Is there a form of media that compliments city living better than podcasting? Whether it keeps commuters company during a morning train ride or provides a soundtrack for a stroll through city streets, the ubiquity and portability of podcasting can make a favorite show seem like a constant companion. In a post-Serial world, when Marc Maron gets the opportunity to interview the President in his garage, there are more shows than ever. We looked back over recent episodes and broadcasts and picked out some of our favorite architecture and design podcasts of the year, ideal listening during long trips, airport delays or simply free time over the upcoming holiday break.
This immersive podcast, as much as audio poem or improv jam as a piece of broadcast journalism, excels at creating a sense of space, pulling listeners in with enveloping sound effects and clever edits. This particular show, a dive into the meaning and mechanics of the metropolis, starts with a simple framing device—how fast do people walk in different cities?—and spirals out into a larger look at urbanity. The diversity of voices from across the world counting steps and measuring walking speeds acts as a chorus, suggesting just how much city dwellers from Mumbai to Manhattan have in common.
"Rajneeshpuram": 99 Percent Invisible
Fans of this pioneering design podcast usually have a difficult time choosing just a single episode to recommend: the story of how shipping containers reshaped modern commerce, the twisted and revealing tale of a firearms heiress and her mysterious, ever-growing mansion, or a look at Portland's obsession with its airport carpet were all namechecked by Curbed staff, and frankly, just about anything Roman Mars has done is worth a listen. In this episode, the city on a hill concept gets a modern spin with this absorbing tale of an Indian philosopher and mystic inspiring his legions of followers to build their own city in rural Oregon.
"Pipe Dreams": The Distance
Sponsored by the productivity software company Basecamp, this podcasts zeros in on the stories of small, family-run businesses and their unique formulas for success. This episode examines an eclectic quest to build a pipe organ in an massive industrial warehouse. It's an quixotic project fueled by a belief that a new facility can make a difference in the community.
"Corita's Legacy": DnA Design and Architecture
While Andy Warhol's iconic repurposing of consumer iconography and famous photos often stands as the popular face of pop art, an unlikely contemporary, a California nun with an eye for striking graphic design, found a calling in culturejamming with Christian and capitalist symbols. KCRW's regular design podcast examined the lesser-known life story of Corita Kent, who blended faith and a belief in the transformative nature of art to create some of the most powerful art of her era.
Such Watch: The Observatory
Design Observer has long been a definitive source for design news and opinion, and this matchup of two key figures, graphic designer Michael Beirut and writer and educator Jessica Helfand, allows two experts to dish about and dissect the latest design news. The show forms an excellent companion to Debbie Millman's excellent interview show, which pairs her effervescent personality up with a leading figure in the graphic design, branding and strategy world.
Children of Genius: U.S. Modernist Radio
Genial hosts George Smart and Frank King may be modern architecture's closest facsimile to a radio morning crew. Their podcast bounces between iconic topics, from Louis Kahn to the Cyclorama, and contemporary concerns, such as how agents approach selling modernist homes or a look Snohetta, will an informed yet informal manner, sparking engaging conversations miles away from dry, dull discourse. This particular episode, which invited Susan Saarinen and Raymond Neutra, to talk about their famous fathers and family life with an architectural icon, offers numerous personal insights and engaging stories, which you'll find throughout the show's run.
Architectural Fight Club: Archispeak
Spurred on by recent articles discussing architecture's crisis of confidence, this episode dives into the disconnect between esoteric modern buildings and avant-garde design and the general public, and how the profession should reconnect with those it professes to serve. It's a worthy discussion on an issue that doesn't appear to be disappearing anytime soon.
Design Legacy: Section D
Part of the Monocle Network, which also produces The Urbanist, an equally sophisticated show about urban living, this program covers developments across disciplines, a news source as refined as the upbeat theme music. The best episode of the show may be the last, because the program's worldwide reach gives listeners insight into recent shows, developments and design fairs around the world. It's the BBC of design news podcasts (if you're looking for something a little more edgy and less formal, Studio Audience, featuring the staff of It's Nice That, delivers a more raucous roundtable).
Bonus Podcasts for Your Airport Layover: "The Sunshine Hotel" and Sandhogs: 99 Percent Invisible
"Chicago Plays Itself": A Lot You Got to Holler
We've already given 99 Percent Invisible respect for bringing inspiring original stories of design history to the radio. But the show also gives other shows, producers and documentarians time in the spotlight, rebroadcasting some of the staff's favorite productions. These two episodes give voice to the characters who help make our cities so lively and unique. Walking across New York's Lower East Side today, past hipster barber shops fronting speakeasies and high-end coffee shops, it's hard to visualize the neighborhood pre-gentrification, a time just a few decades ago when the streets were more rough, raw and unrefined. The charming radio documentary "Sunshine Hotel," narrated by the owner of a since-closed single-room-occupancy hotel, features the voices of the eclectic tenants who shifted through this colorful halfway house, their accents, troubles and triumphs creating a portrait of a loosely aligned, fiercely loyal urban tribe. "Sandhogs" talks to the roughhewn transit workers who dig out subway tunnels. Transit and trains stations, the circulatory system of many cities, form the backdrop of many stories of urban life. Not surprisingly, the stories of those who helped thread our cities together are just as intriguing. And, if you're a Chicagoan or familiar with the city and its cinematic history, a new podcast by local alt-weekly Newcity looks at the legacy of Ferris Bueller, John Hughes, and other famous films through the lens of architecture and design.