San Francisco — Once upon a time, in the merry-go-round mind of Richard Saul Wurman, dwelt the mythological city of Could-Be. In this enlightened realm, ruled by a waggish Commissioner of Curiosity and Imagination:
* IQ tests are replaced by SOH (Sense of Humor) examinations - the ''true'' measure of intelligence - and given to all public officials.
* A city-sponsored ''Wait Watchers Program'' improves the quality of bus stops, subway stations, airports, and other waiting places.
* The Museum of Failure commemorates the Edsel, Brasilia, and other magnificent goofs, as ''delayed successes.'' (When upper-crust Could-Beians learn they no longer need to impress one another with success stories, the cocktail party, as a form of social entertainment, disappears.)
When the P.T. Barnum of American architecture cracks his pawky whip, conventional wisdom stands on its head and stodginess flees the fairgrounds. The irreverent Richard Saul Wurman, a fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), is an internationally known mapmaker and designer who ''as far as I know, '' says one colleague, ''has never been victimized by a minute of graphic design training.'' His architectural genius, says Italian graphic designer Massimo Vignelli, is ''on the cutting-edge side, where the fun is.''
The latest attraction in Wurman's three-ring design circus is a remarkable New York City guidebook. Released a few weeks ago, it is being applauded as the best Baedeker ever to bite into the Big Apple. Elegantly designed, the 248-page Michelin Guide-size compendium is the inspired work of a Wurman access team of a dozen pithy writers.
It is jammed with some 3,000 entries, delicious urban trivia (tips on everything from how to play Italian boccie to where to buy faucets and equestrian whips), original art by painters Jim Dine and Robert Kulicke, advice from such seasoned rangers of ''Skyscraper National Park'' as Walter Cronkite, Beverly Sills, and Jimmy Breslin, and more. The book's premise (information is art, and vice versa) is nowhere better exemplified than in Wurman's own intelligent, uncluttered maps of Gotham.
''NYC/Access'' - the fifth in a series of guidebooks which have included Los Angeles, San Francisco, Hawaii, and football - is part of Wurman's bold venture into the ''architecture of information.'' In the coming year he will focus his cartographer's ''compulsion to order chaos'' on New Orleans, Washington, D.C., hospitals, baseball, the Olympics, and a history of American product design called ''A Paper Clip and 299 Other Things.''
''You might wonder,'' wonders Wurman, '' 'Why is a Jewish boy from Philadelphia, who lives in Los Angeles, now doing a book on New York?' '' Like his alter ego, the Commissioner of Curiosity and Imagination, Wurman ''prefers good questions to brilliant answers.'' (In 1976 Wurman created his Could-Be Commissioner in a ''keynote fable'' when he chaired the AIA's national convention.) He further admitted that ''I'm no expert on San Francisco, I've only visited Hawaii for 12 days, and I did the L.A. book because I couldn't find my way around.''
In 1980, after just six months in Los Angeles, Wurman convinced the city's bicentennial committee he was the man to map the illogical metropolis because he was always getting lost there. Veteran Angelenos, Wurman argued, were too familiar with their city. (As one wag put it: ''We don't know who first discovered water, but we can be sure it wasn't a fish.'') Wurman's chutzpah informed him that anyone can learn any subject ''in about a week,'' if (a) He wants to badly enough, or (b) his back is to the wall.
After charming L.A.'s city fathers, Wurman recruited Frank Stanton, former president of CBS, to put up his capital in return for 50 percent of Wurman's new Los Angeles-based publishing company, Access Press Ltd. Wurman then printed 60, 000 copies of a 144-page guidebook called ''LA/Access peels back the Big Orange, '' distributed it out of his garage, and then collected kudos. (''You've gotta have 'LA/Access,' '' thundered Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. ''Arduous but magnificent,'' cheered the late architect and visionary R. Buckminster Fuller. Illustrator R. O. Blechman added the kicker: ''Bright and fun-kist.'')
At his suite on the Hyatt's 27th floor here, Wurman is on the phone. Plump as a partridge, he wears a mailbox-red sweater, has a thin crop of gray whiskers, and carries bags beneath his eyes. He has been up for two days baby sitting the New York book through its final press run. As he signs off with his printer in Seattle, the other phone rings in his sitting room. I answer it. The vice-president of New York's ritzy Rizzoli International Bookstore is calling with his boss's final offer: ''We'll put your book in our Fifth Avenue store window if you discount it to $3.65.''
''Tell him to hold on,'' Wurman shouts to me. He ambles across the carpet, and switches to a negotiating bark. ''No dice! It's an $11.95 book. Four dollars is the best I can do.'' With his kettle-drum laugh Wurman cajoles: ''Tell your boss I'll buy the gelati when I get to New York. And call me back in 20 minutes with his answer.''
Before Wurman has finished serving up his ice cream invitation the bedroom phone rings again. A potential order for 2 million copies of the Olympic book. ''Put it in a memo and get it to my house.''
Now the living room phone. New York again: ''We won't go higher than $3.65.''
''OK,'' says Wurman, sighing like a punctured bicycle tire. ''But the gelati's off.''
Wurman's friends describe him as a man of countless curiosities, none of them idle. ''Richard Wurman is a tireless collector of all the vital information which slips by almost everyone else,'' says Ivan Chermayeff, a respected New York graphic designer. ''He edits and organizes it into a comprehensive form, then presents it graphically in an elegant, orderly, and utterly convincing way.'' Milton Glaser, a world-renowned magazine illustrator, applauds what he calls Wurman's ''inevitable lucidity.'' ''If good design involves the elimination of the extraneous and making things clear,'' he says, ''Rick's work is at the top of the field.''
On his way to the top, Wurman taught at Cambridge University and Princeton, wrote and designed over a dozen books and publications, was dean of the school of environmental design at the California State Polytechnic University in Pomona , and founding director of GEE! (Group for Environmental Education Inc.). Absent from his curriculum vitae, but nevertheless a mark of distinction in his education, were the countless Philadelphia Eagle football games he attended with his mentor, the legendary architect Louis Kahn.
Wurman, like Kahn, has strayed from beaten paths whenever possible. Frequently, he even cuts his own: After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, he spent six months bushwacking through the jungles of Guatemala to prepare a plane table survey of Tikal, the world's largest and oldest Mayan city.
In grade school, Wurman redesigned his bedroom furniture, then painted three walls black and the fourth ''like a Mondrian.'' By the age of 12 he was a devotee of industrial designer Charles Eames and had collected every book written on Paul Klee, the Swiss abstract painter. ''My father Morris, a cigarmaker, had never heard of him. But Klee was my childhood hero. Klee's paintings had a shorthand that described action, feeling, color, mood. They were not about painting but communication and visual literacy.''
Wurman's architecture is not about buildings. He likens his guidebooks to verbal maps and open-stack libraries. ''You go looking for one book, end up browsing, and then take home the books on either side of it,'' Wurman said. ''Most guidebooks segregate cities into separate sections - a ghetto of restaurants here, a ghetto of hotels there. Our books are built like the serendipity of the cities they mirror.''
Each of his cities is divided into color-coded neighborhoods: musuems in black, restaurants in red, architectural notes in blue, parks in green, hotels in purple. ''We put everything next to each other by address. It's an obvious idea, but that's what architecture is, the permission to think as simply as possible.''
Wurman and his Could-Be Commissioner are revolutionaries, armed with the obvious. The Commissioner's campaign slogan is ''You only understand something relative to something you understand.'' Wurman likes to stump a crowd by asking, ''How big is an acre?'' Amid the sea of puzzled faces some wise guy always pipes up: ''Forty three thousand, five hundred and sixty square feet.'' It happens to be the correct answer, says Wurman, but it doesn't communicate anything. ''If, however, I say an acre is about as big as a football field without the end zones , you'll never forget it.''How did this architect come to know so much about the game a referee describes in Wurman's football book as ''trying to maintain order during a legalized gang brawl involving 80 toughs with a little whistle, a hanky , and a ton of prayer''? The back cover of ''Football/Access'' reveals: ''Richard Saul Wurman tried out for the Elkins Park Junior High football team in 1949 and chipped his lower front tooth during the first day of practice. He never suited up again but as time passed became an avid TV-viewing football fan and later a fellow of the American Institute of Architects. To him, this book is the architecture of football, as it peels back then rebuilds the game from shoelaces to stadia. . . .''
Wurman relishes trivia (''it's informative but tickles,'' he says), and peppers his guidebooks with the ridiculous (Dick Butkus of the Chicago Bears was once charged with biting a referee) and the sublime (in 1838, Los Angeles passed an ordinance prohibiting the serenading of women without a license). Wurman also has a sticky mind for regional expressions. In Hawaii, a newcomer is an ''FOB'' (fresh off the boat); in New York, ''lar'' is what ''laryehs'' practice at the bar; in football, a ''lollipop'' is an easy-to-intercept pass.
Wurman believes information should either entertain or stay home. For example , ''NYC/Access'' tips us off that Sammy's Roumanian is the ''best Jewish restaurant in the city, although not kosher. . . . If you are unfamiliar with the cuisine, order almost everything the waitress tells you to, but in only half the quantity she recommends.'' The San Francisco guide counsels that, should you attend the Curran Theatre, ''Avoid the rear balconies unless you're a lip reader - the acoustics are impossible.''
''There is nothing scientific about my approach to the guidebooks,'' Wurman added. ''Remember, the most scientific product in the last 50 years was the Edsel. They asked everybody what they wanted and didn't please anybody. I mix everything up and do the opposite of everybody else. I follow my nose and trust my ignorance.
''I arrive in a new city wondering exactly where I am. Is the airport north, south, east, or west of the city? Is my cab taking me 400 miles out of the way? To reduce my terror I first hold a map so north is up and so I can get some organizing principles in my mind.''
A map is Wurman's security blanket. It is also his ''shoehorn into whatever rules, creativity, or science there is in a visual language. . . . Inherent in the idea of M-A-P,'' said Wurman, spelling out the acronym, ''is man's ability to perceive. The map appeals to me because it's the only graphic mode that has rigor about it.''
What makes a bad map?
''Too much information,'' said Wurman. ''A map is a pattern made understandable, and you can't register any mental memory of tens of patterns at the same time.
''I do my maps with a twist, to make you look, see, and hear things you might miss. Everything creative is the opposite of what you think it is, especially humor. You know the story of (Johnny Hart's comic-strip character) B.C. in his cave, chipping away at a round piece of stone? He finally cuts a hole in the middle, rolls it out of his cave, and announces with a proud grin: ''I call this 'fire'!'' Wurman chortled.
''It makes me laugh and also tells a lot about the whole history of words and how things are named. The wheel could have been called 'fire.' Today I would put four fires on my car, instead of four wheels. Kids would ride on a Ferris fire. Humor is essential to mental agility. Punch lines are always the opposite of expectation.
''When I try to solve a problem I try to go backwards, instead of forwards. (Louis) Kahn had a country called Zero. He was always searching for that country where you found what a beginning was. With guidebooks, you don't take the best one, say, Michelin, and improve upon it. You go backwards to zero and discover the essence of a guidebook. You have to go through the process of reinventing the wheel.''
Wurman is about to publish with Rizzoli ''What Will Be Has Always Been,'' a book on Kahn. Kahn's influence on architecture, said Wurman, grew out of his ''singleness of agenda.'' ''Family, power, fame, were not on Kahn's agenda. Fortune wasn't, either. He was $500,000 in debt. He couldn't drive a car and always sat in the front seat of cabs. He was not handsome, didn't dress well. All he was trying to do was clear his mind and think about 'architecture with a capital A,' as he called it. Lou Kahn's buildings aren't witty or clever; they're eternal. In ruin they'll be just as beautiful.''
Like Kahn, Wurman wears his iconoclasm on his sleeve: ''Things that fail tickle my curiosity.'' After all, he said, Could-Be's Museum of Failure ''was dedicated to the fact that you can only understand things by understanding how they don't work. Science is the documentation of failure until it reaches something that works. From the inventive failings of me and others, I learn what to do next. And because most things don't work, there is no end of things to do.''
Any inventive failures on the horizon? Wurman said, ''Conferences interest me because they are public ways of failing.'' He's now helping to organize TED, a conference on ''designing information as entertainment'' next year. ''Most speeches are boring,'' said Wurman, who has chaired conferences in which participants outnumbered the student body of most Ivy League universities. ''The space between meetings is more important than the meetings themselves.''
''If you have good speakers, you attract a better audience, so what you want to do is have the audience meet each other. You figure out a format that allows the best time between lectures for people to meet. Set it up in a way that people don't feel guilty about not seeing everything. Make tapes and let them know everything will be replayed if they miss it.''
Other coming attractions? The baseball book comes out next spring. In August, Wurman will release an updated ''Football/Access,'' which, he lamented, ''bombed last year because of the unexpected football strike.'' In October, Access will print 3 million preordered copies of the Olympics guidebook, which includes a Japanese edition and 1 million books to be distributed by Arco gas stations. Wurman, a late-night television fan, is also contemplating a guide to watching movies. ''I want to know who's the 'best boy' and the 'gaffer'? And how is a scene constructed?''
Meanwhile, Richard Saul Wurman sticks to his unorthodox but inventive game plan: Avoid midfield short-yardage situations. Whenever possible, gamble on the long ball, the touchdown pass. ''The risks I take get bigger and bigger. I bet my company every day. It's invigorating but makes me quite vulnerable.''
Wurman's greatest fear?
The architect dropped back into the pocket and lofted a lollipop grin: ''Another football strike.''