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99% Invisible #139- Edge Of Your Seat (Standard 4:30 version)

From Roman Mars | Part of the 99% Invisible (Standard Length) series | 04:29

"Sitting is the new smoking"


“A Chair is a difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier.” — Mies van der Rohe.

Van der Rohe, as with Eames, Gehry, Hadid, Libeskind, Corbusier, and Breuer: if they’ve designed a big building, chances are they’ve designed a thing on which to sit.


2256917631_d3c37546bd_z[Barcelona Chairs by Mies van der Rohe. Credit: James Davies]

The chair presents an interesting design challenge, because it is an object that disappears when in use. The person replaces the chair. So chairs need to look fantastic when empty, and remain invisible (and comfortable) while in use.

hannah [Model 2011 Chair by Bruce Hannah and Andrew Morrison for Knoll in 1971. Credit:MCM Nerd]

Again and again, new chair designs rise to this challenge, and more are coming out all the time. Some have argued that there are too many chair designs in this world, including one of the greatest headlines from Onion: “Report Confirms No Need To Make New Chairs For The Time Being.”

Yes, there are already a lot of chairs, but our needs from chairs are constantly changing. Consider the café: they used to be places for talking; now, they are places for working. People use the space differently, and the furniture must be adapted to serve the evolving use of a space.

photo 2-2(Courtesy of Julio Braga.)


Throughout our lives, we have been told to sit down. In school, in the office, in the polite company of a dinner party.  In a car or a plane or a bus or a movie. We spend a lot of time in chairs. Which has lead to a lot of talk lately about the unhealthiness of chairs.

Sitting is the New Smoking, says The Huffington PostCBS NewsWiredTIME, and The Mirror.

All these new studies and scary headlines have created demand for new ways to sit. There are now medicine ball chairs, adjustable chairs, standing desks, treadmill desks (not to mention fetal position desks).

The chair backlash is upon us. Berkeley architecture professor Galen Cranz saw it coming.

 wdydwyd_galen_cranz_490px [Credit: Tony Deifell]

In 1998, Cranz published The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body, and Design.The argument of The Chair, essentially, is that we should stop sitting in chairs. Or at least for so long.  Cranz says three hours is the maximum time a body ought to spend sitting each day.

In her own life, Professor Cranz takes innovative chair sitting to another level, by attempting to “eliminate all conventional chairs.” Her house is full of floor cushions, tatami mats, and lots of hybrid chairs, such as a medicine ball on an office chair chassis, and one that looked like a sleek, pared-down horse saddle.

When she’s out in public and gets tired, Cranz opts to kneel, or squat, or lie down. “I lay down in a bank and someone asked me if I was having a heart attack,” Cranz says. “I understand. But I said no, I’m fine, I’m resting because the line is so long!”

It takes gusto to avoid chairs.


Cranz explains that we all got suckered into the seated position once we got off the farm:

In the 20th century we moved from being an agricultural economy, where most people worked on farms, then we moved into a manufacturing economy, where a lot of people worked in factories. Some sat, some stood to work the machines along the conveyor belts, and then we moved into a service economy. And that seems to be where the chair really took off and became the dominant apparatus for our lives.

When we settled into the service economy, sitting became the way to type  file and fill out paperwork. This is when office chairs become the chairs in which people spend most of their time.

3344142642_c4d3bfa042_b [Credit: Phil Whitehouse

Until very recent history, office chairs weren’t made to fit your body. They were made to fit your job. There were managerial chairs,  middle managerial chairs, secretarial chairs—the sizing was completely status-dependent. This meant that in some cases you could have a 120 pound executive sitting in a gigantic chair and a 160 pound assistant secretary sitting in a tiny little chair. For the most part, status trumped ergonomics.

office-chair-by-bruce-hannah-and-andrew-morrison-for-knoll-international [Pre-Aeron office chair, designed by Bruce Hannah and Andrew Morrison for Knoll. Credit: Retrostart]

Then, in 1992, the Aeron chair was born. It came only in three sizes: small, medium, and large.The Aeron chair brought in an age of egalitarian office ergonomics, all made visible by the chair’s swivels and adjustment technology. All workers were equal in their Aeron chairs. And the Aeron chair defined what an office chair ought to look like.

1184621826_84ced288f5_b [Behold! The Aeron chair! Credit: Crouching Donkey]

Though expensive, the demand for the chairs was extraordinary. Perhaps, in part, because of a growing number of repetitive strain injury lawsuits. Companies suddenly found it cheaper to buy fancy adjustable chairs than to pay for legal settlements or medical bills.

aeron_exploded [The Aeron chair dissected. Credit: Creative Review]

But fixing the chair doesn’t totally solve the problem. It turns out that the chair has an accomplice: the desk.

laptopbeefsoutline  [Credit: Patrick Clark]

Flat surfaces force you to bend forward. Even if you have excellent posture, its hard to avoid leaning over your keyboard, or your dinner, or your book. The spine curves into a big C-shape, which is awful for your spine, and also compresses your organs and limits their functions.

Because of this chair/desk paradigm, the ability of chair backs to really solve this problem is limited.

cranz [From The Chair. Courtesy of Galen Cranz.]

If you must sit in a chair, Galen Cranz says it’s best to ignore the chair back and sit yourself right at the edge of your seat, essentially turning the chair into a stool.  Stools, says Cranz, are a good alternative to chairs, because they get your body out of the C-shape. They position the body halfway between sitting and standing.

Still, it’s not like there should be one single piece of furniture that will correct all the problems of chair sitting.

“The lounge chair is not the answer. There’s no the answer. What we need is variety,” according to  Cranz. “The best posture is the next posture.”

We don’t need fewer chairs. We need more. Bring us chairs. All of the chairs.


Producer Avery Trufelman spoke with designer-professors Galen Cranz and Bruce Hannah. Special thanks to Julio Braga of the International Interior Design Association, and Martin Flaherty and BIFMA, the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association.

99% Invisible #132- Castle On The Park (Standard 4:30 version)

From Roman Mars | Part of the 99% Invisible (Standard Length) series | 04:30

Primitive cancer treatment never looked so good.


On the southwest corner of Central Park West and 106th Street in New York City, there’s an enormous castle. It takes up the whole east end of the block, with its red brick cylindrical turrets topped with gleaming silver cones. The stained glass windows and intricate stonework make the building look like something out of a fairytale.

455_CPW[Credit: Stern]

This building’s past, however, is not very fairytale-like at all.

When it was built in 1887, this castle was the country’s first hospital devoted solely to the treatment of cancer. In the late 1800s, cancer was known to start as a tumor, but doctors didn’t know a whole lot beyond that.

In the back of the castle, was crematorium and a smokestack which was smoking pretty often.

In the late 1800s, a lot of hospitals in the United States didn’t want to treat cancer patients because they thought cancer was contagious. Hospitals also had to publish their “death rates,” so they’d turn away patients who were likely to skew the numbers. This gave rise to tuberculosis hospitals and other specialty hospitals for diseases that were particularly deadly.

new york cancer hospital4[Courtesy of: New York Public Library]

During and after the Civil War, American cancer patients would go to Europe, if they could afford it, since European doctors had developed more advanced forms of cancer treatment. Doctors from the United States would also go to Europe to study pathology and surgical techniques, and one such doctor, J. Marion Sims, wanted to bring some of these European cancer removal methods  back to the United States.

Sims had previously worked at the New York Women’s Hospital, but in 1874 that hospital decided not to admit patients with cancer, because, for all they knew, cancer was fatally contagious. In 1887 Sims and a number of philanthropists established the first hospital exclusively devoted to cancer care: the castle at 455 Central Park West.

theHospital2[The rooms were round with large ventilation shafts in the middle. Courtesy of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center archives]

The building’s fairytale appearance, it turns out, wasn’t unusual for hospitals of the time. These facilities were built like  aristocratic mansions, with high walls, gatehouses, elaborate entries, and sometimes turrets, as a way of enticing wealthy patients.

In the late 1800s, hospitals were charitable institutions run by philanthropists, where poor people went for care. The wealthy mostly received care at home. Architect Charles Haight hoped the luxurious design of the New York Cancer Hospital would be a lure for paying customers.

Feat.184.3.640[Courtesy of New York Public Library]

The big, round turrets that make the building look like a castle were actually wards that housed patients. The perfectly circular rooms were about 40 feet in diameter, and from an aerial view, the rooms looked like the face of clock, with beds around the perimeter.  Doctors could easily make the rounds from bed to bed, and these circular rooms kept dirt from accumulating in corners.

the Hospital3

[Courtesy of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center archives]

Patients got plenty of fresh air, sunlight, and delicious food. There were even champagne parties and carriage rides in Central Park to further entice paying customers. The building tried to make patients feel like they were going off the French country side, instead of a scary place where they would be subject to experimental cancer treatments and, quite possibly, die.

unnamed[Courtesy of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center archives]

Medically, nobody really had any idea what they were doing. The main treatment for cancer at the time was surgery—namely, cutting people open and removing every lymph node possible while still keeping the patient alive.

This was also before the time of antibiotics, so a lot of patients died from infectionsafter surgery.  As late as 1920, only around 15% of patients survived a cancer diagnosis for more than 2 years. In 1900, the numbers were even lower, (hence the on-site crematorium). Under that billowing smokestack, the New York Cancer Hospital soon earned a nickname: The Bastille. In trying to look like French chateau, the New York Cancer Hospital ended up feeling like a French prison. Despite a huge demand for cancer treatment, the hospital struggled financially and couldn’t attract patients.

cpw2-thumb[Courtesy of RKTB Architects, P.C.]

In an attempt to get people in the door, the New York Cancer Hospital procured a controversial new form of medicine: radium. Radiation therapy, even more so than surgery, was completely unexplored, and a lot of doctors and care workers developed cancer themselves from handing the element.

It wasn’t until the 1930s or that surgery improved and chemotherapy and other organized radiation treatments made cancer care very lucrative. In 1939, the cancer hospital left 455 Central Park West for the Upper East Side, where it  became Memorial Sloan Kettering, which is now known as one of the best hospitals for cancer treatment in the U.S.

thehospital1[Courtesy of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center archives]

Now, of course, hospitals don’t look like castles anymore. After World War I, hospitals start to look like small civic institutions like city halls, or schools, with square block-like units. Paying patients could expect single rooms, and non-paying patients could be put in a double or quadruple room. Instead of investing in gourmet food, champagne, and carriage rides, hospitals channeled money into surgical suites and mechanical equipment. Wooden beds and dressers disappeared and instead all furnishings were metal and carried an air of efficiency.

After World War II, office building became the models for skyscraper-like hospitals. After the 1980s, hospitals start to look like shopping malls, with just one or two floors of big open spaces.

Hospitals have done away with circular rooms, but the general idea of easy-to-clean rounded corners has actually persisted. If you go visit a hospital today, look at where the wall meets the floor. It’s probably curved, so that nothing can get stuck in the right angle between the wall and the floor.

455 Central Park West went through a really dark period in the mid-1950s, when it became a notoriously roach infested, abusive nursing home. Towers Nursing Home was shut down in the 1970s and the building sat vacant and in state of disrepair throughout the 1980s.

cpw4-thumb[Credit:RKTB Architects, P.C.]

Today, in 21st century Manhattan, even a haunted old hospital can become expensive housing. 455 Central Park West has been turned into seventeen round, light-filled condo units, complete with a parking garage, a spa, a pool, and a fitness center. Finally, after a hundred years of imitating upscale real estate, the castle on the park finally is actually what its always wanted to be: a nice place for rich people.

34388954-thumb[Credit: RKTB Architects, P.C.]

RKTB 455 CPW JBartelstone 2[Photo by John Bartelstone, courtesy of RKTB Architects, P.C.]

Producer Jessica Miller and 99% Invisible’s Katie Mingle spoke with writer Jim Rasenberger; Elaine Schattner, clinical associate professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College; and AnnMarie Adams, director of the Architecture School at McGill University.

Cheers! Fruit Flies Drink To Their Health, Literally

From Veronique LaCapra | 03:47

It's Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, time for dancing, eating and, of course, drinking - sometimes a lot of drinking. Now, as humans, we pay a price for drinking alcohol. Tomorrow's hangover, or worse.

But, as St. Louis Public Radio's Veronique LaCapra reports, for young fruit flies, alcohol may be just what the doctor ordered.

Figurewaspattackframe_small It's Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, time for dancing, eating and, of course, drinking - sometimes a lot of drinking. Now, as humans, we pay a price for drinking alcohol. Tomorrow's hangover, or worse. But, as St. Louis Public Radio's Veronique LaCapra reports, for young fruit flies, alcohol may be just what the doctor ordered.