Wurman's LargenessWHEN I ASKED Nicholas Negroponte, Director of the MIT Media Lab and columnist for Wired magazine, to describe his colleague and friend Ricky Wurman, Negroponte e-mailed me back the word: large.
Wurman is large in both the literal and figurative senses. In person, he has the grand, affable demeanor of a hip grandfather; someone who prefers sweaters to suits and soft, tropical-colored shoes to black wingtips. He is an intellectual and gastronomic gourmet, someone who has a passionate appetite for good conversation and fine restaurants. When making a particularly emphatic point -- of which there are many -- Wurman will roll forward in his chair, place his hands on his knees, and lean heavily towards the person with whom he's speaking.
He likes to speak his mind, to elicit what he calls an "of courseness" from other people. In this sense, he is a bit like the Howard Beale character in the first part of the film Network, sticking his head into corporate boardrooms and urging people not to It anymore, whether the It is a long, ineffectual meeting; a poorly-organized phonebook; or a stack of daunting, never-read newspapers piled on a desk.
Wurman learned a great deal of this, he points out, from his mentor at Penn, the late Louis I. Kahn, Hon'71, who Wurman describes as "the youngest person I ever knew." (Wurman put together the book What Will Be Has Always Been: The Words of Louis I. Kahn). Under Kahn's tutelage, Wurman began to appreciate the things everyone else seemed to be overlooking. He appreciated not just the exterior, but the inside of the insides -- in his words, "the veins of a building."
As a result, he became renowned even within the architecture department. He was known, in those days, to wear too-short painter's pants and a wild beard. "Ricky was a kind of radical when he was here," says Gary Hack, dean of Penn's Graduate School of Fine Arts. "He was, even at that time, somewhat out of the mainstream of architecture." Wurman acknowledges that "a lot of people thought I was arrogant." But, ultimately, Hack says, Wurman's ability to "break out of the box" and apply architectural theory to conceptual thinking has emerged as his greatest contribution. Or maybe his largest.
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