Is our blaring modern soundscape harming our health? Cities are noisy places and while people are pretty good at tuning it out on a day-to-day basis our sonic environments have serious, long-term impacts on our mental and physical health. This is part one in a two-part series supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation about how sound can be designed to reduce harm and even improve wellbeing.
Many of the sounds we hear are created with very little thought for how they interact with each other. Some of these are byproducts of modern technologies, like engine sounds or the hums of computers. Others are made intentionally, like alarms or cellphone rings. There are the sounds of overhead planes, air conditioning units, stores pumping out music, sirens and then people talking loudly to be heard over the rest of the noise. Then there are cars, which may be the biggest culprit.
New York - the noisy city - 1988 - Manhattan - YouTube
“The sound of cars is inescapable, which is depressing if you think about it,” laments design critic Kate Wagner. “Cars tend to drown out other things like bird song, human speech, the rustling of leaves, conversation — things that maybe are more personal or that we hold [to have] a higher aesthetic value.”
Joel Beckerman, a sound designer and composer at Man Made Music , believes we need a new approach to sound — one where we decide what we hear in our everyday environment. He calls this Sonic Humanism. “[It’s] really about how [we can] use music and sound to make people’s lives richer and simpler,” he explains. He wants sound to be something we’re thinking about all the time. But while cities have more noise laws than ever, over half of the world’s population live in urban areas experiencing way too much noise.
And when it comes to city sound, volume is also not the only thing hurting us. “It’s not just how loud the sound is … it’s the character of the sound .. it’s whether or not you have control over the situation,” says Erica Walker, a researcher at the Boston University School of Public Health and a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grantee. She believes that the impact of sound is all about context. Walker is working on a project called the Community Noise Lab. She is measuring the sources and intensity of environmental sound so we can better understand how sounds impact our neighborhoods and our health.
Living so close together, we are going to make sounds that will cross over into other people’s spaces, and that’s not always a bad thing. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why we love living in cities.“Some communities say that they appreciate the sound levels,” says Walker. “They like hearing their neighbors at the barbecue, [which creates] a sense of community — so there is a positive aspect.”
Health problems come in part from a lack of agency. “Noises cause stress, especially if we have little or no control over it,” explains Mathias Basner, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He studies how noise affects our sleep. “The body will excrete stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that lead to changes in the composition of our blood and of our blood vessels, which actually have been shown to be stiffer after a single night of noise exposure,” he says.
JAPAN✦COOL! - Japan Train Station Music! So Cool and Happy! - YouTube
Some cities are already taking a more thoughtful approach. Joel Beckerman explains that “in the Tokyo subway … each station has a little tune associated with it. If you know anything about the Japanese subway system, it is packed. If you’re in the middle of a car and you missed an announcement because it’s noisy, you’re sunk — you’re going to miss your stop.” He wants a future city dominated by natural sounds but also sounds that we’ve consciously chosen. Some might find these pleasant while others may find them annoying, but we’ll all get more room to decide for ourselves either way.
Support for this episode was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is working to build a culture of health that ensures everyone in America has a fair and just opportunity for health and well-being, which includes exploring how our current or future environments will impact daily life.
Thanks to Man Made Music for contributing to this episode as Executive Producers and provided editorial support and soundscapes for this special series. Learn more about Sonic Humanism.
On October 17th, 1989, the Oakland A’s were playing the San Francisco Giants in the World Series, but just as the game was kicking off—the television broadcast cut out. When the signal came back, it was no longer the baseball game. These were the early minutes of the Loma Prieta earthquake, which struck near Santa Cruz. It was the first major earthquake ever to be broadcast live on national TV.
ABC 1989 World Series Game 3 Earthquake - YouTube
Part of the Bay Bridge had been destroyed. There were fires, fallen buildings, and widespread power outages. In all, there were 63 deaths and almost 4,000 injuries. But this is a story about what happened to the San Francisco Public Library after this earthquake. It suffered a lot of damage.
The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake caused a section of the deck to collapse on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Photo by: Joe Lewis (CC BY 2.0)
No one was injured at the San Francisco library. But the earthquake had dumped half a million books on the floor. Even after two months of repairs, the post-earthquake situation in the San Francisco Public Library was still pretty bad. A large portion of the stacks had glass floors, and some of these had cracked.
A building at the corner of Beach and Divisadero streets in the Marina District of San Francisco. Photo by: U.S. Geological Survey (CC BY 2.0)
Library management designated a new room for public browsing. Librarians curated a selection of books they thought the public would most like to read, and those books went in that room, “But they realized along the way that not every book was going to fit,” says Jason Gibbs, Manager in the Art, Music & Recreation Center at San Francisco Public Library.
But even this winnowed down selection of books was too large for the available space. They needed to winnow it down even more. “The earthquake just happened, and we don’t have this shelving anymore. We need to make space,” Gibbs says. “That’s a reasonable thing to do if you approach it in a thoughtful way.”
Libraries get rid of books all the time. There are so many new books coming in every day and only a finite amount of library space. The practice of freeing up library space is called weeding. “It’s like, you have to weed your garden for […] the flowers to grow,” says Sharon McKellar who supervises Teen Services at the Oakland Public Library.
There are specific guidelines that come along with book weeding. McKellar, and many other librarians, at libraries all over the world, weed their shelves using the same set of guidelines. And it has an excellent acronym: MUSTY.
M — for Misleading, or factually inaccurate.
U — for Ugly
S — for Superseded by a new edition or a much better book.
T — for Trivial and
Y for Your-collection-has-no-use-for-this-book. Because they want this acronym to work.
The T and the Y are the tricky ones. They’re not necessarily statements of fact; they’re judgments of value. What’s trivial to me might be very important to you, and vice versa. Even here, these judgment calls are made by librarians who specialize in the relevant section, and based on circulation statistics. You just have to trust that your librarians are doing their best for the public.
“We want to be able to keep bringing you the most relevant, most current information, and the only way to do that is by having room to do it. So the only way we can do that is by sometimes withdrawing the things that are not as useful anymore,” explains McKellar.
Let Them Go - A Library Weeding Parody - YouTube
For the sections that do have to get weeded, weeding is generally a touchy subject. The reason why is probably already clear to you: people don’t like the idea of books being thrown away. We love books. And no one loves books more than librarians. It can be hard for them too.
Weeding is normal and necessary, but the big problem was that after the earthquake, the San Francisco Public Library started getting rid of an unusual amount of books. The librarians were told to move quickly. And they didn’t use MUSTY. Or any sort of comparable system.
GREEN. YELLOW. RED.
After the earthquake, the librarians were ordered to go through each collection book by book, and insert a slip of paper into each. There were three colors of paper: green, yellow, and red. Green meant the book had been checked out that year. Yellow meant the book had been checked out in the last two years. And red meant that it had been over two years since somebody had checked out that book. The red books were the ones that were in potential danger of being tossed.
Compared to the careful consideration of MUSTY, the system of the green, yellow, and red cards was a rather blunt instrument. Also, it wasn’t really clear where the red card books were going to go, or if they would ever be used again. In Jason Gibbs’s department, for example, the Art & Music Collection, the discarded books got sent to an abandoned hospital owned by the city because there was nowhere else to put them.
Even battle-hardened librarians like Gibbs felt that the weeding was happening too fast, and too carelessly. You had librarians in different sections weeding furiously and not really communicating with each other. As a consequence, lots and lots of books were leaving the library. And no one quite knew how many, or exactly why.
The Electronic Library
In the late 80s, well before the earthquake struck, the San Francisco Public Library was starting to reconceive of its mission in light of a new technology: the internet. A big part of this pivot was when, in 1987, San Francisco hired Kenneth Dowlin as its new City Librarian. He had recently published a book called The Electronic Library, in which he argued that technology was changing the way people found information and therefore changing the role of librarians.
How to send an 'E mail' - Database - 1984 - YouTube
Dowlin certainly understood, as early as 1984, what the Internet was going to do for communication. Some, however, felt that Dowlin had a distressing lack of concern for books. “There was this sense that, when it came to the physical collections, he just didn’t have any interest,” says Librarian Jason Gibbs.
As a part of his vision for the library of the future, Dowlin was also overseeing the design of a new Main Library for the city of San Francisco. It would be a $100 million structure with more than just bookshelves. It would be wired for computers and television.
1996 "High Tech Libraries" at the San Francisco Public Library - YouTube
This new main library would have twice as much space as the old one, but much of the library’s interior would be devoted to an eighty-six foot tall atrium in the middle of the building, which would rise to a conical glass roof. Lots of librarians felt this big empty atrium was just a step too far. They worried it wouldn’t leave enough space for books.
Looking down in the atrium of the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco, California. Photo by Joe Mabel (CC-BY-SA-3.0)
The Guerilla Librarians
The earthquake was a perfect excuse for Ken Dowlin to do what he wanted to do anyway: shrink the physical collection before the move to the new library. Dowlin’s administration started sending books to landfills. In the days after the quake, books were being sent out by the truckload. Several times a week. This is not normal library practice.
Twenty-seven librarians signed a petition asking Kenneth Dowlin for the weeding to stop, but that didn’t work. Jason Gibbs and his colleagues decided to do something. Librarians from several departments banded together and called themselves the “guerilla librarians.”
Guerilla librarians snuck into the shelves and replaced red slips with green ones, thereby designating the book as a circulating book and keeping it in the collection. The guerilla librarians wanted to determine exactly how many books had been weeded and discarded, but nobody knew for certain. And there was a risk that they’d never be able to find out. Because Kenneth Dowlin decided to get rid of the physical card catalog.
1992 New Main Library Groundbreaking at the San Francisco Public Library - YouTube
Dowlin’s logic for getting rid of the phsyical card catalog was pretty sound. They had already stopped updating the catalog in 1991, and at that point, more than 90% of the nation’s libraries had computerized their card catalogs. The earthquake had actually allowed the San Francisco Public Library to modernize their database– with the disaster relief money they were granted, the library was able to get electronic catalog software.
The move to get rid of the old card catalog caused a surprisingly intense outcry from the guerilla librarians. Not because of nostalgia or personal preference. It was because if a book had been weeded and discarded, it wouldn’t be registered in the new digital system and there would be no evidence it had ever existed at all.
In order to get to the card catalog, the librarians pulled out their secret weapon: Nicholson Baker, writer and library activist. In 1994 Baker had gotten national attention for a New Yorker article about the disposal of physical card catalogs, a practice that had become increasingly common, and had upset Baker a lot.
Nicholson Baker books. Photo by Hoary (CC BY-SA 4.0)
In 1996 the guerilla librarians reached out to Baker for help. The lost books, evidenced only by their locked-away card catalog, were teetering on the edge of disregard. In their email to Nicholson Baker, the guerrilla librarians wrote, “You are the only one who can save it now.”
Baker made a formal request to inspect the card catalog, but Kenneth Dowlin denied it. So Baker sued the library for access to the card catalog. This lawsuit took a while, and it was a bit of a mess, but it automatically classified the card catalog as a public document. Now the library had to keep it.
1996 New Main Library Book Space and Weeding at the San Francisco Public Library - YouTube
The guerilla librarians snuck into off-limits areas in the library, and the abandoned hospital building where the books were stored. They took away books that were going to be destroyed and stockpiled them by the hundreds in their homes, in their cars, in their offices, in lockers, in boxes — all in the hope that they would someday be returned to the library.
The Author vs. the Library
In April of 1996, the New Main Library opened its doors, to much fanfare. Only a month later, in May of 1996, the guerrilla librarians organized an event of their own. There, in the library auditorium, Nicholson Baker delivered a speech stating what he had found.
1996 New Main Library Opening at the San Francisco Public Library - YouTube
Baker contended that Dowlin was responsible for a massive destruction of books, the “systematic removal to a landfill” of at least two hundred thousand volumes. The phrase that got Baker the most attention was when he called this mass disposal “a hate crime directed at the past.”
The library hit back, condemning Baker for accusing them of a hate crime, and then both sides started lobbing insults at each other, as local and national press piled on. One paper compared Baker to the Unabomber. Things got a little out of hand. The library hit back, condemning Baker for accusing them of a hate crime, and saying that he had misunderstood the problem. The library also tried to discredit Baker because of some bad math he had reported. It turns out, one of the guerilla librarians had messed up the measurements of the old library shelves: in fact, the new library had much more space for books than the old one.
1998 Brooks Hall Overflow Books at the San Francisco Public Library - YouTube
In the midst of this feuding, the new library had already been built. And three times as many people were streaming through its doors. Judging from the influx of visitors, it was a success.
Some of the books saved by the Guerilla librarians in boxes and lockers were transferred back into the collection. But at the end of the day, the controversy wasn’t only about what to do with old books. It was a debate about what books are. Are they beautiful objects that we can smell and touch and collect? Or are they eternal sources of knowledge, accessible to everyone in the ether?
Nicholson Baker can see Dowlin’s perspective, and appreciates being able to conduct research seamlessly over the internet. But Baker maintains that we shouldn’t give up on the printed page. His argument, and the public battle around it in the nineties, was a big reason why the San Francisco Public Library totally overhauled their collections policies. They made it a policy that if a library branch is considering weeding the last copy of a book, they must send that copy to a subject specialist, who will decide if it can be weeded or not. For the books that do have to go, the San Francisco Public Library developed a community redistribution program, to make sure the extra copies of popular books can live on somewhere else. Weeded books from the SFPL are sent to schools in the area, city colleges, and prisons.
One of the biggest changes to the modern practice of weeding is something that Kenneth Dowlin himself helped establish: online communication between libraries. Jason Gibbs, at the SFPL, and Sharon McKellar, across the bay at the Oakland Public Library, can now communicate with each other instantly over the internet so they can make different volumes available to readers in both cities. It’s a way of sharing shelf space. Some libraries spell “MUSTIE” with an I and an E at the end (instead of a Y). For misleading, ugly, superseded, trivial, irrelevant, or elsewhere.
1991 Digital Online Card Catalog at the San Francisco Public Library - YouTube
“For me, weeding is fun,” says McKellar, “It’s a chance to really touch the books and see how they’re doing and see what people are interested in.” That’s what this all comes down to: it’s what people are interested in.
Weeding isn’t just about what to cut. It’s also about what to keep. It’s about what the public wants to read. And so every time you check out a book from the library, you are casting a vote, to your local librarian out there in the weeds, to keep this title in circulation.
Deepa Bhasthi grew up in a very small town in Southern India, with mainly books to keep her company. But one day, when she was ten-years-old, Bhasthi’s father brought home a children’s magazine with penpals listed from all over the world: Asia, Europe, South America — and Deepa decided to write to two girls living in Russia. Bhasthi and her pen pals started sending lots of letters back and forth. And mostly they would write about the kinds of stuff you might expect: school, their families, their pets. But there was one thing that Bhasthi found these new penpals in Russia always wanted to talk about — Bollywood!
Letters with Russian pen pals. Photo courtesy of Deepa Bhasthi
Bollywood is the Hindi-language film industry that comes out of Mumbai, India. It’s a portmanteau of “Bombay,” the former name of Mumbai where these films are produced, and “Hollywood.” Bollywood is often conflated with the Indian film industry as a whole, but really it’s just one very flamboyant slice of it. It’s usually packed with elaborate song and dance sequences, a fight between good and evil, a beautiful hero and heroine who end up happily ever after in the end.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge | Official Trailer | Shah Rukh Khan | Kajol - YouTube
What Bhasthi didn’t know at the time, was that Russian Bollywood fandom wasn’t unique to her childhood experience at all. From the 1950s right up to its collapse, people in the Soviet Union were completely infatuated with Indian cinema. India and The Soviet Union had completely different politics, languages, and cultures. But for a brief time, these two nations found they had much more in common than expected, and realized this through a love of movies.
The Most Important of All the Arts
In the early years of cinema, Soviet film directors were at the forefront of filmmaking, and not just within the USSR — but in the world. Vladimir Lenin himself said, “Of all the arts, for us, the cinema is the most important.” He believed that a film had the power to reach the masses better than any other artist medium and that it could operate as art and propaganda at the same time.
Battleship Potempkin - Odessa Steps scene (Einsenstein 1925) - YouTube
But when Joseph Stalin came to power, the scales tipped dramatically in favor of propaganda. The film industry was completely controlled by the state, and censorship was strictly enforced. As Stalin ascended to power, he enforced a new cultural policy on all arts produced in the Soviet Union.
This cultural policy was called Socialist Realism. “You have the crystallization of a cultural policy that says that all cinema, and the arts, and literature, and everything else needs to follow a set of rules that highlights the goals of the revolution in a very specific way,” explains Sudha Rajagopalan, author of Leave Disco Dancer Alone! Indian Cinema and Soviet Movie-Going After Stalin. Socialist realism imposed a propagandistic regulation on literature, music, theater, sculpture art, film, etc. must present communism and the ideals of a communist society in a positive light.
On top of socialist realism limiting artistic creativity, World War II hampered Soviet filmmaking even further. “A lot of the factories or a lot of the industries of cinema houses and theaters had to be closed down. The ones near the front there to be closed down they were moved away from areas that were considered to be close to the battlefront,” says Rajagopalan. This was a time period where Soviet filmmaking suffered greatly.
Russians Enter Berlin: Final Months of World War II (1945) | British Pathé - YouTube
Film critic and historian Kirill Razlogov explains that the war also caused a shift in the Soviet Union’s movie-making priorities. Rather than spending money on making a lot of movies a year, the Soviet Union wanted to concentrate on making a handful of well-produced films. The state wanted to focus on quality over quantity, but it was barely producing any films, and they weren’t the most entertaining.
Poster of Stalin displayed at a public event in Leipzig in 1950. Photo by Deutsche Fotothek (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)
The Khrushchev Thaw
Joseph Stalin's funeral - YouTube
By 1953 that would finally begin to change with the death of Stalin. In 1953 Nikita Khrushchev succeeded Stalin as the secretary of the Communist Party and eventual Premier of the Soviet Union, and Khrushchev wanted to chart a new course forward for the nation. Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s “cult of personality” and kicked off a period known as the Khrushchev Thaw. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners were released from gulags, political repression subsided, and censorship was relaxed.
Nikita Khrushchev with John F. Kennedy (1961)
But Khrushchev also wanted to make ordinary citizens feel more free and happy in their daily lives. Khrushchev wanted to address the needs of everyday life and finally take the Soviet citizen’s wants into consideration. It also marked an important shift in the government’s priorities. And Kruschev decided that one way to ensure that Soviet people were having a good time, was to get them back into movie theaters.
Khrushchev Denounces "Dictator" Stalin (1956) - YouTube
But in order to get people to the movies, the USSR had to increase the number of films playing in theaters, which required importing more foreign films. The United States was the biggest movie producer at the time, but this was the middle of the Cold War, and the majority of Hollywood films were seen as overly bourgeois and materialistic. The USSR went looking for an ally who could help keep millions of fun-starved Soviets entertained without offending their political sensibilities. It found the perfect country in India.
Secretary of Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev and Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru
An Independent India
In 1947, after years of fighting British colonial rule, India became an independent nation. The Soviet Union, at the time, was looking to build relationships with developing countries, and even though India wouldn’t take an official side during the Cold War, it still looked like a promising candidate for friendship.
India's Independence Day: The Arrival of Earl Mountbatten (1947) | British Pathé - YouTube
Paintings on Red Square in Moscow and An Elephant and Maharaja throne from India – Soviet Friendship Issue
“It was a country that had a very strong anti-imperialist politics and political sympathies among its intellectuals. And so both of these things made it actually a very attractive kind of site for the Soviet Union to try out its geopolitics,” explains Rajagopalan. The Soviet Union had a keen interest in developing relationships with post-colonial nations and having an ally in India (who was part of the Non-Aligned Movement) was something that could be very beneficial politically.
Индийским друзьям - To Indian Friends (Soviet Friendship Song) - YouTube
Both countries were incredibly diverse — both had multiple languages spoken across each country, underwent rapid industrialization, and had varying levels of literacy. In both India and the Soviet Union, cinema played a pivotal role in uniting an incredibly diverse population and creating a sense of national identity. Cinema served a medium in which both nations could find common ground and foster a growing political relationship.
Nargis, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar in scene from Andaz
The idea was that this would be a cultural exchange between the two nations. The Soviet Union would import Indian films, and India would import the same number of Soviet films. The USSR could spread its cultural influence into India and fill movie screens within the USSR at the same time. In 1954, the Soviet Union took a big step towards this artistic partnership by hosting an Indian film festival in Moscow. “It was a huge event in the beginning of the 50s because of the Indian films came to Russia,” remembers Kirill Razlogov. The festival marked the debut of a Bollywood film in the USSR called Awaara, which translates to “the vagabond.” It was the highest grossing film in the Soviet Union that year selling over 63 million tickets.
Awaara - Old Hindi Classic Movie Promo - Trailer - YouTube
Awaara and other Indian films became huge for Soviet audiences. After that first film festival in Moscow, the film’s star Raj Kapoor quickly became a huge celebrity throughout the Soviet Union. “Truck drivers had a photo of Raj Kapoor on their windshields next to Stalin,” recalls Anton Seyduzov, a former resident of Uzbekistan.
Raj Kapoor in Russia and wishing everyone Happy New Year - YouTube
Raj Kapoor became a kind of cultural ambassador between the two countries. When he visited Moscow for the first time in 1956 he spoke about the ways in which movies could bring their countries closer together and even hearkened back to Lenin’s original vision of what cinema could accomplish.
Indian actors visit Russia: Rare Footage of Raj Kapoor and the birth of Awara cult status in Russia - YouTube
At the peak of the Soviet Union’s Bollywood craze, the movie theaters were constantly showing Indian films, with at least half of the movie theaters playing Indian movies. Even the soundtracks to these films became popular. “Neighbors in the apartment complex at my family lived were playing Indian songs on their vinyls from 6:00 AM till practically midnight […] sometimes the same song over and over again,” says Seyduzov.
It’s hard to say exactly why Bollywood became such a phenomenon in the Soviet Union, but part of the reason is that they offered something you simply couldn’t find in Soviet films. “You do not see the kind of unbridled personal emotion that you see in Indian cinema,” explains Rajagopalan. Bollywood films are known for exaggerated and melodramatic displays of emotion and romantic love that you simply could not find in Soviet cinema. It was something different and exciting.
Bollywood Romance | Top 5 Bollywood Romantic Scenes and Movies | - YouTube
But it wasn’t just that Bollywood felt exotic and different. The exuberant sentimentality was certainly unfamiliar, but there was also something deeply relatable at the core of Indian cinema. Indian and Soviet films were both often about self-sacrifice, a world divided into good vs. evil, and class struggle. Rajagopalan conducted a number of interviews of Indian film fans in the former Soviet Union, and a lot of them pointed to something that we don’t quite have a word for in English — the “dusha.”
India-Soviet Friendship Poster
“A lot of Russians would say to me we used to watch Indian movies and our “dushas” they matched, and the dusha is the Russian word for ‘soul,’” explains Rajagopalan, “So the dusha that the Russians like to talk about their soul is one that endures — it has been through hard histories but […] it’s resilient it’s kind of spiritual in that sense of not being attached to material pursuits.”
Video Killed the Bollywood Star
Raj Kapoor on the stamp of India (2001)
Bollywood films played on theater screens in the USSR right up until the later years of the Soviet Union, but by the 1980s, a new technology changed this special cinematic relationship forever. With the proliferation of the VCR and VHS, Soviet audiences had more control over what they could watch — and what they wanted to watch were bootleg Hollywood films. “The end of the Soviet Union coincided with the new era of VHS,” says Anton Seyduzov, “and that’s exactly when Arnold and Stallone on the completely removed Raj Kapoor and other Indian actresses from the screens of ordinary Soviet audiences.”
the thing carpenter 1982 scene with the dogs (russian dub) - YouTube
In the final years of the USSR rather than watching Shree 420 or Seeta and Geeta, a lot of people preferred watching bootleg videos of Conan the Barbarian and Rambo. And when the Soviet Union collapsed, American film and television quickly flooded the market. But Bollywood isn’t totally gone. There’s still a channel on Russian TV that broadcasts Indian movies and television shows 24 hours a day. And Awaara is still a classic in many parts of the former Soviet Union.
HAVAS guruhi. Kakhramon."Awara Hoon.Uzbekistan (2017)" - YouTube
A Different Kind of Exchange
Given the fact that this cinematic relationship was supposed to be a 1-1 exchange between India and the Soviet Union, one would expect that Soviet films would be just as popular in India. That wasn’t the case at all. “We never watched any Russian film in India in those in those years,” remembers Deepa Bhasthi.
Stalker - Andrei Tarkovsky (trailer for 2017 new restoration) - YouTube
Unlike Indian films, which were widely beloved in all parts of the USSR, Soviet films were just not popular in India. Indian movie theaters weren’t great at distributing Soviet movies, and when they did, they often screened them late at night when no one would even want to go see a movie. Soviet films just didn’t have the same mainstream appeal as Indian films did in the USSR.
But even though Soviet film never really took off in India, the goal of a two-way cultural exchange wasn’t a total failure, it just took another form. The USSR made Soviet literature widely available all over India. Russian classics, science and technology books, children’s books, and textbooks were translated in multiple Indian languages and available at incredibly low prices. “There were several generations of Indians who grew up on these books,” says Deepa Bhasthi, “We had everything from Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dostoevsky you know although all the greats of Russian literature.”
Soviet book collection in India. Photo by Deepa Bhasthi
Deepa Bhasthi grew up and became a writer, and she believes she owes a lot to growing up surrounded by Russian literature. And although the original intention behind getting Soviet literature in India or Indian films into the Soviet Union was a form of propaganda, Bhasthi says she doesn’t see it that way. “It was you know literature for itself to be enjoyed because it has great writing. I don’t think anyone’s going to […] remember a politician’s speech, but you talk about books or you talk about cinema, you talk about music and that stays with you possibly for the rest of your life.”
This past fall, hundreds of people gathered at The Explorer’s Club in New York City. The building was once a clubhouse for famed naturalists and explorers. Now it’s an archive of ephemera and rarities from pioneering expeditions includings treks to the north pole, the moon and the world’s tallest mountains. But this latest gathering was held to celebrate the first biological census of its kind –an effort to count all of the squirrels in New York City’s Central Park.
Squirrel in Central Park. Photo by acca-67 (CC BY-SA 2.0)
New York’s eastern grey squirrels are so much a part of the urban fabric that for a long time, it never occurred to anyone to study urban squirrels at all, which are everywhere today but were absent just a few centuries back.
'Squirrel Census' aims to count every squirrel in Central Park. Seriously. - YouTube
The Exotic Squirrel
“[In] the mid 19th century,” explains historian Etienne Benson, “you could walk through a place like Boston or Philadelphia or Manhattan and you would not see a single squirrel,” Benson says cities of the early 19th century were almost entirely squirrel-free. You could really only find squirrels if you left the city and ventured deep into the woods.
Boston Common, October 25th, 1848
In fact, squirrels were considered so elusive that the very wealthy liked to keep them as exotic pets. In 1856, an article in the New York Times described how one such pet escaped from its owners home in Manhattan. When it was discovered in a tree, a crowd of people gathered in amazement, trying to lure it down.
The squirrels that we all take for granted as we walk through the park or on our way to the gym or the office are only there because we put them there. Squirrels were intentionally put into parks where they were fed and sheltered.
In 1847, Philadelphia became the first city we know of to introduce squirrels. Like many eastern seaboard cities at that time, it was already a highly urban environment. People yearned for a taste of the wilderness that the squirrel was seen to embody. Eastern grey squirrels were captured from forested areas and brought into the city. A few other east coast cities followed suit, but the number of squirrels was small. Philadelphia had only three, which were given shelter and a fence so they could stay safe from predators in their little squirrel home.
This trial run unfortunately did not go so well for the squirrels. The cities of the 19th century just didn’t have the kind of green space and tree cover we see today and the squirrels needed trees for food. A wild squirrel requires deciduous, nut-bearing plants, like oak trees, in order to survive. The feed provided by the city often proved to be either insufficient or nutritionally worthless, so those first squirrels either died off or were sold as pets.
In the late 19th century, city green spaces like New York’s were undergoing a transformation. These public spaces had been multi-purpose fields used for everything from cattle grazing to slaughterhouses and militia training, but they were becoming spaces of leisure. Cities were beautifying. But even more critically, parks were being designed to mimic the natural world.
Aerial view of Central Park in 1938
Designers like Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead pushed parks like Central Park and Prospect Park in New York in a new direction. “They were working with the existing geology and hydrology,” says naturalist Gabriel Willow, who specializes in animal species that live in urban environments. “They took naturally existing small ponds or marshy areas and made lakes out of them.” They also chose to keep the area’s dramatic rocky outcroppings instead of blasting them away, which is what had been done with the rest of the city’s grid.
These new natural-looking parks were filled with hedges, lakes, streams, and critically: oak trees. In turn, these oak trees provided plenty of acorns for squirrels. It was in this landscape in 1859 that the squirrels were reintroduced. Within a few years, what started out as just a few dozen squirrels roaming about soon become an uncountable horde (by 1920, rough guesses would put the number as high as 5000). In Central Park and beyond, squirrels became as commonplace as the leaves on the oak trees in which they built their nests. As this new approach to urban parkland spread to other cities, the idea of populating them with squirrels traveled, too.
The More Than Human Community
Eastern grey squirrels were introduced again to places like Philadelphia and New Haven as well as West Coast cities like Seattle, Vancouver and San Francisco. North American squirrels were also introduced overseas to England, Italy, Australia, and South Africa. These squirrels also weren’t just benefiting from this new, lush environment in itself. At the time, people considered their our moral obligation to feed them. “Up until the early 20th century,” explains Benson, “the dominant way of understanding the proper relationship between humans and animals in the city is centered on charity. It’s centered on the idea that humans have an obligation, a responsibility to create a friendly welcoming environment for certain kinds of animals to flourish” — at least: certain kinds of animals.
John James Audubon’s account of bird species refers to the “bloodthirsty hawk” and “rascally raven.” People would hunt birds of prey because they were considered “mean.” Meanwhile, other animals like pigeons and squirrels were considered peaceful. More than that, they interacted with humans. In terms of the thinking of the times, the sight of an undomesticated animal not only approaching but effectively communicating by soliciting food was a sign of its civilized nature.
This collective experience of solicitation and charity and civilized discourse between humans and birds and squirrels was eventually articulated in a name: the “more than human community.” This model really worked out for the squirrels. By the late 19th and early 20th century, squirrels had everything they needed to thrive and multiply. They had nuts, trees and humans feeding them extra food while also killing off a lot of their natural predators.
As the 19th century led into the 20th, squirrels were busy spreading out and enjoying the largesse of cities and suburbs and leafy college campuses. No one stopped to wonder if there could be such a thing as too many squirrels, which might have been a mistake.
Attacking the Grid
Security expert Matthew Harper worries about an ongoing attack against the power grid being led by squirrels. “In the case of the utility infrastructure, it’s not nation-state actors, it’s the humble squirrel that’s causing most of the issues.” By some estimates, one-quarter of all power outages are squirrel-related.
Grey squirrel on a power line by Tony Alter (CC BY 2.0)
Squirrels need to build nests, and they usually build those nests in trees, but they also build them in anything that looks like a tree, like utility poles or transformers. A squirrel’s incisor teeth never stop growing, so they have to chew to keep them filed down. They mostly chew bark and branches and nuts, but they also chew things like power cables. So inevitably some unlucky squirrel will gnaw through the insulation of a powerline or step on two exposed wires at the same time. The circuit is ruined and the poor squirrel loses its little life.
To keep track of all these outages, Matthew Harper runs a (slightly tongue-in-cheek) website called Cyber Squirrel One, which tracks all major squirrel related power outages, and there’s no shortages of incidents.
In November of 2018, a single roving squirrel knocked out three substations in Upstate New York, causing a string of power outages for more than 12,000 people.There was a case in 2009 where a squirrel impacted 55,000 people in Canada. Squirrels have also shut down colleges, shopping malls and polling stations on election day.
The most memorable incident, however, happened in December of 1987. In the 1980s, the New York Stock Exchange controlled 85% of the world’s stocks, but there was also a new rival exchange in town chipping away at their market share: the Nasdaq. The Nasdaq was an automated exchange that ran on computers. It didn’t need traders, so the 4000 traders on the floor or NYSE — who made trades in person, by hand — hated it. So at least some people had cause for celebration when the system ran into a serious issue.
For 82 minutes, on December 9th, 1987, Nasdaq was offline, losing an estimated 20 million trades, all of which was later traced back to a squirrel. This creature had chewed through a powerline in Connecticut from which the Nasdaq drew its electricity.
America’s squirrels have also been wreaking havoc overseas. In Great Britain, the eastern grey squirrels introduced in 1876 quickly began to displace the native red squirrel, driving it to near extinction. Now there’s only a few small pockets of red squirrels left in northern England and Scotland. This despite a massive eradication campaign to keep the American invaders out of the Scottish highlands. In Europe, they’re officially an invasive species.
The Ecological Model
Even as Americans squirrels were taking out shopping malls and stock exchanges and invading foreign countries, the very things that had allowed them to proliferate in the first place were slowly being taken away.
Starting in the mid-20th century, ecologists, wildlife managers and park officials started to re-examine America’s approach to wildlife. They began to argue that predators like coyotes and hawks should no longer be hunted for the sake of a more than human community.
In this new ecological model, the ideal environment was no longer one that corresponded to notions of civilized versus uncivilized species, but one in which a variety of species (both predator and prey) maintained a natural population balance with only minimal human intervention.
Stubert the squirrel in Minneapolis, MN, image by Kurt Kohlstedt
It took a few decades for this idea to spread from the national parks into the cities, but by the 1980s it had arrived. A variety of species that prey on squirrels, like hawks, now are a regular part of the urban landscape in places like New York City, and feeding squirrels has no place in the new ecological model. Providing bread and other unnatural foods can lead to a variety of health problems. And acclimating squirrels to hand-feeding can make them overly dependent on humans and possibly prone to unstable population booms.
Team Ecology vs. Team Fat Squirrel
The New York City Parks Department is currently proposing a rule change that would make it illegal to feed any wild animal in the parks. No human-to-animal feeding, period. Not everyone is on board. At a recent hearing, several dedicated squirrel- and bird-feeders spoke up against the ban.
Different people provided different arguments for why feeding should continue, and exactly what impacts the blanket ban would have on wildlife populations is unclear, but regardless of the ecological impact, the biggest takeaway from the debate over the ban is that the concept of the “more than human community” has never fully gone away.
Naturalist Gabriel Willow believes there is a different way to connect to these animals — by keeping a respectful distance, we can observe and appreciate behaviors that we don’t get to witness when we invite a squirrel to eat out of our hand.
There’s more than one way to connect to the animals with whom we share our cities. Whether it’s listening to the yipping of coyotes in the middle of the night, setting up a webcam for the hawk nest outside your window, or counting all the squirrels in central park. In March, Jamie Allen and the other team members of the squirrel census finished gathering their data. They plan to reveal the squirrel abundance number in June.
As technologies evolved, early wood building blocks gave way to modular Lincoln Logs, interconnected Tinker Toys and plastic LEGO bricks that snap together, each representing a flexible world of creative potential. Each of these, though, was largely independent of the others, at least until the Free Universal Construction Kit, a nifty system which quite literally ties them all together.
Per its designers, different building sets should be able to “talk to one another,” allowing for creative interplay. Their solution is a series of adapter pieces that allow K’Nex to link with LEGO, Zoob to live alongside Lincoln Logs and other classic and modern construction kits to connect with one another directly.
From a technical perspective, 3D printing lets interested parents (or adult players) download plans for these connectors and print them on open-source personal manufacturing devices. The interplay between these systems is about more than just making complex constructions — different toys lend themselves to different forms. Some of these sets (like LEGO), for instance, are suited to more architectural constructions while others (like Zoob) naturally lead to more organic creations.
“The Free Universal Construction Kit is a collection of nearly 80 adapter bricks that enable complete interoperability between ten popular children’s construction toys,” explain its creators. “By allowing any piece to mate with any other, the Kit encourages totally new forms of intercourse between otherwise closed systems — enabling … the creation of heretofore impossible designs.” The system hints at a larger strategy of filling in gaps between worlds of constructive play, allowing all kinds of things to “play together” in new ways.
As author and architecture critic Alexandra Lange points out in her book The Design of Childhood, many construction toys have evolved over time from durable objects of free play to ones with prescribed processes and limited products (like a highly organized LEGO set with highly specific plans). Viewed in this light, systems like the Universal Construction Kit offer a potential way back toward a more open-ended creative process, where children can find (or even make new) connections between endless arrays of modular pieces. For fans of toy history, too, there may be an opportunity in this system to educate kids about more intangible connections between past and present modes of play, linking old and new toys both physically and conceptually.
Even if you don’t recognize a Noguchi table by name, you’ve definitely seen one. In movies or tv shows when they want to show that a lawyer or art dealer is really sophisticated, they put a Noguchi table in their waiting room. Since it was introduced in 1948, it’s become one of the emblems of mid-century industrial design.
Isamu Noguchi was a sculptor, but he was so much more than that. “Choreographers and fashion designers and art directors and a whole lot of different people across a really wide creative swath look to Noguchi as a point of inspiration,” says senior curator of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation, Dakin Hart.
Isamu Noguchi seated in Basket Chair. Courtesy of the archives of The Noguchi Museum.
Noguchi built his studio in Queens to house a lifetime of his abstract, evocative experiments in stone and metal. Hart says Noguchi was challenging himself with every sculpture. In his later work, Noguchi’s sculptures seem to twist and balance on themselves, undulating with form and texture.
Isamu Noguchi in his studio at work on Bust of E.H. Scott, 1924.Collection of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. Courtesy of the archives of The Noguchi Museum.
Back in the 1930s, before Noguchi had a signature museum and namesake coffee table, he was a struggling young artist in New York City. He paid the bills by sculpting busts of wealthy people. Noguchi called it “head busting,” and did this type of work to make a little money and also build up his social contacts. Noguchi was as great a networker as he was a sculptor, but head busting wasn’t exactly fulfilling. He wanted to think bigger.
He started to think of a concept for a giant public sculpture, and in his mind, it took the form of a massive pyramid. Try to Imagine a cross between a Mayan temple and a mountain. It pushes out of the earth with a long slide sloping down with steps on two of its faces. Essentially, it’s like an asymmetrical Egyptian step-pyramid. Noguchi thought of it as a playground, and he called it Play Mountain.
This giant ziggurat wouldn’t come with any specific instructions. It would have no rules and no single obvious way to play with it. Noguchi wanted Play Mountain to be a strange new landscape that would dare children to imagine other realities so that perhaps they could grow up into creative, open-minded adults. In fact, the concept for Play Mountain started for Noguchi when he was a little boy.
Isamu Noguchi was born in Los Angeles in 1904. His father Yone Noguchi was a famous Japanese poet and his mother was a White American writer named, Leonie Gilmour. Soon after Isamu was born, his father abandoned the family and went back to Japan. Noguchi and his mother eventually followed, but by that point, Noguchi’s father had already started a new family. Leonie and Isamu Noguchi ended up moving to a countryside town called Chigasaki. Noguchi’s bright blue eyes marked him as an outsider to the other kids at school, so his childhood was pretty lonely. But from their little house, Noguchi had a great view of Mt. Fuji just like a perfect little pyramid. “…Imagine taking Mt. Fuji and turning it into a giant play structure, I think that’s what Play Mountain was,” describes Hart.
Noguchi even wrote: “Play Mountain was my response based upon memory of my own unhappy childhood — the desolate playground on a cliff in Tokyo which I approached with dread. It may be that this is how I tried to join the city, New York. To belong.” Noguchi wanted to move the mountain from his lonely childhood and re-incarnate it as a place for gathering and playing as a gift to the children of New York City.
The Master Builder
In 1934, Noguchi got a meeting with Robert Moses, who was the newly appointed Commissioner of the New York City Parks Department. Moses had said his number one priority was to build more playgrounds in the city, which at the time had very few.
Robert Moses with Battery Bridge model (1938)
The playgrounds Moses envisioned were simple — asphalt or dirt surrounded by a chain link fence, with the Four S’s of playground equipment: swings, slide, sandbox, seesaw – all made out of steel. Moses was planning to just plonk these generic playgrounds in vacant lots all over the city by the hundreds. Noguchi’s massive, ambiguous, otherworldly urban mountain, would have required the movement of huge amounts of earth and concrete and probably would have cost a ton of money, so Noguchi’s play mountain was rejected.
The concept of Play Mountain remained very close to Noguchi’s heart. As Noguchi himself wrote, “Play mountain was the Kernel out of which have grown all my ideas relating sculpture to the earth.” It represented this idea that Noguchi had — that children didn’t need instructions to play. With swings or a slide, there’s only one way to use them and kids just do the same prescribed activities over and over again. If you give children an abstract, surreal landscape, they will be able to interpret it however they want. This philosophy would later be called “non-directive play.” Noguchi never gave up on his design theory of non-directive play, but by then the year is 1941, and things are about to change.
Executive Order 9066
Noguchi was in California visiting a friend when he first heard the radio announcement that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor. With the U.S. entering WWII, contoured playgrounds were forgotten by both the Parks Department and Noguchi because there were bigger stakes now.
The Only Live News Report from the Attack on Pearl Harbor - YouTube
Two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which gives the American military the right to declare martial law in any part of the country that it deems necessary to protect the homeland, which meant that Japanese and Japanese Americans in the western part of the United States would be rounded up and removed from their homes.
Noguchi wanted to assist in the situation, so he went to Washington D.C. to find a man named John Collier to help. Collier was the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Because the government needed to build internment camps in large, open areas of federally controlled land, they decided to build two of them on Native American Reservations. This meant that the actual undertaking of building and administering these camps would fall to John Collier’s department.
John Collier was a relatively progressive person. He wanted to give tribal governments more autonomy, protect tribal land, help build economic stability, and support Native American culture. And then suddenly he had been given the task of designing and building prison camps on reservation land. Noguchi reached out to him to talk about what they could do with this assignment since there was no way to prevent internment from happening.
Their idea was to try to turn this into a kind of utopian project. If internment was going to happen, they were going to try to make it as good as it could be. Noguchi drew up a suite of plans for the largest of the camps being built in Poston, AZ. Noguchi took the rigid grid of a military-style camp, with rows and rows of tarpaper barracks, and cut an avenue right down the middle of it, lined with public services: schools, gardens, hospitals, restaurants, a department store, a movie theater, a church, and of course, playgrounds.
Japanese internees holding their first religious services meeting at the Poston Center.
Noguchi and Collier decided that Noguchi should actually go to this concentration camp in Poston Arizona, voluntarily, and live there while he carried out his plan. The camp was being constructed in the middle of the desert, in the southwestern part of Arizona, on the Colorado River Indian Reservation.
Construction of the Poston War Relocation Authority Center
As soon as the camp opened, it became clear that the people weren’t coming there for an idyllic new lifestyle because they were prisoners. To the camp administrators from the War Relocation Authority, Noguchi looked just like another one of the internees. Also, because he had some special privileges, the other internees assumed he was a traitor in cahoots with the camp administrators.
“He immediately realized he was sort of the worst of both worlds. Because he was just an internee from the administration’s point of view, and he was a turncoat, like a spy, from the other internees’ point of view,” says Hart. After about 2 months, Noguchi realized that The War Relocation Authority had no interest in making Poston a nice place to live. Instead, they ran it like a prison camp and disregarded all of John Collier’s and Noguchi’s idealistic plans.
When Noguchi gave up on his vision to improve Poston, he realized he was unable to leave because of his identity as a Japanese American. Noguchi was suddenly a prisoner and had made enemies of internees and administrators alike. It took seven months, and many many letters and phone calls before John Collier was able to get Noguchi out for good.
This Tortured Earth
The whole experience was painful for Noguchi. His goals had been so compassionate going in. But racism and fear and bureaucracy killed those dreams and then imprisoned him. After Poston, the idea of designing public works and playgrounds must have seemed wrong somehow. How could you think about playgrounds when there’s so much cruelty in the world?
Once he was back in New York, Noguchi threw himself into the art world designing furniture and making sculptures. Noguchi stepped back from his utopian ideas about art and sculpture, and this is the period when he designed some of the things he’s most famous for today, including the iconic coffee table.
Isamu Noguchi on Time and Furniture - YouTube
But after a decade of looking inward, indulging in the art world, Noguchi turned his sights back to playgrounds. He couldn’t shake the thought that playgrounds were the perfect way for a sculptor to make real change in the world. He tried two more times to build playgrounds for New York: once in 1950 at the new UN building, another in the early 60s in Riverside Park. These plans were even more complex and strange and wonderful than the ones before, but both were ultimately killed by the city through very long, very brutal, very public battles.
But this round of rejections, something was different. Noguchi was now very famous, everyone in the art world had heard about all his rejected playground designs. His ideas had been written up in newspapers, and the models were displayed in museums. Other artists and architects began copying them and it becomes a movement of playground design called the “abstractionist” strand.
These playgrounds don’t tell you what to do. You can play with an abstract form any way you want, and imagine it as anything you like. But by the end of the 1970s, the abstract playground movement went underground because the entire world of playground design in the United States changed dramatically.
Pinched, Poked, Prodded, or Trapped
A two-year-old boy named Frank Nelson was climbing a 12-foot-tall slide in a Chicago park when he slipped through a railing and hit his head so hard that it caused permanent brain damage. The park system of Chicago was sued and had to pay out millions of dollars to Nelson’s family.
At that time, in the late 70s, there were no laws, or real industry standards when it came to the safety of playground equipment. Frank Nelson’s fall was one of a number of lawsuits that led the Consumer Product Safety Commission to publish the Handbook for Public Playground Safety in 1981. Then another standards organization, the ASTM, published its own guidelines. Pretty soon these rulebooks were in the hands of insurance companies and parks departments and school boards across the United States. To this day, almost all playgrounds have to be approved by a certified playground safety inspector.
And safety inspectors look for places where kids could fall, or get pinched, poked, or trapped. As you might imagine, all of these rules and regulations make the job of playground designers a lot harder. This is the reason why the playgrounds that you see everywhere all look more or less the same. A majority of playgrounds are “post and deck” systems with standard swings, slides, and monkey bars in one piece of equipment.
Cardboard revolutionized the packaging industry. This new material allow for the construction and distribution of cheap, light, flat-pack boxes that could be assembled and shipped on demand, enabling companies to bring distribution in-house. In parallel, though, cardboard had a less obvious but lasting impact on a sphere for which it wasn’t initially designed: the realm of creative childhood construction.
“Corrugated cardboard boxes were introduced in the 1880s, and slowly replaced wooden crates as the shipping method of choice,” explains architecture critic Alexandra Lange, author of The Design of Childhood. “As household objects grew larger, the play potential of those boxes increased …. The purchase of a new washing machine was a cause for celebration in my neighborhood as a child, as it meant access to a new playhouse in somebody’s yard,” she recalls.
The material has a lot going for it — cheap, light and malleable but strong at the same time. Its usage by kids also attracted the attention of designers focused on childhood creativity like Ray and Charles Eames. This designer duo worked on architecture, furniture, films, exhibitions and more, but time and again they revisited the creativity of childhood through the development of toys and construction kits.
Perhaps the most well-known of these today was dubbed simply “The Toy.” This was a modular system of sheets and rods and connecting wires that could be packed flat then unfolded and assembled to create play spaces for all kinds of purposes. Per the packaging, it was “Large-Colorful-Easy to Assemble-For Creating A Light, Bright Expandable World Large Enough To Play In and Around.” The Toy made it into production, but an intriguing predecessor of it didn’t — one in which the packaging itself became part of the constructive toolkit.
In the early 1950s, Ray and Charles designed a set of cardboard boxes for shipping Herman Miller interior design objects, with a clever caveat: these shipping containers could be converted into play spaces. “Printed in a colorful red and black design … the heavy cardboard carton, reinforced with wood splines, had only to be re-nailed to the bottom wood skid, after the furniture had been removed, to be made into a playhouse youngsters would love.” Dotted lines and other illustrations on the boxes would show kids how to convert them into sets of structures for play. The approach was particularly fitting, since the products designed to be packaged within these boxes were also modular ones — the theme of modularity was pervasive.
The Eameses would experiment with other forms of flat-pack design and architectural miniaturization for children, but this project went a step beyond in many ways, turning a leftover material often overlooked by adults as purely functional into something with endless creative potential in the hands of children. The design embraced “what kids and parents have long known: that the box an item comes in, especially if it’s a very large item, can be more exciting than the contents.”
It’s the crossover event you’ve all been waiting for: Reply All‘s Super Tech Support takes on an annoyingly specific technology problem involving 99% Invisible. Ben loves podcasts, but he has a problem. When he tries to listen to 99% Invisible in particular, his car stereo completely breaks. This week, Alex, PJ, and the team at Reply All try to solve one of its strangest cases — Roman Mars versus a 2016 Mazda sedan.
Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman and is a part of Gimlet Media.
If you’re experiencing the same in-car playback issues with 99% Invisible, you can find the Mazda-friendly version of our feed here, as well as Articles of Interest here!
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright had a complicated relationship with his son John, including falling outs and reconciliations along the way. While Frank Lloyd Wright became a renowned designer his son bounced around between various careers. In the end, John’s legacy was largely overshadowed by that of his dad, but he contributed something famous to the world that is still in production today: Lincoln Logs.
According to one version of this toy’s story, Lincoln Log construction sets were named after a particularly iconic past president associated with top hats, beards and a more rustic United States of America. Another version, though, suggests that the name is not a reference to Abraham but rather a subtle nod to Frank Lincoln Wright, his architect father’s birth name. Alternatively, perhaps John had both in mind when deciding what to call his modular wooden toy set. However the name came to be, the value Frank put on toys and the architectural projects the two worked on together had a lasting impression on his son.
John Lloyd Wright grew up in a household surrounded by wooden blocks and other construction toys. His mother and grandmother outfitted a giant playroom for him and his siblings in Oak Park, Illinois, exposing the youngsters to a vast collection of educational playthings. These included Froebel’s Gifts, to which his father attributed an early interest in architecture.
Frank, though, could be a challenging man to get along with, so it’s not too surprising that the two had a falling out when young John was still just a teenager. In the aftermath, John moved to California, trying out different potential careers before being drawn into drafting and architecture. A few years later, he reconnected with his father, who offered to mentor him (instead of paying for tuition).
Together, the father and son duo traveled to Japan to oversee the construction of Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, which would be a pivotal trip for John in two crucial ways. First, he would become estranged once again from his father over the issue of his salary. Second, though, he would draw inspiration from the interlocking wood joints of the hotel project, which would inform his design of Lincoln Logs. Much like the Imperial Hotel was successfully engineered to withstand earthquakes (it was one of few buildings in the city to survive the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake), these toys were crafted to be more robust playthings, easily assembled and disassembled but a bit tougher to knock over.
In 1918, John debuted this new set of modular toys. It’s impossible to say exactly how much he was influenced by his various experiences, but the design seems to incorporate the modularity of Froebelian construction toys, the stability of Japanese interlocking joinery and the aesthetics of American log cabins. Regardless, the sets were a hit, tapping into Progressive-era nostalgia and persisting through World War II. They worked well in wartime, too, when limitations on using metal for non-essential purposes were in place. In 1999, Lincoln Logs were inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.
John Lloyd Wright tried and largely failed to capitalize on his success with more toy sets. He eventually sold his toy company to Playskool in 1943 for just $800. Lincoln Logs were later owned or licensed by toy companies including Milton Bradley, Hasbro and K’NEX. Frank may forever be seen as more influential by the adult population, but many children remain more familiar with John’s popular creation.
In the late 1700s, a young man named Freidrich Froebel was on track to become an architect when a friend convinced him to pursue a path toward education instead. And in changing course, Froebel arguably ended up having more influence on the world of architecture and design than any single architect — all because Friedrich Froebel created kindergarten. If you’ve ever looked at a piece of abstract art or Modernist architecture and thought “my kindergartener could have made that,” well, that may be more true than you realize.
The Seed of an Idea
Friedrich Froebel grew up wandering the dense forests of Thuringia in what was then Prussia. He fell quite naturally into a forestry apprenticeship then worked for a time as a land surveyor. He was quite skilled at drafting and geometry, skills which would have dovetailed well with an architectural career. But he also spent time caring for and tutoring children, which led him to the teachings of Johann Pestalozzi.
An innovative educator, Pestalozzi believed children needed to engage in physical activity and active learning, not just rote memorization and repetition. He particularly emphasized the importance of drawing. Froebel worked for a time at a school based on Pestalozzi’s principles and built on what he learned there while also evolving his own ideas about the way children should be taught.
Among other things, Froebel realized he wanted kids to go beyond just drawing lines on pages — he wanted them to learn through the physical manipulation of objects. “Pestalozzi was especially busy with breaking down the two dimensional world,” explains Tamar Zinguer, author of Architecture in Play, “but what Froebel did is break down the three dimensional world.” Specifically, Froebel wanted children to play with educational toys, which was a fairly unusual notion in the early 1800s. Yet it was Froebel’s experiences outside of childhood education that would ultimately lead him to determine the shape and function of these toys.
For a time, Froebel worked with one of the world’s foremost crystallographers in Berlin — and this experience would fundamentally reshape how he understood the world. Where most people saw nature in big flowing organic shapes, like hills and plants and animals, Froebel zoomed in to study the straight lines and geometric forms of crystals. He came to see these as the building blocks of reality.
Finally, in 1837, Froebel’s experiences across different disciplines crystalized into a solid vision. At the age of 55, he founded the very first Kindergarten in Bad Blankenburg, Germany, a school for very young students.
The word Kindergarten cleverly encompassed two different ideas: kids would play in and learn from nature, but they would also themselves be nurtured and nourished “like plants in a garden.” There were literal gardens and outdoor activities, but the real key to it all was a set of deceptively simple-looking toys that became known as Froebelgaben (in English: Froebel’s Gifts).
The Gift of Observation
Images via Inventing Kindergarten and Architecture in Play
Froebel’s Gifts were meant to be given in a particular order, growing more complex over time and teaching different lessons about shape, structure and perception along the way. A soft knitted ball could be given to a child just six weeks old, followed by a wooden ball and then a cube, illustrating similarities and differences in shapes and materials. Then kids would get a cylinder (which combines elements of both the ball and the cube) and it would blow their little minds. Some objects were pierced by strings or rods so kids could spin them and see how one shapes morphs into another when set into motion. Later came cubes made up of smaller cubes and other hybrids, showing children how parts relate to a whole through deconstruction and reassembly.
These perception-oriented “Gifts” would then give way to construction-oriented “Occupations.” Kids would be told to build things out of materials like paper, string, wire, or little sticks and peas that could be connected and stacked into structures.
The final piece of this Froebelian puzzle was a block of clay. Malleable but solid, it could be shaped into virtually any form and thus allow for endless possibilities. But even with this highly flexible material, Froebel wasn’t trying to encourage the kind of creative, free and interactive play we tend to associate with childhood. He had his students sitting individually at desks — little workstations with grids laid out on them. Students were directed to make and unmake specific things according to a lesson plan.
In a very structured way, these kindergarten lessons encouraged very young students to think abstractly, and to relate ideas, objects and symbols. A set of blocks could be used to teach counting, then be turned into a house and then be used to tell the story of a family living in that house. So kindergarten students learned to model the world in fundamentally different ways while using the same set of geometric forms, arranging and rearranging them to make new connections. Froebel’s kindergartens weren’t just schools — they were art schools that taught about shape and form and color. And when kindergarten graduates went out into the world, the world changed.
“The kind of art that was being made in the 19th century is really different than the kind of art that was made after kids went to kindergarten,” explains Norman Brosterman, author of Inventing Kindergarten. Expressionist, Cubist and Surrealist artists like Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky attended early kindergartens. Others, like Piet Mondrian, encountered Froebelian methods as teachers. The resemblance of much of their work to illustrations in kindergarten teaching guides is uncanny at times. In some cases, a person might be hard-pressed to guess whether a given work was created by a kindergarten student (or teacher) or an abstract artist.
The impact also wasn’t limited to artists — kindergarten influenced designers, too. Walter Gropius’ first hire at the new Bauhaus design school was a kindergarten teacher. This world-changing educational institution had its adult design students doing geometric exercises much like those being done by kindergarteners. The effects of Froebel’s work on design education rippled out beyond Germany as well, influencing some of the world’s most famous architects.
“Frank Lloyd Wright, the American architect, is the great child of the kindergarten,” says Brosterman. “You can see the kindergarten in everything Wright ever did.” Wright was born in 1867, around the time kindergartens were gaining traction in the United States.
Wright’s mom actually took classes in kindergarten education and Wright recalled that she brought him a set of Froebel’s Gifts at a young age. This was the moment, he later claimed, when he “began to be an architect …. For several years, I sat at the little kindergarten table ruled by lines about four inches wide. The smooth cardboard triangles and maple-wood blocks were most important. All are in my fingers to this day.” Growing up, Wright took courses in engineering, but he never formally studied architecture — and he wasn’t the only one to bypass a traditional architectural education on his way to fame.
European Modernist Le Corbusier also never went to architecture school. He did, however, attend Froebelian schools in Switzerland. The gridded geometries and repeated patterns of his Modernist houses and apartment look a lot like exercises out of a kindergarten manual.
Buckminster Fuller, famous for pioneering geodesic domes, discovered his greatest engineering insight as a kindergartner while connecting Froebelian peas and sticks — nodes and rods, essentially. He couldn’t see very well, but he could feel that triangular structures were stronger. So while his fellow students build rectilinear shapes based on observation, he manually discovered the power of triangles, and built his very first space frame at a kindergarten desk.
Obviously, not everyone who attended kindergarten became a Frank Lloyd Wright or a Le Corbusier or Bucky — but the abstract lessons of kindergarten tilled and fertilized the ground so the seed of their ideas could find an audience in the world. “Abstraction was accepted fairly quickly in Europe in Paris,” notes Brosterman, “perhaps because children had already been doing a lot of the same kinds of things for many decades,” paving the way for the acceptance of Modernism.
The Seed of Destruction
In terms of 20th-century art and design, kindergarten was an absolute triumph, but Friedrich Froebel wasn’t there to see it. He only got to witness the spread of his vision for about a decade before it was cut short. In 1851, the Prussian government was cracking down on liberal thought and issued the “Kindergartenverbot” — a national ban on kindergartens — and Froebel died the very next year.
Still, while the ban slowed the expansion of kindergartens in Germany, it didn’t stop the idea from spreading elsewhere — if anything, it helped the approach spread faster. Out of a belief that women were naturally good at nurturing children, Froebel had cultivated a network of female teachers who would champion his ideas and emigrate with their knowledge to other countries. The women Froebel placed in charge of all those little budding abstract artists drew up and translated the lesson books that would be used to teach a generation of young artists and designers. By 1885, there were over 500 kindergartens in America, taught primarily by women.
The spread of kindergarten wasn’t entirely straightforward, though. Indeed, the passion of some of kindergarten’s biggest proponents is part of the reason kids today don’t grow up with Froebel’s Gifts, those objects that were integral to Froebel’s vision.
The first kindergarten in the United States was built in Watertown, Wisconsin in 1856, but it was taught in German. Educator Elizabeth Peabody was inspired by this model and went on to found America’s first English-language kindergarten in Boston a few years later.
Peabody wanted to spread the teachings of Froebel to as many children as possible, and so she reached out to Milton Bradley, the famous board game maker and business magnate. She wanted Bradley to mass-produce Froebel’s Gifts, so they could be accessible to everyone. But where Peabody saw an educational ideal, Bradley saw a business opportunity. He another manufacturers began adding new toys into the mix, trading on the popularity of the movement by calling their products “kindergarten” toys, regardless of how they fit into the Froebelian ethos. Within a few years, Peabody went from promoting the manufacture of kindergarten toys to speaking out against their proliferation: “the interest of manufacturers and of merchants of the gifts and materials is a snare. It has already corrupted the simplicity of Froebel in Europe and America, for his idea was to use elementary forms exclusively, and simple materials.” Even the word of “kindergarten” itself became a generic term — a catchall phrase for early childhood education of all different kinds.
These days, most “kindergartens” are a lot different from anything Froebel imagined, and few kids encounter those early Gifts in any kind of sequence (if at all). Still, toy blocks never really went away — “the block is this … incredibly malleable toy that can be used in all of these different ways,” says Alexandra Lange, author of The Design of Childhood. She points out that other educators like Caroline Pratt and Patty Smith Hill saw the potential for blocks to do even more, creating interaction between children beyond their isolated, gridded desks.
In some ways, all modern toy building systems reflect the influence of Froebel. Tinker Toys, Lego, Kinex — they’re all about understanding shape and form and making connections. Yet they also represent a departure from Froebel’s highly-organized and linear approach. These days, building toys are viewed more broadly as tools of the imagination — objects kids can use to assemble houses and castles and cities together, learning collaboration and creativity through construction.