Sketch Review: The 99% Invisible City by Roman Mars

Roman Mars is best known for his podcast 99% Invisible. In the 99% Invisible City*, Mars investigates how small things change cities. This ranges from manhole covers to tax codes. The result is a field guide to the many parts of cities.

This blog focuses on urban landscapes. As a result our focus is on the whole instead of the parts. The 99% Invisible City reminds us that this whole is made up of individuals and materials though.

Iconic Skylines

Vancouver BC Skyline

A skyline can be a city’s special feature. An arrangement of unique buildings to show a city’s character. Most skylines have a star building though.

Roman Mars choose to tell the story of the Transamerican Pyramid in San Francisco to show this. The building is an icon of the San Francisco skyline. Yet it almost did not happen.

At the time people felt the building was ugly. Yet the developers pushed on any ways. The result is a story of how a big risk led to a star building.


Mars has a chapter for the Boston City Hall. The building is famous, or infamous, for its brutalist style. This gives Mars a chance to talk about concrete.

Brutalism comes from the French word for concrete, brut. Concrete can be stark, but it also has a beauty. The individual parts of concrete never come together in the same way. The result is one-of-a-kind patterns and colors.

It was sad that Mars did not focus more on the story of Boston City Hall. Sticking to his theme he focused on the details of concrete though. The result is in interesting look into concrete as a material.

Portland Water Fountains

The 99% Invisible City has examples from across the world. It was nice to see several examples from cities in the Pacific Northwest though. Our favorite was in inclusion of the Benson Bubbler.

Downtown Portland and several other cities in Oregon have unique fountains. Jets of water come up from the center of four bowls. The jets fall back into the bowl and drain away. These are known as Benson Bubblers or Portland water fountains.

Mars includes the Benson Bubblers in the section on public water fountains. Designers were not sure of the best design for public fountains when they started appearing in Europe and the United States of America. Mars offers the Benson Bubbler as a first attempt at a sanitary fountain.

Wrapping up The 99% Invisible City

Mars pulls the reader into the everyday parts of a city. This celebrates the humble origins of the world’s cities. It also reminds the reader about the small ways we create the places we live.

It would be nice to have an overarching story to the chapters. Mars’ focus is compelling though. This book is a great guide for urban explorers. You can also find many of the stories in this book for free on Mar’s podcast 99% Invisible.

*This is an Amazon sponsored link.

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