'The Fountainhead' at 50 Expectations of Architects Have Changed


"I do not recognize anyone's right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine. . . I am a man who does not exist for others."

With that angry soliloquy by Howard Roark in "The Fountainhead," Ayn Rand forever changed the face of American architecture.

Her epic characterization of Roark -- the fictional architect who dynamites his own building halfway through construction because others drastically compromised his design -- may have done more to shape public opinion about architecture and those who practice it than decades worth of actual construction. "The Fountainhead" left an indelible impression of the architect as an arrogant, selfish iconoclast who builds to satisfy his own ego rather than to serve clients.

Nothing is cast in stone? Roark's genius and integrity were as unyielding as granite. By the time Ms. Rand had finished chiseling his features, so was the public's perception of architects. And America's real practitioners have been trying to live it down ever since.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of "The Fountainhead." It was published in May of 1943, hit the best seller list that July, and was on and off of it for the next six years. Warner Bros. released a motion picture version starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal in 1949. The Ayn Rand Institute in Marina del Rey, California, estimates that 100,000 copies are sold every year and that six million volumes are in print -- making "The Fountainhead" one of America's all-time best sellers.

And this year, Roark is poised for a comeback. Signet Books just issued a 50th anniversary edition of "The Fountainhead." Ms. Rand's literary executor, Leonard Peikoff, is preparing to publish the "Fountainhead journals," an extensive collection of notes and character sketches that the author made while writing the book. And Giant Pictures recently disclosed that it is working with producer James Hill and Warner Bros. on a remake of the movie.

"Nobody can say it's a good book. But in a way, it's a great book," observes architectural historian Vincent Scully. "It played a large part in shaping a generation of architects. . . It's the message that shaped the late modernism of the 20th century."

"Everybody is always looking for a hero," agrees Washington architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen. Ms. Rand "made a hero out of Howard Roark, and a number of very bad architects thought they were Howard Roarks."

Fifty years after its publication, "The Fountainhead" is instructive to read not only as a philosophical construct, but also for its insightful, almost prophetic, observations about the architectural profession after the Great Depression.

"The Fountainhead" tells the story of a gifted young architect and his battle against lesser mortals who thwart his efforts at every turn. The plot is thickened by Roark's secret relationship with Dominique Francon, a woman whose force of will is as strong as his own. He enlists her aid to blow up a public housing project after discovering that his design for it has been altered by others.

Ms. Rand, who died in 1982, contended that she wrote the book to depict the projection of the "ideal" man and that the literary work was an end in itself. But she also admitted the book set forth a philosophical framework for its characters, a "rational code of ethics" or moral compass by which their actions can be judged.

That statement of principles stressed the importance of the individual over the masses, the creator over the "second hander." It helped win an enthusiastic, almost cult-like following for Ms. Rand's philosophy of "objectivism," which has been characterized as the "deification of selfishness."

For many who seek out the book for its philosophical underpinnings, Roark has come to personify Ms. Rand's belief that man's ego is the fountainhead of human progress. His battles against mediocrity epitomized her central theme of individualism vs. collectivism -- not in politics but in man's soul. Because he was fictional, his moves and motivations could be drawn more sharply than any living architect's ever could be.

"I don't intend to build in order to have clients," he states early in the book. "I intend to have clients in order to build."

In notes made to herself while writing "The Fountainhead," Ms. Rand explained how the subject of architecture fit into her portrayal. "The book is not about architecture," she wrote. "It's about Roark against the world and about the workings of that thing in the world which opposes him."

But even if Ms. Rand intended the book to be a character study, "The Fountainhead" soon took on a life of its own as a tale about architecture. From the beginning it captivated America's architects, who thirsted for any mention of the profession in the popular press. The plot's credibility was due to extensive research done by the author, who worked for six months without pay as a secretary in the office of New York architect Ely Jacques Kahn, solely to learn about the field.

Ms. Rand depicted Roark as being everything a young architect was supposed to be: brilliant, self-absorbed, creative, headstrong, invincible. His quest to build the ultimate skyscraper presaged, and perhaps fueled, the rise of Modernism in the United States. The book taps into many issues associated with Modernism -- the stripping away of ornament, the notion that form follows function, the emergence of the corporate client as a key patron of architecture. It presents a world that reached its zenith in the hedonistic, avaricious, "Greed is Good" corporate decadence of the 1980s.

But now, faced with an economic downturn, decaying cities and environmental destruction, both the public and the profession are in the midst of a backlash against Roarkian values.

Today there is a distinctly different kind of role model -- the "responsible" architect who is kinder, gentler, environmentally sensitive, civic-minded, politically correct and, above all, humble. For many, Howard Roark the hero has become Howard Roark the villain, a despicable symbol of everything an architect should not be.

In this climate, Roark-bashing has become a popular sport in architectural circles. Typical is the stance of American Institute of Architects president Susan Maxman, who declared in a recent speech in Baltimore that anyone who read past the first chapter of "The Fountainhead" doesn't belong in her office.

"I could never quite understand the layman's fascination with the character of Howard Roark," she confided. "Ayn Rand's novel offered a compelling picture of what millions took to be the true image of the architect: handsome, heroic and male! Thank heavens I wasn't practicing at the time. You don't know how depressing it is to be excluded from a myth."

If "The Fountainhead" was readable as sheer entertainment in the 1940s and '50s, then it is valuable today as a cautionary tale about the profession, especially since so many of the nation's design issues involve correcting mistakes made by the Howard Roarks of the world.

Some of the most challenging architectural commissions of the 1980s and 1990s have been launched to heal the wounds and repair the damage inflicted by headstrong Modern architects who wiped the slate clean and designed in their own Roarkian way. They range from enlivening the barren, wind-swept plazas at the base of so many downtown office towers to removing elevated highways that cut cities off from their waterfronts to finding alternatives to unlivable high rise public housing.

With 20-20 hindsight, it is clear that Roark's method of designing in isolation resulted in buildings isolated from their context, objects to be put on a pedestal and admired. Along with objectivism, Ms. Rand inadvertently promoted the objectification of architecture -- the notion that it is all right to view buildings apart from their surroundings and users. Roark made little effort to design structures that work well as urban design, yet that is what America's cities need most.

Ms. Rand's book particularly merits renewed attention today in light of the advent of Postmodernism, the movement that prompted a rethinking of architectural history.

One of basic architectural premises of "The Fountainhead" -- that Modern architecture alone can save the world -- has been turned upside down by the Postmodern movement, which made it permissible again to learn from historical precedent.

In that context, Roark has become not only a symbol of the wrong way to be an architect, but of all that is wrong with Modern architecture -- the personification of Modernism gone awry.

New York architect James Wines said he uses "The Fountainhead" in his lectures as an example of the changing perceptions about architecture and architects in society. "We've XTC gone from the idea of the architect as the mega-ego conquering all opposition," he said, "to the idea of the architect who is cooperative and collaborative, the civic-minded person."

Today's more inclusive attitudes about architecture are showing Howard Roark to be the myth he really is. Given shifting currents of architectural theory, and diminished opportunities for the kind of ego-gratifying design work that Roark craved, the architectural profession seems to be attracting a different kind of practitioner. Indeed, if Ayn Rand were to write her novel now, Howard Roark would probably be a rock star.

The key to reading "The Fountainhead" today is not to see Howard Roark as a role model, but as the ultimate bad boy of American architecture. Ms. Rand's philosophical views may always have a following, but her 50-year-old depiction of the architectural profession has grown more and more out of sync with reality. There is no room in the profession for Howard Roark today.

Edward Gunts is an architecture critic and Urban Landscape columnist for The Baltimore Sun.

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