Nov 22, 2017
THEME: Point of View

“This American Life” on Design: My Top 8

At Perkins+Will, we have a thousand reasons to love Chicago. For starters, all the best firms are headquartered there. Then there’s Neocon, which is basically Fashion Week for commercial interior designers. Or how about since 1987, winning the Pritzker Prize has meant receiving a medallion with ornamentation inspired by Louis Sullivan, Chicago’s native son. I could go on.

But I don’t think architecture is where Chicago’s greatest value lies.

I think Chicago’s gift to the world is “This American Life, the WBEZ-produced radio show.

Years ago, looking for individual stimulation in the vacuum of an open office, This American Life stories became the soundtrack to my workday. More than once I’ve had to apologize to my coworkers for out-of-control laughter during certain stories (Episode 577, Act 2 Mom Jokes). And at other moments, I’ve quietly wiped away tears (Episode 241, Act 20 The Greatest Moment I Ever Saw on a Stage). This American Life is continually a surprise and a delight. It educates, it touches, and I will never get enough.

Early on, impatient for new episodes, I began listening through all 23 years of This American Life—that’s 629 episodes, as of this writing. I’ve heard deceased contributors come back to life to retell their stories. I’ve heard Ira Glass’s voice mellow with age. I’ve listened to my childhood through the eyes of grownups, and delighted in the regression from “download our program online” to “if you’d like to purchase a CD of our show” and “for a cassette tape of this or any of our programs.” I once listened to a 2017 David Sedaris interview on PBS Newshour followed by 1996 David Sedaris monologue on This American Life, marveling at his enduring creativity—and at how Ira Glass saw Sedaris’s genius even before the Macarena was a thing. This program goes beyond telling American stories, it has become an American story.

Because you are the kind of busy person who somehow hasn’t made the time for 600-plus episodes, I give to you the most Chicago playlist of 2017: my top eight TAL “acts,” specifically for lovers of design and architecture.

8. Episode 309: Cat & Mouse
Act 3 Looking for Loveseats in All the Wrong Places
If you are a practicing designer, you’ve probably had an Eric as a client. If you are particularly, uh, particular about design, you may actually be Eric.

7. Episode 69: Dream House
Act 1 Meema’s Adventure
The story of an architect who built many homes, but never his own—and how the epic project has affected his children’s perception of their childhood.

6. Episode 141: Invisible Worlds
Act 3 Able To Leap Tall Buildings
On the complexity and beauty of all the urban infrastructure we’ll never see.

5. Episode 293: A Little Bit Of Knowledge
And you thought you knew something about Moorish architecture!

4. Episode 307: In the Shadow of the City
Act 3 Yes, In My Backyard
Air quality is a huge concern for urban designers and architects. This story features the kind of pollution we typically don’t worry so much about.

3. Episode 30: Beaded Kitchen Liza Lou
Act 4 Heroic Obsessions
On a crafty obsession and what keeps someone working on a project for five-plus years.

2. Episode 565: Lower 9 & 10 New Orleans
Act 5 Fifth Stop
These days, there’s a lot of discussion around resilience—the ability of structures and communities to recover from natural disasters. But after natural disasters lay waste to an area, revitalization efforts inevitably lead to fears of gentrification. This episode from 2015 weaves all that into the stories of the people from the Lower 9th and 10th wards of New Orleans. Listen to all six acts, if you can.

1. Lost Buildings
Produced by This American Life, this special never aired on the radio, so it’s a bit of a cheat. But it’s just too great not to mention. It’s the charming story of a young champion of historic preservation who ditches school during the 1960s and 70s to explore Chicago’s abandoned structures.

Presumably, some entries on this list will be superseded by others as time goes by. As Ira would say, stay with us.


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