May 06: the spout of the Fountainhead

2012/05/06 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1943, The Fountainhead was published.

Ayn Rand’s tale of architect Howard Roark battling the establishment to achieve the ends of his personal architectural ideology is one of the most popular novels ever to have an architect at the center of the tale.  Maybe the only other contenders are the recent The Devil in the White City (which is ultimately unsatisfying since the good “White City” half is diminished by the parallel but unrelated and mostly gratuitous “Devil” half) and The Pillars of the Earth, which got a huge surge from Oprah’s endorsement in 2007, almost twenty years after it was originally published.  While all three books have their entertaining element, and occasionally an instructive moment, it is interesting that the one that is so popular among architects and architecture students does not tell the tale of a building enterprise with lots of hands contributing to a common goal (as the other two do), but rather, it’s the one based on a philosophy that is about the absolute rights of the individual to pursue his beliefs to their ultimate end with no consideration for anyone, at any and all expense.

Setting aesthetics aside (since this is not a story about Modernists vs. Traditionalists per se; although Rand uses that debate as a way to emphasize the theme of her book, the two might have easily been reversed to tell the same tale), it is an intellectual issue that the reader has to come to terms with when she wrestles with this book.  Roark is, of course, the hero, but to say he’s “flawed” is putting it lightly.  Roark’s behavior is only acceptable because of the option that Rand offers in her very limited world.  The single foil to Roark’s obnoxious behavior is the buffoon Peter Keating, an architect with no backbone whatsoever.  He is a clown, so making the choice of Roark over him is a false one–or, at least we hope it is.  Having only Keating (who subvert his complete lack of self to the shifting whims of whoever is in the room at the time) and Roark (whose ego is his only guide, even as it counters the opinions of everyone everywhere) as the only options is ridiculous.

These silly parameters make it hard to dig into this novel either as literature or philosophy.  The critic who suggested that the best time to read The Fountainhead is “when one is young enough to miss the point” is exactly right.  It’s just not a book that holds up to significant scrutiny.  Here’s how bad it gets: the “rightness” of Roark’s dominance over everyone, and everything, extends to his rape of Dominique, and that really ought to make a person take pause with the rest of the book.  The Fountainhead is probably consumed most often by junior architecture students on Christmas break who miss the uglier side of its message; but if it fires them up to stand up for their beliefs, that’s not a bad thing–as long as they go back to school and make sure that their beliefs are actually built on a reasonable intellectual and moral foundations.

Haven’t read it yet?  To have your architectural street cred you sort of ought to, although you need to really be committed to slog through the whole thing.  Alternately, there is of course the swell King Vidor version of it filmed in 1949.  And we admit, the movie goes down much, much easier than the 700+ page tome: the gorgeous sets! the hilarious caricatures of architecture professors and critics!  And then there are the perfect performances of Gary Cooper, who is just as cuddly and warm as a steel I-beam, and Patricia Neal, who does as well as a girl could with the wonky messed up Fembot that was thunk up by Rand.

When one travels in Scotland, one must try haggis.  Not because one wants to, not because one will enjoy it, not because it is an experience one will necessarily want to relive, but one simply must, to have the full experience of the place.  The Fountainhead is the haggis of twentieth-century archi-lit.  Swallow without chewing; otherwise, it will leave a bad taste in your mouth.

Image: publicity shot for the movie; maybe if Roark received more crits from ladies in evening gowns, he wouldn’t have gone around blowing up skyscrapers

Click here for a three-minute scene that encapsulates the gist of the story; it’s everything you need, except for Patricia Neal in a knock-out gown


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