Richard Saul Wurman is one of the most influential architects of our time; a remarkable achievement for someone whose passions and explorations extend far beyond the traditional realms of the profession. Wurman’s lifelong pursuit of the misunderstood, the unknown, and the unexplored, has offered a litany of contributions to the wider world, from the highly-acclaimed TED Conference, which he founded in 1984, to signature theories such as LATCH and Information Architecture. Born in 1935 in Philadelphia, an architectural alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania, he has counted Louis Kahn and Charles Eames among his mentors, and Moshe Safdie and Frank Gehry among his great friends.
Throughout his life, Wurman has written, designed, and published over 90 books on multiple topics, from architecture and graphic design to data and medicine. Perhaps it was Wurman’s wife, the novelist Gloria Nagy, who captured this remarkable trajectory most aptly when she said “It is very hard to explain what Richard does. It is especially hard for Richard to explain what Richard does. All of his training, as an architect, as a cartographer, as a graphic designer, as an entrepreneur, as a publisher, and as an author, has all been about a passion for making information understandable.”
In the following interview, ArchDaily's Niall Patrick Walsh speaks to Richard Saul Wurman about his life, his views on architecture, and his encounters with Louis Kahn and Charles Eames. We also investigate the byproducts of Wurman’s many careers, from TED and TEDMED to LATCH Theory and Information Architecture; fruits of a purely personal mission to understand, but one from which we have all been profound beneficiaries.
ArchDaily (Niall Patrick Walsh): How do you describe your life, or your attitude to work, in your own words?
Richard Saul Wurman: In Chile, 1935, a gentleman from Argentina died in a strange airplane accident on the runway, playing “chicken” with an acquaintance. They were gambling to see who would swerve their plane off the runway first. The man was Carlos Gardel, the inventor of the tango. The tango is a terrific metaphor for my daily life. A tango is a complex dance to beautiful music, which on one hand has order, specific moves, real principles, and follows a plan. But it is also improvised. Part of it is about hate, anger, violence, love, adoration, and respect. It is a metaphor for the opposites turning out to be something terribly creative.
The opposite of knowing is not knowing. The opposite of doing something myself is the fact that I’m never asked to do anything. Nothing is how it seems in my life. What seems like bravery and innovation comes from the thought of “well, what else am I going to do?”
AD: In 1976 you coined the term “Information Architect” for the AIA. What do you believe an Information Architect is, and what is its connection to the traditional practice of architecture?
RSW: There are many ways to interpret “information architect.” For some, an information architect is someone who designs websites. For others, it is someone who designs graphs and charts. For me, it is my entire life from the moment I get up to the moment I go to sleep.
I believe any building should talk to you, and you should understand it in many dimensions; during night and day, where you can and can’t go, etc. It has a story to tell to make it understandable to its occupants. But is that true for everybody? Does everybody care about “the existence will of a building” as Louis Kahn said? Does everybody care that you speak to a building and that it speaks to you? Do they care that I speak to a painting and sculptures, and they tell me what they want to be? That might make me seem like a freak, but it doesn’t stop me from having a conversation with my work or talking to myself. Talking, and spouting off, and hearing the fool I am, or the clever person I am, or the profound person I am, all help me on my journey.
AD: When describing Information Architecture, you have said that “the organization of information actually creates new information.”
RSW: Now that is a profound thought, and has not been embraced by the information community for what it really means. The principles of how you organize information actually generates new information. Some of that can be warped, and some can be positive and constructive. That is a whole field that people have let slip by. There are two organizations that came into my life. One is the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) and one is called AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale). Both were so deeply uninterested in Information Architecture that they didn’t want to hear about it, and laughed at the things I did. Forty years ago I predicted that half of the future work in graphic design would be corporate logos, movie posters, illustrations, etc.; but half of it was going to be Information Architecture. They didn’t know what I meant, and they thought that I was a fool. Of course, my prediction came true.
AD: Indeed, this observation, that “organizing information creates new information” is becoming prevalent in architectural education.
RSW: Oh absolutely. But in my lifetime, I couldn’t get a job with it and nobody would listen to me. They thought I was a pariah and a mascot. But now, it is deeply embedded in our society.
AD: There is however still a significant portion of the architectural community that either doesn’t appreciate that line of theory, or sees it as having no relevance to the act of architecture.
RSW: Why does that surprise you? There are two things to say. First, most graphic design is still used in advertising, books, annual reports, schools, and charts. Most of it is still judged by professionals along the lines of whether it looks good or not. It is not judged on whether it works. The immediate judgment of the AIG, the AIGA, and whatever the equivalent is in Belfast, Dublin, England, France, or Japan – is primarily the look of something, and only then whether it works or not. That’s one thing. The second thing is that if I had to consider any field, whether it be dentistry, architecture, baseball, tennis: most people are terrible. That is the nature of things. Most people doing anything are bad at it. Here is a challenge: do you know a single human being that doesn’t have a disastrous doctor story?
AD: No, I don’t.
RSW: Well, doesn’t that say something? The most trusted profession, who holds your life in their hands, and your relative’s life, and your baby’s life. Even the most trusted profession is a joke, as far as the average capability of its participants. There are several big medical organizations in the world, the CDC (Center for Disease Control in the United States), WHO (The World Health Organization) and the UN. I have tried with a number of organizations to get two numbers I wanted. How many people in the world died in 2018? And how many people were born? You can’t get those numbers in a way where they line up or agree with each other. Isn’t that a pretty fundamental number? The latest I could get was 2016. If you try getting a more complex number, say the number who died from a medical error, you can’t get that either because it is not reported! The architecture profession is no different from such incompetence.
AD: You could be described as somebody who finds more interest outside of their comfort zone, in the unknown and the unexplored. Did your time as a practicing architect fulfill that part of your personality?
RSW: I miss architecture. My goal in life was to be a great architect. I love architecture, but I do not love, like, or tolerate the accident of a client, or what they might want me to do. I don’t like being told what to do, I instead like to discuss what to do. I am convinced that a good client can make a building much better, but you are also owned by your client, and I don’t think I’m making any great headlines by saying that. The frustration of even the most famous architects is that they work for a client, and that they spend a lot of time coddling and pleasing the client. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have clients. What I’m saying is that you can’t control your client, and that it takes up a major part of your day and life.
Early in my career, Robert Venturi and I were among those tipped to follow in the footsteps of Louis Kahn. I was considered a serious architect. I still consider myself an architect. I love architecture, I visit architecture, many architects are friends of mine including Frank Gehry and Moshe Safdie. But I am also interested in many other things. I focus on cartography, painting, guide books; they all interest me. But there isn’t an ounce in my body that is leaving architecture. It is part of my body and soul.
AD: You founded TED in 1984 along the convergence of technology, entertainment, and design.
RSW: That convergence existed even at the time, but nobody in those industries observed it. Today it is old news. If I said to you now that the entertainment business, the technology industry, and design professions work together, you would say “of course they do.” But before, that was a stupid idea.
AD: Having observed that relationship between technology and design, what do you believe is its future? Do you believe one overpowers the other? We often hear the phrase “form follows function” but do you believe that design follows technology, or technology follows to design?
RSW: I think form follows performance and performance follows form. Function is putting a piece of wood down and sitting on it. Performance is sitting on something that makes your back align correctly, and accommodates your movements. If it is done to a level of perfection, then it becomes an art form. There is a fork in the road between looking good, and being good. Don’t design something to look good; design it to be good, and then it will be handsome.
AD: Is there any architect you identify today who you believe is particularly noteworthy in that pursuit of an architecture that strives to be good, rather than looking good?
RSW: I would say the auditorium space in Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall performs well. It is a pleasing sculpture, but one which underneath holds a space that succeeds in being good. The Kimbell Art Museum by Louis Kahn performs so perfectly that it is breathtakingly handsome.
AD: Early in your career, you worked closely with Louis Kahn. What is your view on the evolution of architecture between then and now?
RSW: I can’t imagine a life without Lou. I had an epiphany when I met him, he was somebody who told the truth. It was through the simplest of statements and observations. For example, in current buildings, half the budget is taken up by the mechanics; and yet it is not expressed. When I went to school in 1953, the attitude was that you hung a ceiling and you hid everything. You hid the lights, you hid the air conditioning, you hid the water. You essentially created a glass box, and the preoccupation was how good you did your moldings. Later on, architects such as Michael Graves painted buildings just to make them look pretty. Then you have buildings that look like they are solving mathematical equations, and look clever. Now you have a group of buildings built for billions of dollars, the Hudson Yards in New York, which is so anti-human that it takes my breath away.
Here’s a question: have you ever walked down Park Avenue in New York? Ask many people that, and they will look at you for a moment, and say “well, actually no. I know where it is, I know the buildings at the start and end, I know it’s the only wide avenue in New York that has a centerline of planting, and the Seagram Building and Lever House is on it, but no I’ve never walked down it.” Now isn’t that interesting? They must be some of the most expensive buildings in New York, but you don’t walk down that street. Why? Because the ground floor isn’t interesting, and because the buildings are set back from the street because they are “on show”. You don’t walk down the street as you do in Bologna, where even if it is raining cats and dogs you can walk all across the city. There are thirty miles of arcades. Why? Because the upper floors extend out to street level; because it is a city for people; because the ground floor is interesting. There are shops, and restaurants, and all manner of things. When I go to a city, I want to go somewhere where the streets are interesting, hence we go to Venice, to Rome, to Paris. The ground floor of Hudson Yards is a Park Avenue wrapped around a staircase.
RSW: Charlie influenced me heavily. I wrote a remembrance piece for him in 1978, where I said “If I were asked to appoint a Professor of Curiosity or a Dean of Learning or President of Imagination or Commissioner of Magic, they would all be Charles Eames. He was the truest student of seeing. He allowed me to see those things I always saw and never saw. He allowed me to distinguish between learning and education and to demand of the world around me that it become self-revealing.” That was written about Charlie but it was also written about me. That is one aspect of character I shared with Charles Eames.
In 1961, I was 25 and working for Louis Kahn when he was beginning his rise to prominence. He was well known in the student community, but the people on the street didn’t know who he was. I asked could I write a book on him, and he said yes. I said that I wanted to have something by my bed, metaphorically, that I could open up and look at his drawings, and read what he had written. He said, “let us go back and choose the drawings.” I picked mostly unfinished drawings on yellow trash paper, with charcoal sketches and words crossed out. In 1962 I wrote the first book on Louis Kahn, titled “The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn.” He and I were secretly friendly. He was the first person in our lives that spoke architectural truth to us. He was my guru, he remains my guru, and I live with him every day.
AD: Beyond Kahn and Eames, were there any other encounters which heavily influenced your life?
RSW: Someone who influenced my life a great deal was a man named Schuyler Van Rensselaer Cammann. He was a mentor of mine, a Professor of Oriental Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He was an odd man, who spoke thirteen languages. Given his interest in the Far East, he spoke Tibetan, and several dialects of Chinese, as well as European languages. For example, he learned Swedish because he was asked by the King of Sweden out for lunch in order to learn about a piece in his historical collection. He was the most encyclopedic person I knew, and he influenced me in enormous ways. When I was 19 or 20, he opened my eyes to another half of the world that I had never been taught. Back then, we had not heard of Tibet, we barely knew where China was, it was a different world. Through him, I learned about Chinese sculptures, the making of Japanese swords, etc.
I was also introduced to archaeology, particularly the Mayans. The oldest Mayan city is Tikal, which I journeyed to in 1958. There were no roads to it, no water or supply lines. Three of us mapped the entire city, along with a couple of native assistants with machetes who helped us cut our way through the jungle. They were really the first maps ever produced of Tikal with any accuracy, and would later be published by the United States Geological Survey. From that, I became involved in Mayan architecture, which was another part of my life. Then I have a whole medical part of my life. I founded a conference called TEDMED which was successful. You asked about two designers because that is your field, but I could just as comfortably talk about Mayan architecture, or medicine, or painting. Even this morning from 5am to 8:30am I was working on a sculpture which is to be cast in bronze. I have a varied day, and a varied life.
AD: Given the many challenges that future generations of architects will face, what is your biggest piece of advice to young architects seeking to use their skills to improve the world, not just through the design of buildings, but through broader and more diverse paths?
RSW: Some years ago, I wrote a letter for the graduating class of architecture students.
Architecture is the thoughtful making of space and place. It shelters nearly everything that defines civilization: families, factories, football, and the sounds of a flute. Architecture holds formative conversations with everything. The near future is about conversations between those who are similar and those who are different, and about innovative ideas that come from such conversations. What will be your conversation?
Architects can relate to anything. Architects are in everything. Young architects should be human. They should have a conversation, and not just with buildings. The last line of that letter was “who are you going to have a conversation with?” What is your choice? I was trying to give them permission, that whatever they choose to have a conversation with can be their life. It can be with the environment, with a building, or with how a flute sounds.