The Fountainhead: Out With the Old

Parthenon

The Fountainhead, part 1, chapter 1

Last week, we learned that Howard Roark had been expelled from architectural college for refusing to do his homework. In this installment, he explains just why he finds it so objectionable to design buildings in classical style:

“But I don’t understand. Why do you want me to think that this is great architecture?” He pointed to the picture of the Parthenon.

“That,” said the Dean, “is the Parthenon.”

“So it is.”

“I haven’t the time to waste on silly questions.”

“All right, then.” Roark got up, he took a long ruler from the desk, he walked to the picture. “Shall I tell you what’s rotten about it? …The famous flutings on the famous columns — what are they there for? To hide the joints in wood — when columns were made of wood, only these aren’t, they’re marble. The triglyphs, what are they? Wood. Wooden beams, the way they had to be laid when people began to build wooden shacks. Your Greeks took marble and they made copies of their wooden structures out of it, because others had done it that way. Then your masters of the Renaissance came along and made copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood. Now here we are, making copies in steel and concrete of copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood. Why?”

One thing is for sure: Ayn Rand really hates skeuomorphism.

A skeuomorphism is a functional metaphor, recreating some feature of an old design in a new medium where that feature is no longer necessary. Your computer interface has lots of these: digital documents that have “pages”, as if they were made of ink and paper rather than pixels on a screen; touchscreen controls that look like buttons, switches, or sliders; an icon of a trash can that you drag files into to delete them. Vinyl wallpaper that looks like brick, whisper-quiet electric cars that make fake engine sounds, or digital turntables that mimic the controls of record players, are other examples.

Rand implies that skeuomorphs can only be the result of sheer stupidity. Through Roark’s diatribe, she portrays people of the past as blithering idiots who mindlessly copied their predecessors even as technology advanced and new building materials became available. But that can’t be true. The ancient Greeks knew what they were doing; it’s safe to assume they were aware that triglyphs and fluted columns weren’t necessary when building in stone. After all, if they weren’t smart enough to figure that out, who came up with the idea of building in stone in the first place?

The dean doesn’t answer Roark’s question, but I’ll take a shot at it: the Greeks included skeuomorphic elements in their designs for the same reasons people do it today. First, there’s the aesthetic reason: they may simply have found them pleasing to look at. Little flourishes like these keep designed things from being strictly utilitarian. In the builders’ eyes, it may have made their temples more elegant, symmetrical or harmonious.

Second, it makes people comfortable with the new by introducing it in terms of the familiar. This is called the theory of affordances – objects that are designed to offer clues as to their intended use. Contrary to what Rand thinks, this is good design. It makes new technologies intuitive and easy to grasp.

Third, it’s for the sake of tradition. It’s a way of asserting continuity with your predecessors, or honoring their achievements. This is a concept that’s utterly foreign to Rand – as you can see from her ex nihilo hero with no family, no past and no influences – but it shouldn’t be.

After all, in Atlas Shrugged, her heroes were devotees of Aristotle, whom they honored as the originator of the rational tradition they followed. Why couldn’t you have an Objectivist architect who admired Aristotle in the same way, and built a house in the Greek style as a way of showing it? Would this be permissible in Rand’s eyes, or is it somehow OK to learn about Greek philosophy but not OK to learn about anything else from their culture?

“Rules?” said Roark. “Here are my rules: what can be done with one substance must never be done with another. No two materials are alike. No two sites on earth are alike. No two buildings have the same purpose. The purpose, the site, the material determine the shape. Nothing can be reasonable or beautiful unless it’s made by one central idea, and the idea sets every detail. A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose. A man doesn’t borrow pieces of his body. A building doesn’t borrow hunks of its soul. Its maker gives it the soul and every wall, window and stairway to express it.”

Roark’s rules seem both unnecessarily restrictive and bizarre. No doubt, it fits with Ayn Rand’s philosophy to insist that there’s one Objectively Correct Way to approach every job, every material, and every building site. (It hearkens back to her similar belief that there are objectively correct and incorrect styles of music, fashion, art, and dancing.) But architecture allows for considerably more whim and creativity than that.

What can be done with one building material must never be done with another? But all strong-enough materials are interchangeable to some extent. You can make a roof out of shingles, tiles or metal; they’ll serve the same purpose. You can even make skyscrapers out of wood.

All building sites are different? But prefabricated homes, which can be plunked down on any suitable spot, are an old innovation going back to Sears’ mail-order kit houses of the early 1900s. I’m sure Rand would have furiously denounced this as more mindless repetition, as though it were a sin for people to just want a good-enough place to live without the expense of hiring an architect to design something brand-new on every suburban lot.

And even when a building has “one central idea”, it’s absurd to say that determines every detail of its construction. Deciding to build, say, a luxury hotel on the beach, or a commercial tower in a financial district, doesn’t tell you whether to make the building ten stories tall or twenty, or what style of windows to use, or whether to cap it with a spire, or whether to make the facade of brick, stone, or glass.

This is an assertion that you can only get away with in a text-only medium. Since we don’t get to see Roark’s buildings, only read Rand’s descriptions of them, she can just insist that they’re perfect as is, that not a single window or stairway could be changed without ruining them. But that trick only works in a fictional world where everything is black or white, Good or Evil, and everyone can tell which is which at a glance.

Image credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.