Architecture, you might think, cannot be made sense of without visual aids. After all, imagine an architectural history lecture minus the slides. What are you even left with?
Plenty. Strip away their aesthetic gloss, and buildings become repositories of personal and historical narratives, sites of political struggle, and nuclei for experimental living. The following podcasts bear this out. Compared with mainstream programs like 99% Invisible, Frances Anderton’s DnA, or The Curbed Appeal, they may seem a little niche. But they are well worth your time.
Failed Architecture: A Podcast on Architecture and the Real World
Failure gets a bad rap. For example, Silicon Valley shibboleths about the purported instructiveness of failure only serve to foreground the indomitable entrepreneurial instinct that, no doubt, lies deep down in each and every one of us. (Except, of course, in the inveterate lazybones or unlucky underprivileged.) Taken along these lines, failure becomes exclusively personal and purely instrumental. Neither applies to this podcast, which, by taking architecture as its overarching medium, necessarily implicates broad swathes of people, classes, and entire social projects. Or, as the podcast’s subtitle contends, the real world. What appear to be discrete tales about the failure of architecture—say, a modernist housing estate in the suburbs of Amsterdam—actually accrue to a wider narrative about the architecture of failure. But lest the stated outlook appear overly glum, there are moments of optimism, as in a recent pod about current union drives within architecture firms.
Suggested episodes: “Modernism Distorted: Selling Utopia From Kleiburg to Keeling House”; “Architects Unionise!”
The motto for this contradictorily named, leftist podcast (or more accurately, radio show) should be “the fight continues.” What fight and where? Within architecture? Who are its prosecutors, and what are their demands? And how might I (or you) join in? The struggle, it turns out, is broad, encompassing union efforts by architects, community organizing, and agitating for a green stimulus package. Host Keefer Dunn is a member of both The Architecture Lobby and the Democratic Socialists of America. And in the big-tent spirit of those organizations, Dunn does not impose an ideological line on his listeners or guests, which have included Billy Fleming, director of the McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and Ann Lui, director of Future Firm. Quite the opposite of the sectarian, Dunn is an exceedingly affable presence and often self-deprecating. As he admitted, self-critically, in a recent episode, “The show has become, by accident, entirely about Green New Deal stuff. Green New Deal and unionizing architecture. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Suggested episodes: “Episode 36 – March 24, 2020”; “Episode 26 – March 16, 2019”
The conceit is simple: Each week, a writer, journalist, or historian launches into a 10-minute spiel about their new book. But what appears to be a monologue is actually a series of fragments, cunningly spliced together and hemmed in by musical blips and bloops, which cut through the otherwise intense sobriety of the recordings. A few words from producer David Huber serve as an outro. In 30+ episodes, the format has never once varied—nor has the timbre of Huber’s Standard American English, which spurns the vocal fry characteristic of his podcasting cohort—and that commitment to formality is, indeed, part of the appeal. In addition to the professionalism Huber brings to the series is an unimpeachable sense of taste. The selection of authors never privileges disciplinary standing (you’ll find mercifully few feted academics among the roster of guests), but rather seems predicated on the substance of their research and writing. Which, in a better world, is how things would be.
Suggested episodes: “Architecture in Global Socialism by Łukasz Stanek”; “After Geoengineering by Holly Jean Buck”
Designer/writer Jarrett Fuller’s charm and evident dedication to this project—which emerged out of an MFA thesis—are infectious. One gets the feeling that Fuller is a good drinking buddy. He’s gracious to every one of his guests, never rushing them and always signaling recognition, approval, or surprise with an audible chuckle, yeah!, or hm-hmm. While his manner is relentlessly relaxed, he isn’t a sounding board, and he always seems to steer conversations toward a particularly interesting anecdote or punctum. Fuller also evinces an appreciable concern for criticism—all forms, but especially that of the designed environment—a mood that is reflected in his choice of guests: Alexandra Lange, Kate Wagner, Olly Wainwright, Mimi Zeiger, and Edwin Heathcote have all made appearances.
Suggested episodes: “Alexandra Lange”; “Kate Wagner”; “Henry N. Cobb”
Prosody and cadence being loosely reliable indicators about one’s inner life, it seems as though host Matthew Blunderfield was using this self-described “interview project” to work through a few things. As an interviewer, his questions can be tinged with feelings of doubt, expectation, and appreciation, and he sometimes draws the very same qualities out in his guests. Like a few other podcasts on this list, Scaffold luxuriates in biographical detail, which can be both pro and con, depending on the interlocutor. So from Barbara Penner, a historian of bathrooms, among other architectural subjects, we learn about her personal past with psychoanalytic study, and from writer Geoff Manaugh, the thrill of blogging about architecture in a pre-Dezeen (prelapsarian?) world.
Suggested episodes: “Barbara Penner”; “Geoff Manaugh”; “Shumi Bose”
One for the theory heads out there, this “casual, unscripted, and intimate” podcast never feels as impromptu as its self-description makes out. That has mostly to do with host Marikka Trotter, an architectural historian and theorist teaching at SCI-Arc, who is ruminative yet still conversational, exhibiting an enviable power of ratiocination from moment to moment. The dialogues often skew toward obliqueness—“slippery interfaces” are invoked—and some of the rhetorical prompts inadvertently skirt the edge of bong-rip speculation. (“What happens when you zoom into a line so much that it starts to act like a volume? Or what happens when you zoom out so far away from a volume that it starts to seem like a point?”) Even so, Trotter manages to ground all the airy conjecture in concrete projects and proposals.
Suggested episodes: “Lines”; “Roughness”
In this educational podcast, hosts Luke Jones and George Gingell bring a theater-kidlike enthusiasm to that most arid of subjects—architectural historiography. To be sure, the show, among the slickest on this list, assumes a certain familiarity on the part of its listeners with various –isms of style or the twists and turns taken by postwar discourse (and also…the village churches of England). This somewhat high bar notwithstanding, Jones and Gingell are ideal guides to such abstruse texts as Aldo Rossi’s The Architecture of the City and to such bombastic characters as Reyner Banham. Their commitment to study is admirable, even if the giddiness it inspires is entirely their own.
Suggested episodes: “Reyner Banham”; “The Reactionaries”