The Fountainhead: Architectosexual

Fallingwater

The Fountainhead, part 1, chapter 11

Roark is on the job site in Connecticut, where his vision for Austen Heller’s house is taking shape. He doesn’t have anything important to do there, he just wants to see the construction in progress:

Roark walked up the path to the top of the cliff where the steel hulk of the Heller house rose into a blue sky. The skeleton was up and the concrete was being poured; the great mats of the terraces hung over the silver sheet of water quivering far below; plumbers and electricians had started laying their conduits.

As I’ve mentioned in the previous two posts, Rand handwaves away the realistic obstacles that Roark would be bound to face by going into business for himself. But she always takes the time to insert some unrealistic obstacles, just so we see how unfairly the world treats her hero. In this case, it was finding a construction firm willing to take his money:

He had had trouble in finding a contractor to erect the house. Several of the better firms had refused the commission. “We don’t do that kinda stuff.” …One contractor had looked at the plans briefly and thrown them aside, declaring with finality: “It won’t stand.”

“It will,” said Roark. The contractor drawled indifferently. “Yeah? And who are you to tell me, Mister?”

He had found a small firm that needed the work and undertook it, charging more than the job warranted — on the ground of the chance they were taking with a queer experiment.

Charging more for a job that required different building techniques from the ones they’re familiar with – that would be understandable. But from the text, we’re led to believe that contractors flat-out refused Roark’s commission because they disliked the aesthetics of it (“We don’t do that kinda stuff”).

There’s just one objection that makes sense, and that’s the firm that thinks Roark’s design won’t stand up. Although I’m sure it was unintentional, this is one way in which The Fountainhead closely echoes real life.

I’ve said that all the major characters in this book were based on real people. Howard Roark’s inspiration was Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous 20th-century American architect, whom Roark echoes both in his modernist aesthetic and his reputation for arrogance and a short-fuse temper.

You probably know Wright’s most famous house, Fallingwater, which was built for the department-store tycoon Edgar Kaufmann. It’s been suggested that it was Rand’s model for the Heller house, since her description bears some similarities to the real building, especially the cantilevered balconies jutting dramatically out over the water.

However, impressive though the balconies are, the contractors that Wright hired to build Fallingwater had doubts about the soundness of his design from the beginning. A structural engineering firm pointed out that the stress on the material was pushing the margin of safety and suggested that extra columns be added to prop the balconies up and keep them from collapsing.

Wright, taking a very Howard Roark-like attitude toward criticism, furiously rejected the suggestion and threatened to quit if his design wasn’t followed to the letter:

A note Wright penned to his patron suggests he cowed him: “I don’t know what kind of architect you are familiar with but it apparently isn’t the kind I think I am. You seem not to know how to treat a decent one. I have put so much more into this house than you or any other client has a right to expect that if I haven’t your confidence — to hell with the whole thing.” (source)

Problem is, the critics were right. Without consulting Wright, the contractors quietly doubled the amount of reinforcing steel, but even that wasn’t enough. As soon as the scaffolding was removed, the balconies began to sag. Beautiful though it might be, Fallingwater was in serious danger of collapsing. Over the years, its successive owners have had to spend millions of dollars bracing and reinforcing it.

Several of Wright’s other houses, such as the Pope-Leighey House in Alexandria, Virginia, have also required significant structural repairs. As innovative as his designs were, Wright has acquired a reputation as a bad structural engineer who thought he was a good one.

Meanwhile, in the literary world where physics takes a back seat, Roark is enjoying himself to the point that he’s, well, groping the house:

There were moments when something rose within him, not a thought nor a feeling, but a wave of some physical violence, and then he wanted to stop, to lean back, to feel the reality of his person heightened by the frame of steel that rose dimly about the bright, outstanding existence of his body as its center. He did not stop. He went on calmly. But his hands betrayed what he wanted to hide. His hands reached out, ran slowly down the beams and joints. The workers in the house had noticed it. They said: “That guy’s in love with the thing. He can’t keep his hands off.”

I mean, loving your designs is one thing. But Roark seems to be… in love with his designs?

Is it possible this goes deeper than mere aesthetic appreciation? It could be that Roark, though he’s only dimly aware of it, is one of the people who form romantic relationships with architecture, like the woman who married the Eiffel Tower. It would explain a lot.

It’s not enough for Rand that Roark enjoys his work. As in Atlas Shrugged, she believes that work should be the only genuine source of meaning or purpose in life. I’d agree that there are fortunate individuals for whom that’s true, but she insists that it should be true for everyone. And people who don’t derive fulfillment from their day job – or, God forbid, desire leisure time – are worthless cattle in her eyes:

Roark stood on the cliff, by the structure, and looked at the countryside, at the long, gray ribbon of the road twisting past along the shore. An open car drove by, fleeing into the country. The car was overfilled with people bound for a picnic. There was a jumble of bright sweaters, and scarves fluttering in the wind; a jumble of voices shrieking without purpose over the roar of the motor, and overstressed hiccoughs of laughter; a girl sat sidewise, her legs flung over the side of the car; she wore a man’s straw hat slipping down to her nose and she yanked savagely at the strings of a ukulele, ejecting raucous sounds, yelling “Hey!” These people were enjoying a day of their existence; they were shrieking to the sky their release from the work and the burdens of the days behind them; they had worked and carried the burdens in order to reach a goal — and this was the goal.

He looked at the car as it streaked past. He thought that there was a difference, some important difference, between the consciousness of this day in him and in them. He thought that he should try to grasp it. But he forgot. He was looking at a truck panting up the hill, loaded with a glittering mound of cut granite.

Yeah! Take that, you lazy Millennials!

The difference between Roark and these young people seems to lie mostly in the pejorative language Rand uses to describe them: “voices shrieking without purpose”, “overstressed laughter”, “yanked savagely”, “raucous sounds”. If you strip that away, all she’s describing is a young group of friends going to a picnic in the countryside, singing and playing music along the road. Doesn’t sound so bad to me.

I mean, two can play at this game. If the young people in the car glanced in Roark’s direction, what must they have thought of him?

It was a beautiful summer Saturday in the Connecticut countryside, and the friends were out for a drive, the wind whipping at their hair, a picnic basket of wine, cheese and French bread at their feet, heading for their favorite spot to sing songs in the grass, play catch in the shade of the trees and watch the fireflies come out as afternoon cooled into evening.

As they sped on down the road, they passed a construction site on the cliffside, a jagged skeleton of cold steel beams and granite blocks. Standing in the midst of it was a grim, joyless man, looking out at the road with a face empty of expression. As soon as they saw him, they could tell that he was spending his weekend enveloped in that choking cloud of grit, oil and smoke because he had no friends, no family and no one who loved him, and it was either that or sit in his unlit office paging through dusty blueprints.

The man glanced at them, and for a second, his lip curled in an expression of unconscious contempt, his hatred for pleasure plain on his face. Then he turned back to the construction, reached out and began lasciviously stroking the dirty steel, staring at the welders and carpenters with a flat, dead-eyed stare of lust.

Image credit: Esther Westerveld, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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