The Fountainhead: Beton Brut

PantheonDome

The Fountainhead, part 1, chapter 13

There’s a section at the end of chapter 12 that I’m skimming over, because it’s long and tedious. (You’re welcome.) To summarize, it’s about Peter Keating’s love life.

Guy Francon thinks Peter would make a good match for his daughter, because Peter is well-liked, conventional and respectable – everything that Dominique isn’t – and is trying subtly to steer them together. Peter is aware of it, and he knows that marrying the boss’ daughter would ensure he’d take over the firm some day. But while he lusts after Dominique, he doesn’t love her – on the contrary, he abhors the thought of marrying someone so contrary and difficult – and he doesn’t think she likes him either. The woman he loves is his mousy girlfriend Katie, but she’s a nobody. Marrying her would be an insult to Guy, and might even make him look bad in the eyes of his high-society clients. Peter agonizes over the choice, but while he professes his devotion to Katie, he finds himself spending more and more time with Dominique.

On an October day when the Heller house is almost finished, Roark is approached by a stranger. He’s building a gas station down the road and wants Roark to design it:

Later, on a bench in front of the garage where he worked, Jimmy Gowan explained in detail. He added: “And how I happened to think of you, Mr. Roark, is that I like it, that funny house of yours. Can’t say why, but I like it. It makes sense to me. And then again I figured everybody’s gaping at it and talking about it, well, that’s no use to a house, but that’d be plenty smart for a business, let them giggle, but let them talk about it.”

This is a clever marketing tactic which, I note, Roark never thinks of using on his own behalf. In line with the maxim that all publicity is good publicity, it’s true that an oddball building or one with strange decor could attract customers who come out of sheer curiosity. (Roadside attractions across the U.S. have done this successfully.) But, again, it falls to Roark’s clients to come up with this argument.

Roark never tries to persuade clients of the virtues of his style in any way other than slapping a sketch on the table and staring expectantly at them. As the architect, he should be the one offering reasons why his buildings are the best. Instead, he seemingly expects potential customers to do that work for him. Can you imagine a car salesman saying, “Well, why don’t you tell me why you should buy one of my cars?”

People voiced indignant objections to his choice of architect; Jimmy uttered no word of explanation or self-defense; he said politely: “Maybe so, folks, maybe so,” and proceeded to have Roark build his station.

Again, we see that architecture is Serious Business in the world of The Fountainhead. Total strangers are deeply invested in which architect Jimmy Gowan will hire to build a gas station in rural Connecticut, and they’re scandalized when they find out it’s Howard Roark.

“Howard who?” would have been a more plausible reaction. But while Rand could make her protagonists either loved or hated, she couldn’t stand to depict them as unimportant. Whether for good or for ill, she just had to script a world where everyone’s got an opinion about what the heroes are doing.

The station opened on a day in late December. It stood on the edge of the Boston Post Road, two small structures of glass and concrete forming a semicircle among the trees: the cylinder of the office and the long, low oval of the diner, with the gasoline pumps as the colonnade of a forecourt between them. It was a study in circles; there were no angles and no straight lines; it looked like shapes caught in a flow, held still at the moment of being poured, at the precise moment when they formed a harmony that seemed too perfect to be intentional. It looked like a cluster of bubbles hanging low over the ground, not quite touching it, to be swept aside in an instant on a wind of speed; it looked gay, with the hard, bracing gaiety of efficiency, like a powerful airplane engine.

Yes, and I bet its customers will have a gay old time. (I know, cheap shot, Ayn Rand isn’t responsible for how language evolves, etc. I couldn’t help myself.)

For all that The Fountainhead idolizes architecture, it has little to say about the technologies that make architecture possible. Its worship is focused solely on Howard Roark, who’s the best because he’s the only one who knows how to make buildings that look right, end of story. But if Rand had instead emphasized Roark as the herald of a new era of progress, one of the first people to grasp the potential of new materials – as this passage hints at – she might have found a more engaging story to tell.

Granted, concrete is an ancient material. The Romans used it extensively; the concrete dome of the Pantheon is still the largest of its kind in the world. But just because it’s so ordinary, we tend to overlook what an innovative and powerful technology it is. From materials scientist Mark Miodownik’s book Stuff Matters:

It is a philosophy as much as it is an engineering technique, completing a cycle that starts when the Earth’s mantle creates rock and stone through mountain building, which is then mined by humans and transformed back into our own artificial mountains of rock, made to our own design, where we live and work. [p.58]

Concrete is basically artificial stone, but it doesn’t have to be laboriously quarried or sculpted. It comes in a convenient liquid form that can be poured, shaped, molded, even 3-D printed. It’s incredibly cheap, yet strong enough to form the pillars of a bridge or the skeleton of a skyscraper. It’s resistant to fire, water and storm. Its thermal mass makes concrete buildings warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. It’s an excellent way to recycle fly ash and other industrial waste that’s hard to dispose of. It can be translucent, permeable, and even self-healing.

Concrete does have limitations. It’s strong under compression, which is why it’s good for a dome like the Pantheon, but not strong under tension. However, steel is strong under tension. Even better, steel and concrete swell and shrink at the same rate in response to temperature. This suggests an obvious step: combine the materials by embedding steel beams or bars in a concrete matrix, to create a new material that’s strong under all kinds of stress. Voila, you have reinforced concrete, the building material of the modern age.

In The Fountainhead, Howard Roark is the only person who’s capable of trying new things, but in reality, entire schools of thought spring up around materials like this. The architectural style usually associated with concrete acquired the unfortunate name of “brutalism”, which to me sounds like the buildings are supposed to be painful and unpleasant for the people who use them. In fact, the word comes from the French beton brut, which just means “raw concrete”. It’s the philosophy that the concrete parts of a building should be exposed and appreciated, rather than hidden behind a facade of another material. (It has a whole Tumblr, Fuck Yeah Brutalism. And as always, see McMansion Hell on brutalism and other styles of modern architecture.)

Image credit: Jean-Christophe Benoist, released under CC BY 2.5 license

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