Thomassons

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.

Credits

Production

Roman Mars and producer Avery Trufelman spoke with Matt Fargo, who translated Hyperart Thomasson into English, and Claire Light and Alan Manolo, who gave 99pi a Thomasson tour of San Francisco.

See more Thomassons on Instagram, and on Matt Fargo’s Thomassons project site.

Music

“Ride” — Mute Mornings
” Outside” — OK Ikumi
“Something From Nothing” —  Mute Mornings
“Feet Prints on Flower Dreads” — Dustin Wong
“Na Na Ni” — Frederik
“X Portions of a Whole” — Set in Sand

Comments (27)

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  1. Thanks so much for this terrific piece! I would like to mention here, though: Seng Chen, who led the group of photographers who photographed SF Thomassons and who found most of the Thomassons used in the tour; Kearny Street Workshop (kearnystreet.org), the organization that commissioned the Thomassons tour; and Kaya Press, the publisher that commissioned and published the English translation of “Hyperart: Thomassons.” Allan, Seng, and I were working under their aegis.

  2. John

    Perhaps the ultimate Thomasson, since it is in a Major League ballpark is the ladder on the Green Monster at Fenway. It’s original purpose was to allow grounds crew to get to the top of the wall and retrieve balls from the netting that would catch home runs. Now that they have built seats atop the monster, there is no need for the ladder. Yet it remains there, hanging off the wall, occasionally causing a fly ball to take a completely unexpected ricochet to the outfielders dismay.

  3. So, occasionally you’ll find cities where people have lived for decades or longer. And occasionally, over time, those people may have expanded their city, or made improvements or changes to it. And occasionally, through the course of these changes, workarounds are needed. Why is this interesting? Or even surprising?

    In the real world, workarounds happen. Retrofits happen. Sometimes the problem is the cost of tearing everything out and starting fresh. Maybe the problem is the disruption it might cause. Maybe it’s just poor planning, or poor execution. The point is, it happens, think of it as design on the fly.

    Lets talk about your specific example of the obsolete gate motor box standing next to it’s replacement. For the record, I don’t know anything concrete about this specific box, or these boxes in general, but here’s a few potential scenarios (off the top of my head) that could explain it’s presence:

    Maybe it’s serving as a junction box for the electrical infrastructure that used to supply the old gate, and now supplies the new gate. Maybe the contractor that installed the new gates went out there with the intention of setting the new gate in the position of the old one, then discovered that the support structure under the old box was insufficient to safely support the new box. Maybe it was corroded a bit since for decades there had been a heavy iron box that contained a motor that frequently moved a heavy gate sitting on top of it. So maybe, in the interest of safety, the decision was made to relocate the new gates 4 feet to left.

    But they’re still going to need power, so what to do?

    A. Remove the old box. Which means moving the old electrical junction under it 4 feet also. Which probably means installing an industrial grade manhole style access box in sidewalk to facilitate the electrical renovation. Which in turn probably means some sidewalk removal and replacement. All of which will require restricting access to the area while the work is performed. Once all that’s done, there’s a pretty good chance electrical service to the bridge or immediate surrounding area would need to be interrupted for a time so the renovation could be performed. It probably also means a few more contractors in the mix since I’d be willing to bet the contractor that replaces the gates knows how to attach them to a power supply, but probably isn’t terribly interested in making renovations to the electrical supply itself. It stands to reason he’s probably not in the business of sidewalk installation either. None of which was planned for in the budget approved by the city architect and funded by the city taxpayers.

    B. Leave the old box in place, install the new gate, install a 4 foot power extension, make up the connection. Come in on time, on budget, and safely, despite the obstacles.

    Tough call. As a side note, scenario A takes the traffic controlling gate out of service for days at a minimum, which would likely make it necessary to bring in some police officers to direct traffic. Whereas in scenario B, the traffic controlling gate is only out of service for the few minuets it takes to disconnect power from the old one and turn on power to the new one.

    As for the old box being “maintained”, again, the painting was probably done by a contractor that was probably hired to paint ‘the bridge equipment’. And if the rust on the bottom of the door shown in the picture on the website is any indication, that painting contractor hasn’t been out in a while.

    Not every situation is purpose built. You guys can, and should, do better.

    1. It is not hard to imagine how various thomassons came to be, as you illustrated, but that isn’t the point. Or perhaps, it’s part of their beauty. Being able to see history having been lived through building modifications is interesting. When these artifacts then become kept up and thus an intentional seeming part of the structure whose old meaning is usually obvious, but is no mothing more than decoration. Its pretty and odd. It isn’t about wondering how it could have come to be, its not that it is an unexplainable mystery, its just an aesthetically enjoyable phenomenon.

  4. Gene Ullery-Smith

    The effort to explain why the thomasson name is not mean is hollow. Nice people do mean things. This is such an occasion, it would seem. The choice to double down on the mean spirited name in the english publication is telling. We fans all bad-mouth our players in a slump but we don’t create lasting tributes to those brief frustrations.

  5. Victoria Hollingsworth

    That said, it seems that many of the “facade” preservation efforts are part of this. The outside of a building left just for decoration of the new condo or office tower seen to qualify.

  6. Victoria Hollingsworth

    I think that using the Thomsson name in this case isn’t the same meaning for japanese culture as it is in the west. There is a great appreciation for elders in japanese culture. To be so great during your life that even if things go wrong when you get old and you are still cared for is an honour. I can only hope my children feel the same for me. I’m happy that there is a place where being called “old lady” might be a complement.

  7. Jai

    In 1930’s Perth, Western Australia, we built an art deco tower that was intended to be used as a sewage gas vent.

    It was a disaster, as the foul smelling gas just sank down to the suburbs below. They stopped using it almost immediately, but never demolished it. I think probably just because it’s kind of beautiful.

    My photo: https://flic.kr/p/mXCKcU

    Technically it is being used to mount a tiny little antenna, but I think it is maintained and I think is a Thomasson in spirit.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lincoln_Street_Ventilation_Stack

  8. Drew

    The name thing went a bit long… You can tell the 99% crew loved the idea, but needed a work around for the 30+ year old snarky joke. It seemed overly apologetic. Telling ALL OF US we’ve made bad life choices because we haven’t listened The Postal Service… that was fine to do, right? Ep. 118, funny, funny, right? But let’s tip toe around one jock and his family.

  9. Tom

    As a fan of sports and design, I find the arguments supporting the names of the Washington Redskins and the Thomasson very similar. I think I heard that the name has been around for a long time, it is the perfect fit, and it is now some kind of honor. All of the arguments exclude the opinion of the offended party. In this case, the Thomasson middle finger photo has made that opinion very clear. These design oddities will exist no matter what the name is. The joy is in discovering them, and that will remain. So if there is an opportunity to change the name and eliminate the offensiveness, no matter how well meaning the name choice was, why not do it? After all, isn’t good design choice all about making the world incrementally better, even in some small way?

  10. Robert Show

    At the risk of sounding like a hair-splitting baseball nerd, I think it should be noted that, using any just about any baseball metric, Gary Thomasson could never be considered a great or “remarkable” major leaguer. A useful reserve outfielder for 8 or 9 years? Yes. Great major league players simply do not end their careers in Japan.

    Otherwise, great piece!

  11. David Meslin

    Are pearls Thomassons? The alternative is more abrasive than just integrating the ill-fitting element. A nicer name for the phenomenon might be “human pearls.”

  12. dyerjohn

    I work in software development. Listening to this podcast it hits me, we do this all the time with software. When making general purpose software for other programmers we really don’t know all that will be needed or used. So we build different ways of calling bits of the code. The other programmer will then use the way that is most useful to their software. It’s very likely some of the code we build will never be called, even if the software is used by lots of other programmers. However when new features are added or bugs fixed we will re-visit all the code and make maintenance changes as needed. So in a way this unused code is Thomasson in concept, it’s created and maintained but never used. I guess you could argue that it is not Tomasson because it could be used where a stairway that goes nowhere isn’t useful other than to see from a different height. At a minimum it has me thinking.

  13. Roman, what a great piece to listen while I drove from the San Jose Adobe HQ up to the Walnut Creek area. The traffic was mindbendingly awful, your story was tingly, lovely and quite brillig.

  14. I listened to this when I was on a train from Vancouver, BC. Oddly, at Pacific Central Station I spotted a Thomasson, without – at that time – knowing what it really was!

    See this old photo of the station:
    http://photos.wikimapia.org/p/00/03/21/32/03_big.jpg

    Notice the four phone booths to the left. Now look at this newer photo:
    http://www.photographybylyon.com/Heather-Lyon/Architecture1/i-NxkHWn9/0/L/Interior%20Pacific%20Central%20Station-L.jpg

    You can see that two of the booths have been removed. The other two have had their phones removed, but the booths are still there. It struck me as being the very soul of uselessness – a phone booth without a phone – and now I know the name for such an occurrence!

    NB: These aren’t my photos. Just random ones I found on the web. I would have taken a photo myself, if only I had known!

  15. Leifer McLeiferson

    This podcast was amusing, but frustrating, because it didn’t comment at all on the relationship between Japan and the US in 1974. Akasegawa wasn’t just making architectural jokes; he was criticizing his own country’s subservient attitude towards the US, and the tendency to welcome and promote anything “western,” even if it was detrimental–or just stupid– to the country. So for him, it wasn’t just making cute puns about pointless architectural artifacts (which, in Japan, were poignant remnants of the US airstrikes). Which means that people looking for Thomassons in the US is funny, but it’s missing the point. The whole Thomasson thing, to Akesagawa, was a way of working through the incredibly painful reality that Japan was enduring–rebuilding itself while being groomed by its conquerer. It had lost its heritage, plus much of its independence.

    So, if Ms. Thomasson is really offended, she should take a breath and read about the thousands of civilians who were killed in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Then she should read about the thousands of Japanese artists who stopped making work during the war, for risk of imprisonment. She should read about the Japanese young women who became prostitutes, literally or otherwise. Then, she should read how Japanese artists were so quick to imitate Western artists, and how it took until the 1970s for enough Japanese artists to stand up and turn the tide. Then she might realize how little she actually understands about this whole topic, and let go of her pride, just a smidgeon.

  16. You should be embarrassed that you produced this show. Like children mocking someone with a deformity you jumped on Thomasson’s flaw and danced with delight. You deserve the middle finger from his daughter. Your B.S. about just being able to hit a baseball is amazing, so Thomasson deserves respect is nothing more than justification to make yourselves feel good. Immature adolescents is what you are.

  17. Andrew Mitchell

    The “peanut holder” above is a cleanout for the building sewer drain. It looks like the column that it was up against used to be built out to hide it, so it was probably turned 90 degrees with a wall cleanout. Looks like they later removed to elbow and put the cleanout on.

    The duct in front of the window was probably an addition of a grease hood. They cannot run the duct up through the other room without fire rating a shaft, which is expensive. The original exhaust may have gone horizontal and is probably not allowed by NFPA 96 any longer for one or more of many reasons.

  18. Jordan Benjamin FindsAWay Lakota

    I see that you have listed the music used for this piece but I am not finding the piece of music that is used starting at the 11 minute and 04 second point.
    Am I not wrong? :)

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