99% Invisible: A Structural Symphony

With podcasts that have been running for a long time, it’s easy to slip into a fixed mindset about them based on an impression you formed many, many episodes ago. I’m probably more guilty of this than most — I try to keep up with so many shows that I often have to check myself from saying things like “This American Life is just so one-note”, when I haven’t actually listened to it for ages. 99% Invisible, an excellently produced and meticulously researched narrative documentary podcast about architecture and design, falls into this category for me. It has over 300 episodes and counting published, so I think I already know everything it has to say. I am wrong.

I’m not really sure why I pressed play on episode 302 — “Lessons from Las Vegas” — when I’ve passed over so many others in recent months. Perhaps it’s because I’ve actually been there, for a heady 36 hours in 2012 when I was on a roadtrip across the States with a friend I now don’t speak to as much as I should. I’ve long wanted to write something about those weeks we spent self-consciously crammed into a tiny red convertible with all our crumbs and anxieties, two young women trying to live a carefree on the road while also dodging creepy men in hostels and singing nomads on the beach.

Architects turn their noses up at the Las Vegas strip, which is crowded with buildings designed only to draw in tourists and scream loudly of the pleasure and excitement to be found within, and aren’t clever or witty or intellectual. This particular episode begins with an architectural historian called Denise Scott Brown, and talks about her habit of championing buildings that others in her line of work disdain. Her voice is centred in the episode, and she tells in her own words how in 1966 she took her colleague Robert Venturi to see Las Vegas in all its populist glory.

This was the point in the episode in which I started holding my breath, which is always a sign for me that something magical is happening in my ears. The story split from a single narrative about architectural preferences and the transition from Modernism into Postmodernism (interesting, but not necessarily that attention grabbing for me) into two strands, which were then woven together for the remainder of the episode. Because, you see, Denise and Robert (above, photo from 99percentinvisible.org) fell in love during the four days they spent photographing the neon signs and garish casino frontages in Vegas.

They became a formidable personal and professional partnership, marrying in 1967 and publishing a book about all the ways in which Las Vegas symbolised the ultimate triumph of popular design. It was hugely influential on architecture, but they didn’t go back to Vegas very often afterwards. They’re still together, and the episode is skilfully drawn back to where it began — the grandiose digressions about design schools fading away in favour of a simple narration of how Denise became involved in restoring the very building which she vociferously defended from demolition in the early 1960s: the act that initially led to her meeting Robert.

A circular structure such as this is a popular trope of all kinds of writing, not just for podcasts. I’ve seen and heard it done hundreds of times, but never quite with a delicate touch as this. As a listener, I had no inkling that we were about to come back to the place where we started — when done clunkily, you can feel this kind of turn around coming miles away — and when it happened, it genuinely felt revelatory and like we had travelled a long way only to return. It was a good reminder that a long running podcast can still surprise you.

I’m going to trial sending these musings on particular episodes or podcasts on Fridays, rather than the old three-part Sunday playlist, as in the readership survey plenty of people said they would prefer something like this. Let me know if you like/don’t like them!