The Fountainhead: Market Forces

ColumbianExposition

The Fountainhead, part 1, chapter 3

In last week’s post, we met Guy Francon, who was once a famous architect but now spends all his time drinking and gorging himself at fancy dinners. Here’s how he made his reputation:

The Frink National Bank Building displayed the entire history of Roman art in well-chosen specimens; for a long time it had been considered the best building of the city, because no other structure could boast a single Classical item which it did not possess. It offered so many columns, pediments, friezes, tripods, gladiators, urns and volutes that it looked as if it had not been built of white marble, but squeezed out of a pastry tube… It had been so great a success that it was the last structure Guy Francon ever designed; its prestige spared him the bother from then on.

Despite the widespread acclaim for Francon’s building, the text tells us, there’s just one problem with it:

It was, however, built of white marble… It was now of a streaked, blotched, leprous color, neither brown nor green but the worst tones of both, the color of slow rot, the color of smoke, gas fumes and acids eating into a delicate stone intended for clean air and open country.

Whoa, whoa, whoa! Is Ayn Rand seriously suggesting that the city’s smog and acid rain is a bad thing? We won’t stand for that kind of tree-hugging, anti-Industrial-Revolution, hippie crap around here!

Rand could have disabused herself of this mindset if only she’d read Atlas Shrugged, which informs us that air pollution comes from “sacred fires” and that the only thing it causes is pretty sunsets. In another, later work, she argued that pollution is a blessing and that people ought to be lining up to give thanks to the “grimiest, sootiest smokestacks [they] can find”.

As later-Rand would have told earlier-Rand, the erosion and discoloration of the Frink building isn’t a bug, but a feature. It’s a sign of how great an architect Guy Francon is. He cleverly designed a structure that allows everyone for miles around to see the signs of progress for themselves!

Meanwhile, we’ve been told that Howard Roark wants to work for Henry Cameron, an architect whom Peter Keating described as a washed-up old has-been. Here’s Henry Cameron’s most famous structure:

Three blocks east of the Frink National Bank stood the Dana Building. It was some stories lower and without any prestige whatever. Its lines were hard and simple, revealing, emphasizing the harmony of the steel skeleton within, as a body reveals the perfection of its bones. It had no other ornament to offer. It displayed nothing but the precision of its sharp angles, the modeling of its planes, the long streaks of its windows like streams of ice running down from the roof to the pavements…

The tenants of the Dana Building said that they would not exchange it for any structure on earth; they appreciated the light, the air, the beautiful logic of the plan in their halls and offices. But the tenants of the Dana Building were not numerous; no prominent man wished his business to be located in a building that looked “like a warehouse.”

The message we’re supposed to take away from this is that the Dana Building is “correct”, aesthetically speaking, and the Frink Building isn’t. You might think it’s just a matter of taste, but actually, liking white marble and classical accoutrement is wrong. If people don’t realize that, that just goes to show how ignorant they are.

But Rand’s text is oddly in conflict with itself. Even as it asserts that the Dana Building is the better of the two, it also concedes that the Frink Building is popular and much-loved, and the Dana Building isn’t. Its tenants “were not numerous”, which implies that there’s empty space the building’s owners can’t rent out. That’s a disaster from a commercial real-estate perspective.

It wasn’t always this way. We’re told that Cameron used to be considered a major talent, that he once couldn’t keep up with the demand for his services:

In the eighteen-eighties, the architects of New York fought one another for second place in their profession. No one aspired to the first. The first was held by Henry Cameron. Henry Cameron was hard to get in those days. He had a waiting list two years in advance; he designed personally every structure that left his office.

But just when it seemed nothing could stop his rise, that’s when the 1893 Columbian Exposition opened:

The Rome of two thousand years ago rose on the shores of Lake Michigan, a Rome improved by pieces of France, Spain, Athens and every style that followed it. It was a “Dream City” of columns, triumphal arches, blue lagoons, crystal fountains and popcorn.

…People came, looked, were astounded, and carried away with them, to the cities of America, the seeds of what they had seen. The seeds sprouted into weeds; into shingled post offices with Doric porticos, brick mansions with iron pediments, lofts made of twelve Parthenons piled on top of one another.

Cameron was ill-suited for this new architectural trend. He refused to participate, and his business began to drop off. Like any good Randian hero, he reacted with violence, which only hastened his decline:

It was repeated also that he had thrown an inkstand at the face of a distinguished banker who had asked him to design a railroad station in the shape of the temple of Diana at Ephesus.

…Just as he reached the goal of long, struggling years, just as he gave shape to the truth he had sought — the last barrier fell closed before him. A young country had watched him on his way, had wondered, had begun to accept the new grandeur of his work. A country flung two thousand years back in an orgy of Classicism could find no place for him and no use.

Coming from Ayn Rand, the self-appointed supreme advocate of capitalism, this is bizarre. She wants us to believe, and Roark does believe, that Cameron was a great architect whose greatness went unrecognized and unrewarded. But in light of her later writing, this is an impossible self-contradiction.

You may remember Francisco d’Anconia saying that the only measure of a person’s worth is how good they are at their job. Well, what could be a better measure of an architect’s talent than their abiity to design buildings that people want to live and work in? If you design a building that people don’t like and don’t want to use, then aren’t you, objectively speaking, a bad architect? It’s the same as any other businessman who tries to sell an inferior product.

Again, although Rand refused to admit it, this is a major example of how her philosophy changed over her lifetime. When she wrote The Fountainhead, she was enamored with the idea of romantic individualism – doing what you want to do, and to hell with everyone else. It flowed from her (at the time) Nietzschean worldview that there are a few supermen who stand above the mindless herd of commoners, and that the world will always hate these heroic souls precisely because of their superiority.

By the time she wrote Atlas Shrugged, her views had changed in a subtle but important way. She still wrote heroes who were Nietzschean ubermenschen, but she’d come to believe that unfettered capitalism was the only morally permissible economic system, and the ability to thrive in this system – to be productive and to earn a profit – was the proof of a worthy individual.

Yet capitalism is inherently linked to popularity. You can’t be rich or successful at business if no one wants to buy what you’re selling. Rand squared this circle by asserting that her heroes would win easily in a free market, and the only challenge they face is from government meddling which props up their inferior competitors.

However, Roark and Cameron don’t have this excuse. The aesthetic they espouse met its competition on a level playing field, and lost! No government bureaucrat was decreeing trends in architecture. The American public decided of their own free will that they preferred classical-inspired buildings to modernist skyscrapers. Shouldn’t a good Objectivist architect have bowed to these market forces?

Image credit: The Columbian Exposition of 1893. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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