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Confessions of a biography junkie

Architecture Professor Larry Speck relishes the biographies of larger-than-life figures to draw energy and even inspiration from their everyday lives.

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Larry Speck is the W. L. Moody, Jr. Centennial Professor in Architecture. He has been on the School of Architecture faculty since 1975, and he was the school’s dean from 1992-2001.

I am a complete biography junkie. A significant part of my addiction is due to simple, perverse curiosity — my inability to resist creeping into other people’s lives for a glimpse of what makes them tick. But at least part of the compulsion is also driven by a desire to actually learn specific skills that others have and I want. I am especially interested in using biographies as a means to learn how to be a more creative and effective person in both my professional and personal life.

As an architect I have long been drawn to the biographies of great design heroes like Alvar Aalto and Louis Kahn. I am entranced by their lives, their personal associations, the places they lived and traveled as well as their quirks and idiosyncrasies. Aalto was a drunk (like many Finns who live through those dismal Arctic winters). Kahn had children by two mistresses as well as his wife and died deeply in debt. Both were brilliant, well loved and genuinely “nice guys,” but their lives were also full to overflowing and often plagued with chaos and angst. Their architectural work is studied, meticulous and ordered (organically in Aalto’s case, geometrically in Kahn’s), but their lives were often careless and out of control.

Obviously, I am not tempted to emulate these heroes. (Alcoholism, illegitimate children and penury hold little appeal.) I just want to learn something from them about the relationship between a truly experiential life and the nurturing of a creative mind. In other disciplines as diverse as science, medical research, anthropology and politics there seem to be similar connections between intensity and action in lifestyle and creative energy in work. I am particularly drawn to the biographies of Albert Einstein, Guglielmo Marconi, Jonas Salk, Jane Goodall, Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, to name a few, who seemed to draw energy and even inspiration from the vicissitudes of their everyday existence.

I love the idea of learning real, germane lessons from forebearers, alive or dead. Historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Oshinsky, Ron Chernow, Erik Larson and David McCullough tell compelling stories that allow a reader to vividly imagine the daily experience of their famous subjects. It just takes one small step beyond that to vicariously live those lives as a reader and to try to make a link to your own paltry existence and to the situations of others around you.