Dan Klyn, who teaches information architecture at the University of Michigan, is currently researching and writing a biography entitled Richard Saul Wurman’s 5 Lives. It’s an apt title, since the intellectually peripatetic Wurman has had several career incarnations: architect, author, publisher, designer, painter, sculptor, impresario (he created and thoroughly curated the early TED talks). “In a sense, I’m an amateur, a dilettante, I don’t do anything particularly well, but I see patterns between things,” he said to me in a recent interview, although his modesty here seems somewhat false: Wurman is a member of the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame; an AIA Fellow; has written, designed, and published more than 100 books; won a lifetime achievement award from the Cooper Hewitt; and is the recipient of the AIGA Gold Medal.
Of those books, the very first was The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn, a 1962 release that has been out of print for several decades. Recently, Brooklyn-based publisher Designers & Books launched a Kickstarter campaign to help finance the reissue of this historically important tome. I talked to Wurman last week about his time with Kahn, the making of the original book, and the plans for the reissue.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
RSW: Richard Saul Wurman
Let’s start at the beginning: tell me the backstory of the original book.
I started work on the book in 1961, and it came out in ’62. I mean, I’m pretty old. That’s a long fucking time ago. I’ll be 86 on the 26th of this month.
Mazel tov, that’s great.
It’s not great. It’d be great for me if I was 56 or even 76. It’s great that I have my marbles. That’s what is great.
When did you go to architecture school?
Started in 1953. I decided to go to the University of Pennsylvania, without solid reasons, except somebody told it was a good school. Well, that’s all I needed was one person—who was older than me, and male—saying it was a great school, and I believed it. So I went to Penn, and it turned out that it was a very good choice. It was clearly the best school of architecture in the United States. There were other schools in the running for that title.
Yale was in the running at that point.
Yes. But I think Penn was the best one. And if you look back on history, with the clarity of hindsight, you realize it was because Lou Kahn’s spirit had settled there. That was an attraction.
Did you know Kahn’s work prior to going to architecture school?
No, I didn’t know anything. The story starts with me enrolled at Penn. It was a five-year undergraduate degree then. I was taught by a very strong woman, Stanislawa Nowicki. We called her Sasha. She was Matthew Nowicki’s widow. Nowicki was a young man from Poland who got the first commission to design Chandigarh, and then died in a plane crash. Later, they hired Corbusier.
Wow. Didn’t know that.
Many people, even architectural historians, don’t know that. Sasha was a great designer, a Massimo Vignelli type. But her crits were often brutal. She’d walk by the desk and say “NO!” in a heavy Polish accent. I wasn’t all that excited about things. I didn’t think the students were that smart. But by the end of the year, I really began to like it. I was a top student. So I was precocious and probably arrogant, but hungry now for this subject of architecture. It became a passion. You weren’t going to university to just get a degree. You certainly weren’t going there to make money and become a starchitect.
Because half of the freshmen flunked out, they stuck us in the basement. So I went upstairs all the time. I wanted to be with the grownups, and as I wandered around, I would stop and listen to Bob Geddes or Ehrman Mitchell or Romaldo Giurgola or Steen Eiler Rasmussen or Paul Rudolph—he might be visiting—and then, one day, Lou Kahn.
Do you remember the first time you heard him speak?
Oh, it was probably my second semester of my first year. Lou really appealed to me, because he was the first person I ever heard talk to people and tell the complete truth.
What do you mean?
Half of all daily conversation is needless conversation. With Lou, there was no sham. When he spoke, it came directly from his truth. That was a different way of being. If you take those banal niceties out of your conversation for a week, you will be a changed person.
So he didn’t engage in what we would call “small talk” or “pleasantries”?
Not only didn’t he engage in it, he didn’t know what he was going to say next! He was learning and creating as he was going on. It was completely of the moment.
Did that confuse students?
I don’t know. There’s ample evidence that students absolutely adored him. Everybody I know who knew him, took his courses, worked for him—when we meet each other, even if we don’t know each other, we’re immediately friends through our exposure to Lou. They’re part of the cult. There’s a Louis Kahn cult around the world. I hate cults, but I’m a member of one! And this year, on the 120th anniversary of his birth, has been amazing.
One of the first things I heard him say was, “In every space you’re in, you should understand how it was made.” Nobody was saying that in 1953! Everything was about how wonderful a hung ceiling was. That was the aesthetic.
Yeah, certainly in 1953.
Now maybe once a month I would go home, to have dinner with my folks. During second semester, one night, I remember saying to them, “I just listened to a man. He’s not that nice to look at it. He has a scarred face and a high-pitched voice. And sometimes I don’t understand what he’s saying, but I understand that he’s telling the truth. I know you’ve never heard of him. He is not famous, but he will be someday. He’s not wealthy. He’s not successful. And he might not ever be, but he’s amazing.”
It was a very heady time. Lou was teaching the fourth-year studio, and I got into his studio and we became friendly. Now, you could only become so friendly with Lou, because there were tremendous jealousies surrounding him. Everybody wanted a piece of him. That happened in his office, too, enormous jealousies. That was also true in Saarinan’s office and Eames’ office, and other places like that. It’s not unusual because there’s never enough of somebody like that to go around, once the office is more than 20 people.
Did you get a job in the Kahn office after graduating?
I tried, but he didn’t have any space. So I got a job someplace, at some third-rate office, and really hated it. Then one night, I went to my folks for dinner, and I got a phone call there. It was Lou. I was shocked. “Can you come into work?” he asked. “Well, Lou,” I said, “it’s Christmas.” He didn’t know it was Christmas! He said, “I’m also asking David Rothstein,” who was my best friend through school. “I want to have you and David come in nights and weekends and work with me on two projects that I can’t really do with the people here.” We were flattered into submission.
Which projects were those?
A proposal for the World’s Fair for GM. And a barge to go up the Thames and give orchestral concerts. In other words: oddball shit. I guess he thought Dave and I could do oddball shit. So I did that for several months, and then Lou asked me to come full-time.
And what year was this?
It was 1960, the year my son was born. I started work on a Friday, and on Sunday Lou sent me to London!
He sent you overseas less than 48 hours after starting work there?
Yes. I went over with some blueprints and sketches he made in charcoal on yellow trace paper. I was wet behind the ears, being up all night on the plane, thinking I was just going to be there for a week. “Just find out about what they’re doing and then report back,” Lou said.
Well, he lied to me. They had expected me to bring working drawings! And when I unrolled these things, they were appalled because in six months time, they had concerts already arranged and publicized. I decided that I could either give up and go home, or stay and somehow get it done. It was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. Lou had thrown me into a barely winnable situation, but a situation that tested my survival and really shaped my life. I worked for him for two and a half years. And then he brought me into the office one day and said, “I want you to move to North Carolina and teach at University of North Carolina. They need a teacher and it will be good for you.” I felt like I was being rejected. And yet he threw me into that, and it changed my life.
You hadn’t done the book yet?
No. At one point, I said, “Lou, I would like to have a piece of you. I would like to do a book. ” And just like that, he said yes. I said, “I would like to just use your drawings, but not your finished drawings. No photographs of any of your buildings. I want to see the process. I would like to see the drawings that weren’t crumpled up and thrown away.”
There were a lot of those, apparently.
I told him, “I’d like to see some of the drawings you did of buildings in Europe, when you’d start a drawing, and then draw over it because you had the proportions wrong. I want to see your mistakes.” I don’t think he quite understood, but said, “OK, let’s pick out the drawings.” I said, “No, Lou.” And I was totally in awe of him. “I want to pick out the drawings. That’s the whole point of the book.” He laughed! He couldn’t really laugh, because his mouth was so scarred. He had a funny little smile, which squinted up his whole face: “You’re going to pick out my drawings?” I had gone over the line so much that it was funny. Then he got it: “OK, I’ll be interested to see what you pick.”
That was a pretty radical premise for 1961, to not show any buildings.
Very few people had seen his buildings, so they didn’t have any references. They didn’t know who he was yet.
He had some finished buildings by that point.
The first Yale building, the bathhouses in Trenton, maybe a few houses.
But he hadn’t done many of his seminal buildings yet.
He had done enough that people were impassioned with him, and he had a lot of stuff he was working on that was clearly of genius. There was no doubt in anybody’s mind, but there certainly was not a bevy of gorgeous photographs of Salk, Ahmedabad, Dhaka, Kimball, or Exeter.
How did you guys work on the book? Did you make a first selection of drawings that he approved?
No, I took the drawings that I wanted to include. He gave me a bunch afterwards. I later gave a hundred drawings to the architectural archives at Penn. Lou never saw the book in production. He never saw the design of the book.
He didn’t see the book until it came out.
Did he like it?
He loved it. If you ask Nathaniel, he will tell you that he thought it was Lou’s favorite book. By then there had been a bunch of books out on him.The last thing Lou bought before he went on his last trip to India was two copies of that book at Joe Fox’s bookstore. We even have the receipt of that purchase. He never paid the bill.
What was the first run of that book?
About thirteen hundred. It was beautifully printed. Have you seen the book?
I’ve seen the electronic version of it.
You’ve never seen the book? You have to see the book. The yellow trace drawings look like you can peel the paper off the page. The cover was stamped in gold. I found some trees that Lou had drawn, and we stamped them on the cover. There were no buildings to show. It was linen, with a stamp of these craggy trees on it.
And now there’s a Kickstarter campaign for the book. Will the book be changed in any way?
No, it’s a total facsimile. When the publisher, Steve Kroeter, first approached me about reissuing the book, I turned him down. “No, I don’t reprint my books,” I told him. He asked me a couple of more times, at one point suggesting that he could issue the reprint with a kind of a reader’s guide. We went back and forth. I said, if the reader’s guide can be the same size as the reissued book, and be a continuation of process drawings from the archives, plus stories about Lou from his kids and former colleagues, then I’ll let you do it. So it will be the facsimile of the original book and a new book, as a boxed set. The new one is on thinner paper and has a paper cover. It’s the same size, but instead of a white cover with gold trees, it’s a black cover with silver trees.
The new book is like an addendum?
Absolutely. Lou loved the original book, and he gave it to friends and prospective clients a lot. One night he came up to my apartment and he saw the book sitting there. It had a little inscription in it. “That’s not enough,” he said, and then with a different color pen he wrote a longer inscription. So I have one book with two inscriptions in it by Lou.
Featured image: a 1956 study for center city Philadelphia, ink on tracing paper. All images courtesy of Designers & Books.