RM: This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.
Cities, like living things, evolve slowly, over time. Buildings and structures get added, and renovated, and removed. And in this process, there are bits and pieces that get left behind. Little vestiges.
AT: Humans have tailbones, but no tails. Whales have pelvic bones, but no legs. And cities have stairs that lead to nowhere. Telephone poles without wiring, and pipes that carry nothing at all.
RM: That’s producer Avery Trufelman.
AT: Most of the time, these architectural leftovers rust or crumble or get taken down. But other times, these vestiges are not removed, and they remain in the urban organism. And sometimes, even though they no longer serve any discernible purpose whatsoever, they are actually maintained. They get cleaned and polished, and repaired, and repainted. Just because they’re there.
RM: These architectural leftovers first caught the attention of an artist in Japan named Akasegawa Genpei. This was in 1972. One day, he was on his lunch break, with some friends.
MF: And as they were walking to lunch, they came across this staircase that went up and then back down, but had no door at the top. You basically just walked up and then back down. And there was a piece of the railing that had been recently fixed. Something clicked with him when he saw that.
AT: That is Matt Fargo, he’s translated Akasegawa’s work into English.
RM: Akasegawa himself doesn’t speak English. He’s up there in the years and he’s not currently doing any interviews. But his passion for these city vestiges spread to Matt Fargo.
MF: It’s very rare, for one. There’s not a lot of facets of our lives these days that are allowed to be completely purposeless.
RM: Akasegawa saw these urban leftovers as artistic byproducts of the city. He photographed all the things he could find that were both vestigial and maintained. He began publishing his findings in a magazine column, accompanied by musings about each object.
AT: So, for example – This is what Akasegawa wrote about those stairs to nowhere:
Everything in our Capitalist society has to have a purpose. So where does that leave this particular staircase? Could you even call it a staircase when all it did was let you peep into a window? Of course, you can’t, you can only call it art. A work of art, shaped like a staircase.
AT: People began to send Akasegawa pictures of similar architectural leftovers that they found, and in his column, Akasegawa would evaluate their submissions on two criteria: 1) Were they truly, completely useless? And 2) Had they been recently maintained?
RM: In 1985 Akasegawa published a book of these collected photographs and writings, which Matt Fargo translated into English for the first time in 2009. And of course, now Matt finds these things everywhere and they’ve changed the way he sees his surroundings.
MF: Architecture is constantly changing and being amended, so it is fun to think about “Oh, how did we end up where we are right now?” And kind of the warp & woof of how it formed over years. It’s not a static, mutable thing.
RM: The changing nature of the city was especially clear to Akasegawa as a Japanese artist. Japan’s rapid re-urbanization after World War II, created a lot of these city vestiges.
AT: Akasegawa coined a term for these kinds of urban leftovers. Those that are again, both totally purposeless and regularly maintained. He called them, “Thomassons.”
MF: It comes from Gary Thomasson, who was a baseball player, an American baseball player; and a really good one.
AT: Gary Thomasson played for the LA Dodgers, The New York Yankees, and the San Francisco Giants. And then he was snatched up by another team, also called the Giants.
MF: The Yomiuri Giants, which is like the Yankees of Japan. They have all the money and they win a lot of titles. And also, incidentally, Akasegawa’s favorite baseball team, located in Tokyo. They hired him to come over, and they paid him an exorbitant amount of money.
RM: But in this new country, on this new team, the great slugger Gary Thomasson lost his stride.
MF: He got there and could not hit a Japanese pitcher for the life of him.
AT: He actually set the all-time strikeout record in Japan in 1981. And he remained in this rut until his contract ran out the following year.
MF: So he basically just ended up sitting on the bench, and collecting a lot of money.
RM: Miss after miss, Gary Thomasson gained the nickname The Human Fan. You know for, swinging the bat around and only moving the air.
MF: And so this kind of useless player that was being fiscally maintained was Akasegawa’s foil for these objects he was finding.
AT: After Matt translated Akasegawa’s original book, which by the way, is entitled Hyperart Thomasson, the American publishers wanted to get a conversation going stateside. They collaborated with a team of artists & photographers to find Thomassons all around San Francisco, which is where the publisher was based at the time.
CL: It was partly its own project, and it was partly to promote the book, and the idea.
RM: Claire Light Spearheaded this project, and she and collaborator Alan Manolo took us on their own Thomasson tour.
AM: You find them all over the city. I’ll show them to you, we’ll go down 4th…
AT: Of all the Thomassons that Claire and Alan found in San Francisco, their favorite ones sit poetically, on a drawbridge right in front of AT&T Park.
AM: Home of the World Champion San Francisco Giants.
RM: Alan’s a big Giant’s fan. And outside the stadium, on a drawbridge named after former Giant Lefty O’Doul and beyond a plaza, named after former Giant Willie Mays, he found some objects, unofficially named after former Giant, Gary Thomasson.
AM: There’s two, uh, one on each side. They look like kind of little, kind of, robot sentry guards.
AT: So picture this: there’s a drawbridge, and on either side are these lifting arm gates. You know, like the barriers that lower at railroad crossings to keep the cars from moving forward. But next to these modern lifting arm gates, are the old models, or what’s left of them. Their arms were chopped off, but the base is still there. And this old, useless base, is still maintained.
CL: They actually took the trouble to move the damn thing, but they didn’t remove it. And they had it painted before, so we could not figure out why it’s still here.
AM: It’s painted the same color as the bridge, black, this kind of industrial black.
RM: And these Thomassons were some of the only indisputable examples that Claire and Alan found.
AT: There are plenty of things around the city that are just derelict. It’s the maintenance that makes it a true Thomasson. Claire & Alan drove to a loading dock nearby San Francisco Marina and pointed out a staircase that lead to nowhere. A classic Thomasson.
RM: Or so it seemed; upon closer look, we weren’t so certain.
(Claire & Alan talking): I think that one is more of a Thomasson… I don’t think it has been repainted because if you look at the bottom, the paint fades into the rust. But if you look at the other railings over there, they’re all faded and rusted, so that…here let’s take a closer look.
AT: The four of us huddled around this railing, and tried to figure out if the rust was painted over, which would mean that it was a Thomasson or the paint was rusted over, which would make it not a Thomasson.
AM: It looks like it was freshly painted but then we’re figuring that it wasn’t and that it just hasn’t been used, so that’s why it doesn’t look like it doesn’t have nicks or cuts on it.
RM: This discourse is part of the fun of Thomassons. Anyone can just look at just broken down city parts, but it takes active examination and attention to asses if this object is truly useless, and has been cared for. This detailed look and debate is what Akasegawa was encouraging in his writings and publications.
CL: And so we thought we would imitate that with our website.
AT: Claire teamed up with Matt Fargo, the translator, to create a blog where people could offer up their own potential Thomassons for analysis and debate.
CL: And um, so people were actually using it and sending in their Thomassons from all over.
RM: Like in Akasegawa’s original magazine column, there are submissions. And there’s commentary as to whether or not they met the definition of a Thomasson.
MF: And we got a lot of really, really beautiful pictures.
RM: That’s translator Matt Fargo again.
AT: And then one day, they got a submission that was definitely not a Thomasson.
RM: Or maybe, it was the truest Thomasson of them all.
MF: One day we got one that was just a big picture of a middle finger. And it said “Thank you for making my family forever famous.” or something like that, and it was from Gary Thomasson’s daughter.
AT: That middle finger was a pretty clear sign the Thomasson family is not pleased. If indeed that is actually Gary Thomasson’s daughter who submitted it. But either way, the family declined to comment for this story.
RM: Which brings us to another debate beyond whether or not something is a Thomasson. Is it fair to call these things Thomassons at all? Gary Thomasson was a remarkable baseball player for a long time. And just being a professional baseball player in and of itself is amazing. Hitting a baseball going 90 miles per hour is about the hardest thing to do in professional sports. If you’re fantastic at it, you’ll fail 70% of the time. Combine that with Thomasson’s getting on in years, the stress of living abroad, and any number of other things that could have been going on in his life at the time; It’s totally understandable he wasn’t the slugger that he was for the San Francisco Giants.
AT: And Akasegawa knew that. He followed baseball. He was a fan of the Yomiuri Giants, he was a fan of Gary Thomasson.
MF: It was Akasegawa’s big fear you know, when we told him we wanted to publish the book he’s like, “I don’t know about…you know, publishing it in English because it might be really embarrassing for the Thomasson family and I don’t want to hurt any feelings. “ He’s a sweet man.
RM: Matt himself was pretty nervous about the Thomasson family’s reaction.
MF: I can’t imagine what he would say. Yeah, I just hope he knows that nothing but love for him and that Akasegawa was really, really nervous about that.
RM: But not so nervous that Akasegawa wouldn’t publish the book.
AT: And unfortunately, the name Thomasson works well. It fits! It’s catchy.
RM: And maybe it’s kind of mean. In fact, when I first heard about Thomassons, I thought it was really mean. But then I tried to remember all the baseball players I could from the 1970s. And I came up with something like four names. And now because of Akasegawa, Gary Thomasson has transcended even Pete Rose, and Reggie Jackson and joined the immortal ranks of the eponym, Cardigan, Leotard, Guillotine, Sandwich, Silhouette, and Plimsoll. However hurtful the useless title may be, the legacy of Akasegawa’s Thomasson one could argue, is ultimately a positive one. Thomassons are delightful to find. They have inspired artists, translators, performers, and urban explorers around the world. Thomassons are treasures waiting to be discovered and analyzed. Plus, if you need to get a gift for the urban design enthusiast who has everything, I’m thinking a Gary Thomasson baseball card would be perfect.