The Fountainhead: Americans with Disabilities

HandicappedSign

The Fountainhead, part 1, chapter 13

Roark has another client, a Mr. Whitford Sanborn, who once had Henry Cameron design him an office building. When Sanborn wants a new home built along the same lines, he writes a letter to Cameron, who writes back that he’s retired and refers him to Roark. (It’s worth noting that Roark only succeeds in business by violating his own precepts, whether intentionally or not. He says he doesn’t want anyone to help him, yet he’d have gone bankrupt and failed many times over if it weren’t for his friends sending work his way and otherwise helping him out.)

The fly in the ointment is Sanborn’s wife. She works for charity organizations (ominous chord!). In an Ayn Rand novel, that’s a dead giveaway of an irredeemably evil villain, just as surely as a character in a Victorian horror novel calling himself “Count Alucard”.

Mrs. Sanborn was the president of many charity organizations and this had given her an addiction to autocracy such as no other avocation could develop. Mrs. Sanborn wished a French chateau built upon their new estate on the Hudson.

An “addiction to autocracy”, because wanting to help people in need is the exact same thing as wanting to be a cruel and merciless tyrant. Even after all these years reviewing Ayn Rand novels, I still have to shake my head sometimes and remind myself she really believed this.

Mr. and Mrs. Sanborn spend many hours arguing in Roark’s presence over what kind of house they want. He wants a modernist, Cameronesque house; she wants a stately chateau. In the end, Roark sides with the husband (of course), ignores everything the wife says, and produces his design:

Roark saw no one until his sketches were ready. The house — of plain fieldstone, with great windows and many terraces — stood in the gardens over the river, as spacious as the spread of water, as open as the gardens, and one had to follow its lines attentively to find the exact steps by which it was tied to the sweep of the gardens, so gradual was the rise of the terraces, the approach to and the full reality of the walls; it seemed only that the trees flowed into the house and through it; it seemed that the house was not a barrier against the sunlight, but a bowl to gather it, to concentrate it into brighter radiance than that of the air outside.

I can’t picture this at all. Big windows and terraces, sure, fine. But the house is shaped like a bowl? The trees flow into and through the walls? It’s brighter than the sun and the sky? It’s easy to assert in print that Roark is the Best Architect Ever, but you can’t build a house out of metaphors.

Needless to say, Mr. Sanborn thinks it’s perfect, but Mrs. Sanborn hates it on sight. She demands a long list of changes, all of which are anathema to Roark, and her husband’s willpower starts to falter:

“Now why, why can’t we add turrets there, on the corners?” Mrs. Sanborn asked. “There’s plenty of room on those flat roofs.” When she had been talked out of the turrets, she inquired: “Why can’t we have mullioned windows? What difference would that make? God knows, the windows are large enough — though why they have to be so large I fail to see, it gives one no privacy at all — but I’m willing to accept your windows, Mr. Roark, if you’re so stubborn about it, but why can’t you put mullions on the panes? It will soften things, and it gives a regal air, you know, a feudal sort of mood.”

…Whitford Sanborn swayed with every new current. He would mutter: “Well, now, not mullions, of course, that’s utter rubbish, but couldn’t you give her a cornice, Mr. Roark, to keep peace in the family? Just a kind of a crenelated cornice, it wouldn’t spoil anything. Or would it?”

However, Mrs. Sanborn’s objections aren’t purely aesthetic. She also has concerns about accessibility:

“Aunt Rosalie says she can’t possibly climb a circular stairway, Mr. Roark. What are we going to do? Select our guests to fit your house?”

Needless to say, Roark blows this off, too. It’s not clear whether Mrs. Sanborn is lying about having elderly relatives with limited mobility, or whether the ability of Aunt Rosalie to get around in the house is simply of no concern to him. You’d think the Sanborns would look for another architect at this point, but he browbeats the family into accepting his original design without any changes:

The arguments ended when Roark declared that he would not build the house unless Mr. Sanborn approved the sketches just as they were and signed his approval on every sheet of the drawings. Mr. Sanborn signed.

Apparently, Roark isn’t building for normal people who sometimes use canes or wheelchairs, or who might appreciate features like handrails, ramps or gently rising steps. He’s only building for Randian Supermen, who never suffer any health problems, and who remain hale and hearty regardless of age until the day they keel over dead at their desks.

Granted, in the 1920s, this privileged obliviousness wouldn’t have stood out. Most buildings in that era were constructed without a thought for handicapped accessibility. That didn’t change until much later, with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, I might add – way back in the era when Republicans occasionally cared about other people).

Before the ADA, disabled people were too often subjected to horrible humiliations like having to leave their wheelchairs and crawl to access public buildings. Some places even barred them from public streets under so-called “ugly laws“.

The ADA addressed these problems by requiring reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. These can be physical modifications like ramps and elevators, wheelchair lifts for buses, bathrooms with handicapped-accessible stalls, or curb ramps; or less tangible accommodations like signs in Braille, sign language interpreters, access for service animals, and ways for learning-disabled students to get an education.

Naturally, libertarians despise the ADA as an infringement on their God-given right of private property. It’s true that bringing a building into compliance with the ADA may involve lengthy and expensive retrofits (and it’s also true that professional plaintiffs who abuse the system for their own benefit have given the ADA a bad name). But balanced against that is the ability of disabled people to enjoy basic freedoms that the rest of us take for granted, like getting around, using public facilities and earning a living.

And it’s not just the disabled who benefit. I’ve come to appreciate the ADA far more since my son was born. When you’re pushing a bulky stroller around, it’s nice to have alternatives to stairs!

When the house was completed, Mrs. Sanborn refused to live in it. Mr. Sanborn looked at it wistfully, too tired to admit that he loved it, that he had always wanted a house just like it. He surrendered. The house was not furnished. Mrs. Sanborn took herself, her husband and her daughter off to Florida for the winter, “where,” she said, “we have a house that’s a decent Spanish, thank God! — because we bought it ready-made. This is what happens when you venture to build for yourself, with some half-baked idiot of an architect!”

We’re supposed to believe that this outcome is all Mrs. Sanborn’s fault, that she spitefully opposed and ruined Roark’s design for no valid reason (“She had long since lost all coherent ideas about the house; she merely hated Roark”). But this is in complete contradiction to what the text told us just a few pages earlier.

This wasn’t a last-minute change of heart. She wanted something different all along! Say what you will about French chateaux being a sign of depravity, you can’t charge her with inconsistency. But rather than listen, Roark sided with her husband, bullied him into disregarding his wife’s wishes, and built the two of them a house that she never wanted to live in. Why wouldn’t she hate him? What other reaction would you expect?

Granted, two clients giving conflicting instructions would be a nightmare for any architect. But that’s the nature of the business: if you’re designing a house for a family, it ought to be a house that everyone in the family is happy with. Roark doesn’t even try to broker a compromise they can both live with. Instead, he tramples over Mrs. Sanborn’s objections, ignores Mr. Sanborn’s requests when he starts to change his mind, and then we’re supposed to be outraged on Roark’s behalf when the finished product turns out to be a white elephant.

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