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  • Confessions of a biography junkie

    By Larry Speck
    Published: April 11, 2011
    Confessions

    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.

    • Quote 2
      how to lose the fat said on Sept. 28, 2011 at 4:41 p.m.
      Great post! Thanks, I enjoyed it very much. I agree, we should learn from history, and not to commit the same mistakes again.
    • Quote 2
      Jane Low said on April 16, 2011 at 4:18 a.m.
      Well the truth is that not knowing and learning from history will allow people to make those same mistakes again. I feel history is very much undervalued as an instrument of world peace.
    • Quote 2
      Abdel Gutierrez said on April 15, 2011 at 12:32 a.m.
      Professor Speck is one of the most influential people in my architecture career. I've always admired him; he's been a great example for me to follow. Best, Abdel Gutierrez
    • Quote 2
      Ryan Lee said on April 13, 2011 at 3:43 p.m.
      Now I know why Larry's ARC 308 is filled with architect's biographies:)
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      Nancy Kwallek said on April 11, 2011 at 6:51 p.m.
      Larry, A most phenomenal biography I am now reading is, The Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. You may not be interested because it is unlike those to which you refer. But, the history presented is most amazing. Best, Nancy Kwallek
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