The Fountainhead: The Art of the Interview


The Fountainhead, part 1, chapter 3

We’ve seen that Howard Roark’s goal is to apprentice with Henry Cameron, a once-renowned modernist architect who lost his business and sank into obscurity when he refused to move with the times. In this chapter, while Peter Keating is reporting for his first day of work at Francon & Heyer, Roark is across town climbing the stairs to Cameron’s crumbling slum of an office:

Henry Cameron sat at his desk at the end of a long, bare room. He sat bent forward, his forearms on the desk, his two hands closed before him. His hair and his beard were coal black, with coarse threads of white. The muscles of his short, thick neck bulged like ropes. He wore a white shirt with the sleeves rolled above the elbows; the bare arms were hard, heavy and brown. The flesh of his broad face was rigid, as if it had aged by compression. The eyes were dark, young, living.

Cameron is irascible and belligerent, suspicious of his new applicant’s motives:

“What do you want?” snapped Cameron.

“I should like to work for you,” said Roark quietly.

… “What’s the matter? None of the bigger and better fellows will have you?”

“I have not applied to anyone else.”

… “Why the hell should you pick me?”

“I think you know that.”

It should go without saying, but really, you shouldn’t be reading Ayn Rand books for advice on how to ace a job interview.

Normally, when a prospective employer asks why you want to work for them, it’s generally a good idea to reel off a list of reasons why you admire their company, what you like about the work they do, why you’d fit well into their culture, etc. It shows enthusiasm, motivation, preparedness, and other qualities that employers generally like to see. Remember, Henry Cameron doesn’t know anything about Howard Roark at this point. Would you hire a stranger who walked in off the street and asked for a job despite not being able to say anything about your company besides vague generalities?

Granted, this tactic may work better in Rand’s fictional world where there are only two kinds of people – True Objectivists and worthless sheep – and everyone recognizes their own kind at a glance. All you have to do in that scenario is to say in a robotic monotone “I want to work for you” and then stare creepily at the other person until they get the message.

Cameron is openly contemptuous, pointing out that he doesn’t even have enough work for the handful of employees he has:

“Where have you worked before?”

“I’m just beginning.”

“What have you done?”

“I’ve had three years at Stanton.”

“Oh? The gentleman was too lazy to finish?”

“I have been expelled.”

Again, leading with “I’ve been expelled from college” – not the best move in a job interview.

Granted, lacking a degree when applying for a professional job is something that’s difficult to sugarcoat, but you can always try something like, “I left to pursue other opportunities” or “It wasn’t the right fit for me” or “I was eager to get out into the world and start my professional career”. Just dumping out that kind of unflattering information suggests you either don’t know or don’t care that most prospective employers would view it negatively, which, again, is not a wise move when you’re trying to persuade them of your ability and professional competence.

“Great!” Cameron slapped the desk with his fist and laughed. “Splendid! You’re not good enough for the lice nest at Stanton, but you’ll work for Henry Cameron! You’ve decided this is the place for refuse! What did they kick you out for? Drink? Women? What?”

“These,” said Roark, and extended his drawings.

Since Ayn Rand seems to have forgotten her own novel – or else she’s having Roark deliberately shade the truth – this is a good place for a reminder that he wasn’t expelled from Stanton for designing buildings in a Roarkian style. He was expelled because he refused to do anything else!

I was surprised, when I read that earlier chapter, that Rand didn’t write it to have Roark’s professors spitefully flunk him for being original. That would have fit right in to the kind of story she usually tells. But in this scene, it seems as if she forgot what she said and is writing as if she did script it that way.

“When did you decide to become an architect?”

“When I was ten years old.”

“Men don’t know what they want so early in life, if ever. You’re lying.”

“Am I?”

“Don’t stare at me like that! Can’t you look at something else? Why did you decide to be an architect?”

“I didn’t know it then. But it’s because I’ve never believed in God.”

“Come on, talk sense.”

“Because I love this earth. That’s all I love. I don’t like the shape of things on this earth. I want to change them.”

Atheist = architect. I don’t really see the connection, but okay. But, for the third time, this is interview behavior that ought to throw up all kinds of red flags.

Obviously, I don’t think being an atheist is shameful or something to conceal. But I also don’t think you should just blurt it out in response to a standard job interview question. Even beyond the possibility that it might provoke a prejudiced reaction from the person you want to hire you (especially in 1922!), it shows a poor sense of professional boundaries to come out with that deeply personal information in such an ostentatious way. For the same reason, I’d be suspicious of a job applicant who made a big deal of announcing what church they belonged to. It suggests that they either intend to proselytize on the job or that they’re expecting preferential treatment.

“God damn you!” roared Cameron suddenly, leaning forward. “I didn’t ask you to come here! I don’t need any draftsmen! There’s nothing here to draft! I don’t have enough work to keep myself and my men out of the Bowery Mission! I don’t want any fool visionaries starving around here! I don’t want the responsibility. I didn’t ask for it. I never thought I’d see it again. I’m through with it… Why did you have to come here? You’re setting out to ruin yourself, you know that, don’t you? And I’ll help you to do it. I don’t want to see you. I don’t like you. I don’t like your face. You look like an insufferable egotist. You’re impertinent. You’re too sure of yourself. Twenty years ago I’d have punched your face with the greatest of pleasure. You’re coming to work here tomorrow at nine o’clock sharp.”

It was predictable that Roark would get the job despite, by all conventional standards, bombing every question in the interview. In Randworld, your success is assured as long as you show “gumption”. This rarely works in reality, no matter what your grandpa says.

It’s worth bringing up around now that all the characters in The Fountainhead are thinly fictionalized versions of real people. Cameron is Rand’s stand-in for Louis Sullivan, a pioneering American architect, founder of the modernist Prairie School, and the apprentice of William LeBaron Jenney, an engineer who developed the steel-frame model that made the skyscraper possible.

But the real Sullivan wasn’t a consistent Objectivist hero like his fictional counterpart. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts, the French school Roark advised Keating to stay far away from. He also agreed to participate in the Columbian Exposition which Rand reviled, although his structure wasn’t in the same classical style as the other entries.

Last but not least, there’s one big difference between Cameron and his real-life model:

Henry Cameron… had nobody to quote and nothing of importance to say. He said only that the form of a building must follow its function; that the structure of a building is the key to its beauty; that new methods of construction demand new forms; that he wished to build as he wished and for that reason only. But people could not listen to him when they were discussing Vitruvius, Michelangelo and Sir Christopher Wren.

Louis Sullivan said the same thing about how form should follow function. However, he didn’t claim it was his idea. Ironically, he got it from Vitruvius, the same Roman builder Rand scorns in this paragraph!

Sullivan, however, attributed the concept to Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, the Roman architect, engineer, and author, who first asserted in his book, De architectura, that a structure must exhibit the three qualities of firmitas, utilitas, venustas – that is, it must be solid, useful, beautiful.

This just goes to show that there’s no neat and clear line, such as Rand wants to draw, between evil classical architects and modernists who are the source of all that’s right and true. In architecture, as in everywhere else, ideas mix and flow freely between schools of thought that she regarded as good and those she regarded as bad.

Image: Another inadvisable thing to do at a job interview. Via Quinn Dombrowski, released under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

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