fresh.

Avery Trufelman: Think of the sharp lines and steel and metal of the German Bauhaus, or the pristine concrete of Le Corbusier. Functionalism is clean, geometric, stark, spacious, modern, and a little sterile. So, Aalto was influenced by functionalist ideas but wanted to humanize them.

Antti Ahlava: Adopting this kind of international influences, and making his own versions of that.

Avery Trufelman: Aalto’s architecture was crisp and functional, but a little more natural and organic. And he did this in part by using a lot of wood. He made wood behave in ways it hadn’t before.

Jonas Moberg: Bending and gluing in a new way.

Avery Trufelman: This is Jonas Moberg, architect and art historian with the Aalto Foundation.

Avery Trufelman: “Where are we? Can you describe where we are?”

Jonas Moberg: “Sure, this is Aalto’s own house, and also the office was located here.”

Avery Trufelman: Jonas showed me the legs of some chairs and stools Aalto had made and talked about Aalto’s patented method for bending and curving wood. This method allowed Aalto to make curvy molds, to make these wavy glass vases that he became famous for.

Jonas Moberg: It’s blown in that timber mold, we get a bit different and new shapes for it.

Avery Trufelman: Curves made their way into Aalto’s stairways and walls, and he made curving partitions to break up space, and he used rounded tiles and undulating countertops.

Avery Trufelman: “So is it fair to say a lot of the curves he just made cause he could? Like, he figured out how to do it and he was just giddy with it?”

Jonas Moberg: “Probably, yes. And he probably wanted those, he wanted the buildings to be kind of, something that you can’t really predict.”

Avery Trufelman: So when an art collector and lumber heiress named Marie Gulliksen asked Aalto to design her country home, the Villa Mairea, Aalto wanted to keep it very stark and clean, but also very friendly and natural.

Jonas Moberg: And we don’t have there like, any expensive material. Just timber in the floor, some red brick on the wall, we don’t have any material that would be posh.

Avery Trufelman: But of course, in Finland, if you’re going to have a country villa, you’re gonna have a sauna.

Jonas Moberg: It’s part of our Finnish way of spending time through our countryside, it’s sauna culture.

Avery Trufelman: And if you’re gonna have a sauna, you need a pool to cool off in. And Alvar Aalto made a pool with a very curious shape.

Jonas Moberg: “Well, it’s kind of free form. It’s a bit of maybe a sock? Isn’t it?”

Avery Trufelman: “It is, it is, it’s kind of a sock! With curvy ends.”

Avery Trufelman: The story goes that Thomas Church, the California landscape architect, who designed the Donnell Garden, went on a trip to Finland with his wife Betsy in 1937. Somehow they found out the address of Alvar Aalto’s home and studio and got themselves there.

Mark Tribe: And they just knocked on the door.

Avery Trufelman: Architectural historian Mark Tribe again.

Mark Tribe: And the story goes Aalto came out in his bathrobe and invited them in.

Avery Trufelman: And so Thomas Church and his wife Betsy, and Alvar Aalto, and his first wife Aino, all really hit it off.

Mark Tribe: Then they got to be good friends.

Avery Trufelman: And it is quite possibly the case that Aalto’s design for the Villa Mairea, and it’s sock shaped pool, were displayed in his studio when Thomas Church was visiting.

Mark Tribe: Mairea was finished in ’39, but they were there in ’37. Maybe it was on the drawing boards and maybe there was no pool at the time, I mean we just don’t know.

Avery Trufelman: There’s no way to verify it, but that’s the story architects tell. If there’s a book about the Donnell Garden, it’s probably going to have a mention of the Villa Mairea.

Janne Saario: Yeah, the story goes that Thomas Church went back home. Then, it was 1948 when the Donnell Garden was made, so almost 10 years after it.

Avery Trufelman: And then the Donnell Garden pool becomes famous, appearing on magazine covers, and inspiring hundreds of imitators across Southern California. And these hundreds of curvy, biomorphic pools get emptied out in the drought in the 1970s, and inspire a whole new skate culture. And that culture inspired kids around the world like Janne to take up skateboarding. And skateboarding inspired Janne to become an architect. And now, he has a specialty.

Janne Saario: Yeah, I’m the only skate park designer in Finland.

Avery Trufelman: He signs curvaceous pools all over Europe. Pools exclusively for skating.

Janne Saario: There’s one big pool coming to the East side of Helsinki. It’s a really nice figure and something to be proud of, I think.

Avery Trufelman: When Janne says he’s proud, he means that public skateparks and skate pools should be a source of civic pride, especially in Finland, where Janne like to tease, modern skateboarding began.

Janne Saario: I kind of use it as a joke when we’re out with skatepark builders, they’re usually from the States or Canada, and I try to claim skateboarding for having its roots in Finland.

Avery Trufelman: Some say that Alvar Aalto’s pool at the Villa Mairea was inspired by the soft bends in a Finnish lake. Or maybe Aalto was just excited about his ability to make wavy forms since that kind of became his signature in his furniture and homewares. Or, who knows, maybe he was inspired by some other curvy pool somewhere else in the world that we don’t know about. Aalto didn’t like to talk about his inspiration. He didn’t write too much about it, either. Aalto only talked about the birth of his ideas in an extended metaphor about a fish in a stream.

Roman Mars: Architecture and its details are, in some way, all part of biology. Perhaps they are, for instance, like some big salmon, or trout. They’re not born fully grown. They’re not even born in the sea or water where they normally live. They are born hundreds of miles away from their home grounds, where the rivers narrow to tiny streams. Just as it takes time for a speck of fish spawn to mature into a fully grown fish, so we need time, for everything that develops and crystallizes in our world of ideas.

Jake Phelps: “Go farther up. Push.”

Avery Trufelman: “Geez.”

Jake Phelps: “You’re kidding me….”

Roman Mars: Jake Phelps, the editor of Thrasher Magazine passed away in March of 2019.

BREAK

Roman Mars: So we’re back in the present. I’m in the studio with Avery and so what is the update on this story.

Avery Trufelman: As we said before this is a story about the unexpected connections between things and the thing is the story seems to just keep going on and on even two years after it came out, because I was just talking to this guy, Jonathan Nesci. He’s a furniture, lighting and exhibition designer and he listened to “The Pool and the Stream” when it came out back in 2017.

Jonathan Nesci: My youngest son who was then 12 had this idea for my oldest son who skateboards who was then 14. He should start on his senior project now of a new skatepark which I thought was like, “what a crazy idea”. You know they’re not even in high school yet.

Avery Trufelman: It’s actually a great idea for a senior project though. There was already a skatepark in their town which was built as a senior project back in 1999. And so Jonathan poked around a bit and looked into what was going on with this skatepark…

Jonathan Nesci: And found out that a committee was just about to form through the Parks Department for a renovation of a skatepark in Columbus.

Avery Trufelman: Columbus, Indiana.

Roman Mars: Mmm-hmm. (affirmative)

Avery Trufelman: That’s where Jonathan lives.

Roman Mars: Yeah.

Avery Trufelman: You know about Columbus, Indiana…

Roman Mars: Famed Columbus, Indiana.

Avery Trufelman: … because you have a show about architecture and design.

Roman Mars: Yeah. It’s this unexpected epicenter of modern design.

Avery Trufelman: Yeah.

Roman Mars: It’s amazing.

Avery Trufelman: Exactly. It’s this small city of 27,000 people but it’s full of soaring statuesque modernist buildings by some of the most canonical architects of the 20th century.

Jonathan Nesci: You would think with 85 significant works of architecture, it would be a highbrow place but it’s just so everyday and civic.

Avery Trufelman: It’s not like the homes in Columbus, Indiana are fancy. The cool thing is it’s all the public buildings.

Jonathan Nesci: It really is. Every fire station and police station and elementary, middle, high school, junior colleges, they’re all done by significant architects – Kevin Roche, Robert Venturi, Paul Kennen, Gunnar Birkerts, Cesar Pelli.

Avery Trufelman: And you might think that this would be a town full of architecture nerds and useless hipsters like me. But it’s very blue-collar.

Jonathan Nesci: It’s working-class but there’s a high concentration of engineers because of the automotive fields.

Avery Trufelman: And also because of the automotive industry, Columbus is a very diverse town because they’re engineers and employees from all over the world. And then the engine – “wink” – of Columbus is a corporation called Cummins. It’s a Fortune 500 company that designs, manufactures and distributes engines.

Jonathan Nesci: And they work with Nissan and John Deere and Dodge.

Avery Trufelman: And Cummins started about 100 years ago with this old banking family in Columbus.

Jonathan Nesci: The family chauffeur was tinkering and perfecting the diesel engines. His name was Quincy Cummins.

Avery Trufelman: Cummins was a farm boy who stopped schooling at eighth grade. But clearly he was a talented mechanic. The wealthy family he worked for and their patriarch, the industrialist Joseph Irwin Miller, bankrolled an engine company and classy Cummins, their chauffeur, became the CEO. And in the late 30s as a civic gift to the town, both to beautify it and also to attract talent, the industrialist Miller decided to give his little city a beautiful new church. But the fateful thing was who they got to design the church.

Jonathan Nesci: Eliel Saarinen’s name came up and that changed the course of the city.

Avery Trufelman: So Eliel Saarinen, you know, is a massive deal. When I was in Finland the two big names that came up over and over again were Eliel Saarinen and Alvar Aalto.

Roman Mars: Right.

Avery Trufelman: Like Aalto’s reign was post-war, Saarinen was early turn of the last century. And while Aalto did that kind of natural modernism style, Eliel Saarinen did these regal nouveau style buildings with stone and copper patina, like he designed the Grand Central Helsinki train station. And then Eliel Saarinen moved to the United States in the 20s and settled in the Midwest. He was a professor at the University of Michigan and here in the States, Eliel is just as famous for his buildings as he is for his son, because he was the father of…

Roman Mars: Eero Saarinen.

Avery Trufelman: Exactly. Like when most Americans say Saarinen, they’re talking about Eero. He did the St. Louis Arch, the old TWA Terminal at New York’s JFK Airport. He designed the famous tulip chair made of white plastic and red cushioning. He’s huge. He’s like a master of the 20th century. And so when Eliel Saarinen built a simple geometric limestone church in 1942 in Columbus Indiana, Eero Saarinen got roped in.

Jonathan Nesci: And he worked with his father on the first church and then he did one of his last buildings which was North Christian Church in ’64.

Avery Trufelman: Eero also built the conference center in town and a private house for the wealthy Miller family. Like, his fingerprints are all over Columbus, Indiana. And then after Eero passed away, all the architects in his office went and did work in Columbus and it spread from there. In Columbus, Indiana, I.M. Pei did the library, Edward Charles Bassett of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill did the City Hall. Columbus basically became an institution.

Jonathan Nesci: This is quite incredible to see this single move of hiring Eliel Saarinen and the chain of events that happened because of it.

Avery Trufelman: Which is also so funny that just like “The Pool and the Stream”, that story starts in Finland.

Jonathan Nesci: (laughs) Yes.

Avery Trufelman: Which brings us back to the skatepark in town. So as you can imagine, it’s kind of intimidating to build something in a town full of wildly impressive architecture. But Jonathan wanted to be part of the process.

Jonathan Nesci: I got on the committee. With a lot of sessions about what this is going to be. Like do we recreate is this exactly the way it was? And then your podcast came… I just looked it up, July 4th ’17 and then I reached out to Janne on July 27.

Avery Trufelman: So Jonathan reached out to Janne Saario the Finnish skatepark designer in the story because of our episode. Janne became the designer of the skatepark in Columbus.

Jonathan Nesci: He’s been incredible to work with and a true master of his craft. And pairing him with a local skatepark builder where everyone on the team skateboards – the owners of the company skateboard and their troweling concrete. It’s like there’s just so much heart and passion.

Avery Trufelman: And we’ll post pictures of the skate park so listeners can see it but it’s totally beautiful. The park… the park almost looks like ocean waves. People love it.

Jonathan Nesci: It’s just been absolutely incredible. The skaters, the BMX-ers, the guys who ride the scooters, they all love it. I was there yesterday. There was nearly 50 people there.

Avery Trufelman: And it’s so gratifying to Jonathan, especially because his oldest son was also on the committee so it was kind of a family effort, and now they all get to enjoy the fruits of their labor together. Actually the skatepark has convinced Jonathan to pick up his BMX bike again.

Jonathan Nesci: And it’s just a great place to spend time with my kids. They’re 14 and 16. I don’t have a whole lot of… years left of them being in the house. What a kind of fun way to have them see an idea and then see the steps that it takes to realize that idea.

Avery Trufelman: Which of course is what the story is all about: where ideas come from and where they travel. I mean who knows who will go to this park in the years to come and discover new friends or a new community or new passion and move the chain of inspiration forward from there…

Jonathan Nesci: Of everything that I’ve ever been part of, this has by far been the most meaningful, just playing a connector, you know?

Avery Trufelman: I do know. It’s an amazing thing. I feel so lucky to be a part of this story. Like making these connections is the best part of my job.

Roman Mars: It’s so cool. I love it.

Avery Trufelman: Me too. And the other thing is the story could have gone back even farther. Like we could have talked about the origins of surfing and it could have gone forward into the future because film changed when all these skate kids started picking up cameras and they changed the way the tracking shot works in cinema. Like the story goes off in all these different directions. But the fact that it also manifested in this literal concrete example in Columbus, Indiana is just gorgeous.

Roman Mars: I love it. That’s great.

Avery Trufelman: Yeah.

Roman Mars: Good update. The world is better. Thank you, Avery.

Avery Trufelman: Thanks, Roman.

Roman Mars: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Avery Trufelman, edited by Delaney Hall, mixed and tech production by Sharif Youssef, music by Sean Real and Melodium. Our Senior Producer is Katie Mingle. Kurt Kohlstedt is the Digital Director. The rest of the staff includes Emmett FitzGerald, Joe Rosenberg Vivian Le, Chris Berube, Sofia Klatzker and me, Roman Mars.

Sincere gratitude this week to Michael Bernett, Mark Rodriguez, Jason Wrightman, Chris Funk and Adam Leigh. Charles Birnbaum and the Cultural Landscape Foundation, San Francisco garden designer Gabriel Cameron, David Lewis, and Aalto University. And special shout out to Andrew Norton, for sparking this idea. And Kelsey Keith for telling us about the Columbus Indiana connection. The archival of sound was from the Vanderbilt University archive, and the 1978 movie ‘Skateboard Kings’ which you can find on YouTube. Please do yourself a favor and watch Stacy’s documentary ‘Dogtown and Z Boys’. It is great.

We are a project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row in beautiful downtown Oakland, California. 99% Invisible is a member of Radiotopia from PRX, a fiercely independent collective of the most innovative shows in all of podcast.

Credits

Production

Producer Avery Trufelman spoke with Jake Phelps, editor at Thrasher Magazine; Stacy Peralta, skateboarding pioneer and director of the excellent documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys; Justin Faggioli and Sandy Donnell, owners and caretakers of the Donnell Garden; architectural historian Marc Treib; skate park designer Janne Saario; Antti Ahlava, architect and vice president of Aalto University; and Jonas Malmberg, architectural historian with the Aalto Foundation.

Sincere gratitude to Michael Burnett, Mark Rodriguez, Jason Reitman, Charles Birnbaum and the Cultural Landscape Foundation, San Francisco garden designer Gabrielle Cameron, David Lewis and Aalto University — and a special shout to Andrew Norton, for sparking this idea.

(If you’d like to know more about the Donnell Garden and explore it yourself, the Cultural Landscape Foundation set up an online tour of it)

Comments (6)

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  1. Justin Meadows

    Fantastic as always–but I was bummed to hear no mention at all of Frank Nasworthy, the dude that spotted Creative Urethanes’ material and first thought to try it on skateboards. He was the first to introduce urethane wheels to the southern California skate scene, and then his company, Cadillac Wheels, was the one first making and selling wheels to surf shops.

    The episode had a lot to cover, but he was a key step in skating’s evolution and he often gets left out of the story. Full disclosure: he was a friend of my dad’s, but still.

  2. Helge Frisenette

    Superb and inspiring episode!
    I’d Love to hear you elaborating on some of the other tangents or threads you mention at the end.

  3. What is the connection between skateboarding and the new way of doing tracking shots in cinema? Does anyone know? Roman mentioned briefly at the end.

  4. Julia

    “Helsinki has stood in for Moscow and Leningrad in a number of films. Its buildings are regal, intimidating, and very ornate. Finland wanted to step away from Soviet Romanticism, especially because the rest of Europe was experimenting with a new architectural approach called Functionalism”. Seriously? Do you mean 19th century Russian classicism – the style seen on the Helsinki Senate square? Is this what you call “Soviet Romanticism” and oppose it to the Western functionalist? Have you ever heard of Soviet Constructivism, which was a part of international modern movement in the 1920s?

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