What follows is a transcript I typed up from part of a talk Richard Saul Wurman gave in the fall of 1975 at Ball State University.
The title of his talk was Works In Progress, and one of the projects he shared with the audience was the first draft version of what he described as a “keynote fable” - something he was writing for performance at his AIA ‘76 National Convention, which was to be convened in Philadelphia the following spring.
On the evening he read this draft to the audience in Muncie, the title of the fable was
Everything You Wanted To Know About The Physical Environment And Weren't Afraid To Ask But Couldn't Find Out About Anyway.
7 months later, the fable was re-titled What-If, Could-Be: An historical fable about the future.
The only printed copies of the final version of the fable were the ones given to attendees of the convention, as cheaply-printed pamphlets. For a time, it was likely the case that the only people who had a copy of the fable were people who attended the session in Philadelphia where it was performed.
Even if more of a to-do had been made of printing and promotion of the fable in 1976, Wurman is known to have had the back-stock of books he’s done ground up for pulp once he’s moved on to his next project. So as a budding biographer I was delighted in 2009 to see Wurman publish a photographic facsimile of the AIA ‘76 keynote fable, along with a sequel to the original story, as a book called 33. The contents of which were presented under a Creative Commons license.
The copyright situation with the transcript I’ve made here, and of the excerpted audio in the player on this page, is not clear at this time, although one of the many things that does not change in between the first draft and official publication and performance of the fable is the Commissioner Of Curiosity And Imagination’s breakthrough proclamation that no individual person can own a public idea, and that copyright should be changed to The Right To Copy.
Transcript of speech by Richard Saul Wurman at Ball State University on October 13, 1975
I hate keynote speeches.
It's just a thing. I have it on my back.
I really don't like keynote speeches because I've never heard a good one. I find it's very dull. And so I've decided that instead of a keynote speech, since I can design what was going to happen here for four thousand people, you know, and have the party you always wanted to have but couldn't... that we're going to have a keynote fable.
And at the moment, Peter Ustinov is going to come and perform the fable. At least he said he would, if he's not making a film. He won't know till January. So it maybe it'll be somebody else, but he's my ideal for delivering the fable.
And of course I'm writing the fable.
I'm going to read you something, and this is something I never do, which is reading something. But I'm going to read you the first draft because I really desperately want to hear how it sounds to a group.
It's a first draft of the fable. I don't think.. If I find it's too long, I'll just stop at a certain point. But I'll get into it a little bit, and this is going to be in a sense the theme of the convention.
Here we go. The working title is: Everything You Wanted To Know About The Physical Environment And Weren't Afraid To Ask But Couldn't Find Out About Anyway.
The settlement looks familiar, close across a band of water in the land of What If, in the city of Could Be. In the place occupied by the highest appointed official of the land, sits the Commissioner Of Curiosity. And Imagination. And here we begin our story, appointed by the unanimous vote of those who care, the Commissioner was charged in the year 200 to celebrate the future.
It had been 200 years since a ringing event. It was considered an especially appropriate time. Throughout the month of the celebration, the Commissioner decreed many important acts. Now he is remembered for his first and most dramatic statement. In fact, many scholars feel that all of his later and more elaborate proclamations are but permutations of that very first act.
In the fourth day of the seventh month and that 200th year, he wrote the Public Information Should Be Made Public Act. The city fathers of Could Be immediately responded with the creation of an Urban Observatory. Never had information about the city's formation, situation and aspirations been available, for both residents and visitors alike, in an understandable format. Techniques that had been previously reserved by the news media for the intricacies of wars, and travel to and from the Moon, such as simulation movies and illustrative bird's-eye maps, were finally applied to the fundamentals of daily urban life.
Not only was public information made public, but also ideas. It turned out that every good idea was in essence a public idea. No individual could own a public idea, so the laws of copyright were changed to The Right To Copy.
The sides of buses which once hawked pizza pie and funeral parlors now began to advertise where they were going, their routes, and points of interest near where they stopped.
Factories replaced some of their walls with windows so that passers-by could observe the manufacturing process. Some even made exhibits on the street which describe their products, what they were made from, and how they were made, and most importantly why they were made the way they were made.
The lobbies of apartment houses and office buildings became active places with information services related to and reflecting activities taking place in the building above.
With so much activity taking place in building lobbies, people soon began to realize how incredibly wasteful it had been not to use them before.
In the parks and playgrounds, trees were labeled with their names and information about their species. Closed circuit television systems brought news events and public service broadcasting to the subway stations.
Waiting took on new meaning with the creation of the Wait Watchers Program.
The entrances to the city: the airports, train and bus stations, and major highways, were treated as if they really were gateways after all, and introduced visitors to Could Be with a warm handshake of helpful information. Soon Could Be-ings everywhere began to tell each other what and why they were doing whatever they were doing where they were doing it.
It was career education's finest hour.
Yet, while all this sounds very exciting to us, it was not at first a complete success among the entire citizenry. Certain groups complained to the Commissioner and expressed their dissatisfaction.
Museum directors, noting a drop in attendance of museums, complained that the public environment was becoming too interesting, and was hurting the museum business.
Teachers objected because more students were playing hooky from school, even though the teachers did admit to an intensified quest for learning when the students returned to school. How can we run the school program properly with so much learning going on the streets they asked.
Architects and designers, however, immediately stopped doing presentation drawings concentrating on the look of buildings, and began to do communication drawings focusing on how physical spaces would feel and perform.
Good ol architects.
One month after his first proclamation, the Commissioner startled Could Be-ings by releasing an incisive report; an analysis that confirmed what only a certain few people had known all along. This study observed that our ability to affect change in the physical environment had been entirely limited to the use of only two words.
No, and more
During the preceding 10 years, legitimacy had been achieved for the concept of the public's right to stop things. It didn't always work. Roads housing wars babies smoking eating drinking busing were marched against, voted against, lobbied against, and demonstrated against. Old and young, hippie and tycoon, hard hat and liberal alike embraced the right to say no.
No was no longer a no-no.
No had become half the planning process.
When services that were expected to work didn't, when the products and the urban environment didn't perform, everybody immediately asked for more of what had failed to work. As if more would make them work when less had not.
More thus become the other half of the planning process.
So "no" they cried in answer to some things, and "more" to others. When the schools didn't seem to work, the PTA paraded for more schools. As crime became worse there was a demand for more police and longer prison sentences. More roads when traffic was heavy. More signs when people double-parked. More parking lots with the increasing numbers of slumbering cars.
"No" or "more" instead of the articulation of people's needs.
More light poles could always be ordered, whereas a critical problem really had to do with the quality of lighting, not just a greater quantity of light poles. Performance versus more products. Lighting versus more light poles. Learning versus more schools. Safety versus more police. Mobility versus more roads. Communication versus more signs. Comfort versus more street furniture. Recreation versus more parks.
And every case it was found that our cities were being designed from massive catalogs, filled with an accumulation of products that for the most part had only proved their incapability to solve a single performance.
This realization gave rise to the Product Performance Act. Could Be-ings now realized that they wanted better lighting, not prettier lamp poles. They wanted more effective opportunities for recreation, not simply more parks. They needed learning and efficient options for movement and better healthcare not simply more schools, more cars, more parking lots and highways, and more hospitals.
The city of Could Be was actually working better, as well as looking better. Signage ordinances became more permissive, allowing signs of any size, but urging that all signs use white light on Main street, red on another, white and blue one another. The city at night became a life-size route map: the avenues that led to the major parks were green, and to the river were resplendent with blue light.
At night, the city was instantly understood.
The public buildings were bathed in light, the monotony of overhead light poles emitting a science fiction yellow green glow was replaced by individual shopkeepers lighting their shop windows and adjacent sidewalks.
Along the curb, a band of light softly washed the streets and the sidewalks, creating light where it mattered, instead of on the roofs of cars and tops of people's heads. Light had become a kinetic sculpture, creating the image of the street, and of the city.
The basic understanding premise, entitled You Only Understand Something Relative To Something You Understand was next announced, followed by a provocative cover story by the best-read news weekly, which substantiated that there had not been an information overload, as had been thought all along, but rather a non-information overload.
In a conversation with the Commissioner's Associate In Charge Of Future Meanings it was decided to suggest the renaming of certain operative desires, values, and programs:
Being changed to becoming.
Absolute to relative.
Parts to whole.
Extremes to balance.
Quantity to quality.
And present became future.
Programs were established based on pro-health rather than anti-disease. Life rather than death. Birth control instead of death control. Self-expression instead of self repression, and self-restraint rather than external restraint.
The focus and professional interest of young people ought to be to learn about learning. Learning About Learning was not to be found in the course description or curriculum of any high school, junior high school, or grammar school in the entire country of What If. Learning about learning is the process that necessarily must precede learning about French, English literature, and chemistry.
Once people relaxed, and perceived learning as an occupation in itself, rather than the accumulation, retention, and regurgitation of data, they recognized the young as the professionals of learning about learning they must become.
Many schools developed curriculum approaches which did not need to be enclosed within their walls. Classes began utilizing the different learning resources available on the streets of Could Be, and the new Board Of Learning acknowledged, after conducting evaluation studies, that people learn best when they can relate what they desire to learn to things they already understand.
The 3 R's were then replaced by the three P's: people, places, and processes. What you can learn from a person, at a place, and about a process. This turned out to be the only subject of equal interest to teachers, students, and parents alike.
It was the world of work revealed.
Even schools that remained traditional in their operations made their school buildings themselves objects for learning. Blueprints of the school were framed, and hung in the hallways, and means were devised to make transparent what happened when the toilets were flushed, how electricity was distributed throughout the school, how people use spaces, how the arrangement of furniture affected interaction among people, how the building was heated.. even how the roof and the walls were supported structurally.
The entire schoolhouse became a laboratory for learning. There seemed to be something more you can learn from your schoolhouse. It was found that the time between classes was at least, if not more important, than the time sitting in a classroom. The commissioner passed the 60 / 60 Act, which allowed for 60 minutes in class, and 60 Minutes between classes.
The corridor, the largest single area of space in any schoolhouse, became the center of conversation and real learning it always tried to be. The spin-off between the 60 / 60 Act, and the working world, has yet to be determined.
Soon the museum directors and librarians, half-admitting that their institutions were a bit more stodgy than they ought to be, decided to join the tide rather than fight it. They moved their institutions out into the city, and utilized the ground floor of Could Be itself for display and exhibition. Both the libraries and the museums began to realize that they wanted to become participatories instead of the repositories they'd traditionally been.
With the increased demands for appropriate space utilization, land use by level came into being. The Let's Do Our Level Best Act was passed, requiring that anybody given the privilege of constructing a tall building also had the obligation of providing the tops of buildings for public use, and the ground floor for public interest. If they're good enough for cocktail lounges and executive offices, how much better for public observatories and learning places, declared the Commissioner.
Each new building project became a news event. They were not only reviewed, pictured, and discussed, but their owners were rewarded instead of being penalized, with tax concessions based on how well they served the public's comfort, safety and informational needs. For many years, building owners had been taxed heavily when they improved their properties, so many hadn't bothered. The city of Could Be had been encouraging deterioration rather than Improvement.
The metropolis had become masochistic, causing slums by legislation and loopholes. It finally occurred to somebody that people should be able to walk around the city when it's raining and not get wet. The Dry Look Act was formulated when it was found that by allowing the second floors and above to come out to the curb line, it automatically created marvelous covered walkways by buildings.
This could be done only on the west and south facades, so that walking under shade and under cover was always an option. Because this arcade increased the general level of meeting, greeting, and exchange of thoughts, it became known as The City University to some, and simply The Bridge to others.
Upon the discovery that the leading repository of taste, the Museum Of Modern Artifacts, had shelves filled with items that looked good, but didn't work, a new edict called Taste Makes Waste was conceived. The Commissioner looked into the operation of this and other museums. He discovered that certain institutions devoted entire departments to the creation of taste. In their desire to discover trends in art before the competition, uniqueness become a value in itself. Chairs were exhibited that were uncomfortable. Elegant orange squeezers that were under-powered.. but so beautiful.
Beauty, it turned out, couldn't squeeze oranges or support bottoms.
This concern with the integration beauty with the facts of the performance of each object led the Museum Of Modern Artifacts name to be changed to the Museum of Modern Art And Facts. It turned out that the facts were of great interest, with the result that the public not only visited in greater numbers, but clamored for increased involvements with the nature and appropriateness of the displays, and their general use in learning about man-made objects in the man-made environment.
The Commissioner, in his wisdom, chose to engender a real sense of public ownership of the city. He announced The City Over Two: Half The City Belongs To You Act by the publishing of The Public Environment Map. A simple land use map showing that fully half of the city was publicly owned or regulated. Henceforth, all this area was called public property as it had always been called.
Just an aside: that really, you probably don't know this, but half of the land in every American city is publicly owned or public regulated: 50%.
In their desire to train persons to be able to describe visually the information they found newly available, art teachers began to realize that art, as they had taught it, hasn't any discipline. In fact, people had apparently thought so little of it as a subject, that it was unique in everybody's studies: having no rules, or goals. At the most progressive schools, it consisted of free play. And at the most repressive, art was free play but you couldn't leave your seats.
You think about that.
Soon, as with every other subject, art classes began to teach grammar, discipline, and rules. To be sure, there were some differences. It was a visual grammar, and the discipline and rules were directed towards their success, measured by the communication and understandability of information. The subject for Visual Communications was the immediate physical environment. For example, students learned to communicate such things at the experience of navigating the neighborhood, and the characteristics of their community. The qualities and quantities of the world around them.
Art, it turned out, was of immense value to the description and understanding of the spirit in math physics biology and history. Art was recognized as a complementary and equally important language as words and numbers, and it immediately became part of the college entrance examinations.
Even television found it rewarding to rise to the competition, developing new techniques for two-way communication between viewers and stations. Public opinion polls were conducted routinely, and feedback became an important part of many broadcasts. People soon found feedback was even more exciting than instant playback.
[Well, I'll skip a little bit here]
A program was begun using movie theaters, during their slack morning hours, for the information displays and as neighborhood nodes of the Urban Observatory. Certain theaters were then programmed for a year-long, continuous information film festival called Cine City. That's c-i-n-e.
The ideas of a film festival in the heart of the city had great appeal. This act was only the first of many that focused attention on the vast amounts of underutilized prime space that existed throughout the city, waiting to be wanted. This of course became the name of a new city agency when the Department Of Waiting To Be Wanted was formed, and run by senior citizens.
Toilets and telephones, resting places and refreshing places, comfortable dry, safe, and informative places to wait for transportation, were all provided with a conspicuous lack of fanfare. In fact, it was with embarrassment that these services now only found their way into the society, into a society that was able to automatically automate 6 car windows from the driver's seat, and otherwise over-provide for so many things.
The leading architectural magazines decided to drop their superficial feature called Building Of The Month, that only looked at the look of things, and began to concentrate instead on A Month Of Buildings, that analyzed what was built, and how well it served the occupants and the public.
Architectural stylists went out of style.
The commissioner, in an off mood, created a parlor game, on a dare, satirizing rules regulations and variances, called Zone And Moan. The object was to construct strange and inappropriate buildings by finding loopholes in different zoning ordinances.
The game was a failure. It proved no challenge whatsoever. Ordinance after ordinance let the players put together the worst results easily: ziggurats, wedding cakes, squat square turds, setbacks, toothless grins and parking lots passed off as open space. The Shape Of Things To Come, and Zero Zoning were two other tries at gamesmanship by the Commissioner, which along with Zone And Moan were to be found at a minor display at the Museum of Failure.
But more about that later.
Perhaps the most radical proposal the Commissioner announced that year was the elimination of all zoning of private property. The Commissioner decided instead to zone all the streets and the sidewalks. It was the streets and sidewalks, after all, that determined the physical structure of the city, the extent and nature of all its services, and potential for access to all property that abutted them. Which of course, was all the property. The Streets Alone Are Zoned Act instantly was the clearest, fairest and constructively the strongest planning legislation ever conceived.
The label "street furniture" was abolished by the Commissioner, as a reaction to the fact that what was needed was places to sit, places to rest. Places for orientation, and communication.
And what the city was buying was elaborate fiberglass-molded, souped-up projects grouped like bunny turds all over the place, when low walls, arcades, and indigenous parts of buildings and the landscape would have worked much better. It wasn't additional furniture that was needed: it had become Urban Edsel Time. City Mascara Week. And in the desire for places to rest and refresh, designers stamped out a profusion of items, fighting with each other to be the most style.
With the passage of the Junk, Bunk, & Trash Act, the Commissioner, pleaded with all the urban Elizabeth Ardens to restrain their vacuum-forming impulses, and provide for people without the additional clutter of unnecessary objects. Pop Art and Pop Architecture were soon abandoned, and became simply the names of two new children’s cereals.
The Commissioner Of Curiosity And Imagination that year established only one new Museum. This was The Museum Of Failure, established in response to the public's inability to discuss and appreciate the value of failure. An overnight success, the Museum's description of 200 years of personal and inventive failure caused an immediate reduction of 76 percent of all reported cases of mental disturbance and psychiatric visits.
What was extraordinary was the success of failure. And the recognition that so much useful activity, formulations of meaningful ideas, and conceptual breakthroughs, had come from the strange embrace that the creative person has as he encounters the experience of failure, and senses his reaction to it. The success of failure brought about an unprecedented flurry, perhaps one could say a renaissance, of artistic and inventive production. People [it turned out] had failed in different ways all along, and just didn't talk about it.
Once people realized they didn't have to impress each other with boundless, back-to-back success stories, the cocktail party as a form of social entertainment quickly disappeared. Failure became thought of as delayed success. In his desire to get things done, the Commissioner passed the Patience Is Not A Virtue Act, which established laissez-faire as a misdemeanor, punishable by a day of having to do something.
It was realized that decision-making, which for years had been thought to operate best when reduced to a binary choice: yes or no. On or off. Left or right. ..had developed a third, and increasingly dominant alternative. Instead of doing this or doing that, more and more people we're doing nothing.
The Commissioner Of I Didn't Know That made an offhand comment that the subway system, with all its potential for fast efficient movement, was actually a human sewer.
The shock value of that image cannot be emphasized enough.
It was soon analyzed, and was found that the subway system was the most densely-used piece of real estate in the entire region, by a large factor. The injustice of allowing the most used places to be the worst places had enormous impact. Soon density and usage maps were demanded of all public places in order to assess priorities for improvement. As a result of the Commissioner Of Curiosity And Imagination, remembering his own rags-to-riches career, passed the From Sewers To Splendor Act, aimed at all public places in need of becoming what they were meant to be all along.
Borrowing from the neighboring city of Was Good came an idea the Commissioner gave new meaning. He took the concept that 1% of the cost of public construction must be allocated for an applique of works of art.
[Aside:] I don't know if you people are familiar with that. There's a number of cities that have a 1% rule on all public buildings one percent of the total construction cost has to be for art.
He then changed it from 1 percent to 100 percent.
He reasoned that the total budget for any public construction should be artfully executed, not just the legislated small percentage. The Commissioner, to make his point, had scale models constructed of notable buildings with 1% art. Some like the Golden Gate Bridge and The Pyramids and the Eiffel Tower look ridiculous with an unnecessary coating of sculpture, and others like Milan's La Scala and Philadelphia's City Hall looked bare.
A building, a bridge, or a person can't be legislated into beauty. Percentage measurements were okay for batting averages and interest rates, but had no place in creative construction, or as a legal determination of aesthetic quality. Or even to ensure minimum mediocrity. The Commissioner then went on to say an artfully conceived environment thinks of the use of art fully.
The Art Fully Program led to a parallel program called Wonder Fully, which will be a subject of later fable.
The Commissioner, speaking on the occasion of his 6th address, spoke to a group made up of all the people with the best ideas who by current standards were not at all successful, and repeated the old adage that in the land of the blind the one-eyed man would be in the zoo.
One person in the audience commented that you would then have to pay admission as you left the zoo.
So we find it was discovered that properly designed and properly explained, the physical environment was the ultimate learning device revealing people to themselves. The invisible city had become visible, and it became the schoolhouse that it always had been, the richest vehicle for learning that ever been conceived. This laboratory for learning had a faculty made up of the entire population, and classrooms with windows looking at what and why everybody was doing what they did and where they were doing it.
With the coming of the end of the 200th year, we once again begin the story. A series of self-defeating programs that occurred prior to the year of Celebration 200.
In the desire for taxes, we had encouraged the deterioration of buildings by taxing improvements.
In the desire for places to park cars, open space had become parking lots, and over one-third of the cities once designed for people became designated for the automobile.
In the desire to be clear, we had produced an over-profusion of confusing signs.
In the desire for mobility, we had permanently scarred the land with highways ever too narrow for the increase in traffic they encouraged.
In the desire for newness and progress, we destroyed the marvelous spaces and places of the past.
In the the desire to be fair, we created taxes with artificial loopholes that called for shoddy construction lasting only the 20-year writeoff life of a project.
In the desire to escape fear, we had created a bureaucracy of restraint, answerable only to itself.
In the desire for plazas, we had rewarding buildings that destroy the continuity of the street.
In a desire for tranquility, there was produced a series of unnecessary objects that emitted a series of unnecessary noises.
In the desire to look good, the concern for being good was ignored.
And in the desire to win, we had lost.
The Commissioner's last declaration in that 200th year was prophetic. He announced What Will Be Has Always Been. This reflected the fact that everything he had enacted had been stated before, only nobody had heard. Everything had been done before, but nobody had seen it. And that all had been of such uncommonly common sense, that it didn't make sense to people, who become insensitive.
The Commissioner had released ideas and information that had been there all the time. He hadn't created anything, but the ability for all to see the things they always see, but never see.
The Commissioner had celebrated the future while his peers were celebrating the past. He allowed them to see that the future is continuously happening, and so made them aware that they can continuously constructively change it. The Commissioner, the most senior of citizens, appeared to be the youngest person living in Could Be.
Constructive demands for change to the way our cities work are not to be measured by the quantity of new products, or by their look, but rather by their performance, making public information public was not a new program that needed a new budget, but simply could be completely accomplished by a simple change in attitude.
The collective change in attitude that occurred in the 200th year transformed fear to the feeling of safety, the alienation of schooling to the desire for learning. Politics to participation. Power to persuasion, and finally: dividends changed to confidence, as a result of genuine understanding.
And the citizens of Could Be, in the land of What If, lived happily ever after.
What If You Cared could be your city too.
And that's the end.