The Fountainhead: Who Moves the World?

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The Fountainhead, part 1, chapter 14

A major Hollywood studio has announced plans to build a skyscraper in New York, which they want to be “the most beautiful building in the world”. They’re inviting architects throughout the world to submit their designs, with the winner to be chosen by a prestigious jury and awarded a sixty-thousand-dollar grand prize:

Cosmo-Slotnick Pictures of Hollywood, California, had decided to erect a stupendous home office in New York, a skyscraper to house a motion-picture theater and forty floors of offices. A world-wide competition for the selection of the architect had been announced a year in advance. It was stated that Cosmo-Slotnick were not merely the leaders in the art of the motion picture, but embraced all the arts, since all contributed to the creation of the films; and architecture being a lofty, though neglected, branch of esthetics, Cosmo-Slotnick were ready to put it on the map.

Because architecture is Serious Business in The Fountainhead, the Cosmo-Slotnick competition sparks a media frenzy. Soon, movie stars and A-listers are buzzing about the Parthenon and the Pantheon, architects like Guy Francon are being quoted breathlessly by tabloid gossip columnists, and the general consensus is that whoever wins the contest will become a celebrity as big as any of Hollywood’s biggest names.

Guy Francon tells Peter Keating to submit an entry on behalf of the firm. Keating feels a ferocious desire to win, knowing this could be his biggest break ever, but he fears he’s not up to the task:

He felt nothing but immense uncertainty when his sketches were ready and the delicate perspective of a white marble edifice lay, neatly finished, before him. It looked like a Renaissance palace made of rubber and stretched to the height of forty stories.

But Keating hasn’t overcome his impostor syndrome. While looking down at his finished work, he feels a crushing uncertainty. He can’t decide if it’s any good or not, he craves an unbiased opinion, and there’s only one person he dares to ask. Hating himself for doing it, he packs up his drawings and goes to see Howard Roark.

When he arrives, he finds Roark sitting by himself in an otherwise vacant and lifeless office. He almost cracks a joke (“I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”), and when Roark says no, Keating asks him if he’s already sent in his own entry to the competition:

“I’m not sending any entry.”

“You’re … not? Not at all?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“I don’t enter competitions.”

He doesn’t enter competitions, he doesn’t advertise, he won’t join any professional organizations… Roark wants more than anything else to put up buildings, but he refuses to do anything that would assist him in achieving this goal. He’s like an aspiring bodybuilder who just wants to start winning Mr. Universe competitions without the hassle and difficulty of working out (as Ronnie Coleman memorably put it).

But if Roark’s not entering, Keating thinks, so much the better. He unrolls his own sketches, saying that he’s not seeking any detailed help or anything else unethical (“I just want your reaction, just a general opinion”). But of course he really wants Roark to improve the design for him, and Roark obliges:

Then, for hours, while Keating watched and the sky darkened and lights flared up in the windows of the city, Roark talked, explained, slashed lines through the plans, untangled the labyrinth of the theater’s exits out windows, unraveled halls, smashed useless arches, straightened stairways. Keating stammered once: “Jesus, Howard! Why don’t you enter the competition, if you can do it like this?” Roark answered: “Because I can’t. I couldn’t if I tried. I dry up. I go blank. I can’t give them what they want. But I can straighten someone else’s damn mess when I see it!”

It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Roark and Keating’s joint design ends up winning the contest. Given that this scene goes out of its way to emphasize how their talents complement each other, you might think it’s setting up a resolution where the two of them form a partnership and go into business together. But no: this obvious Chekhov’s gun never gets fired.

But there’s something else about this scene that caught my attention, something I’m surprised that Rand wrote or allowed to be printed. In light of what she’s written elsewhere, it seems like a critical philosophical error on her part.

Rand’s heroes are supposed to be the ones who move the world. They’re the rare and heroic individuals with the spark that enables them to be creative and original, whereas everyone else is just a dull herd of sheep who mindlessly follow the leader.

But that’s not how it plays out in The Fountainhead. In fact, Keating is the creative prime mover in this scene. Despite his self-doubt, he’s the one who comes up with the design that becomes the core of the final product. Roark is the second-hander who can’t create anything himself (“I dry up. I go blank”), but who can come in afterwards to tidy up what others have done.

For this scene to play out the way she wants it to, Rand should have written it so that Keating lacks inspiration, comes to Roark for help, and Roark suggests an idea that becomes the kernel of the finished building. Instead, she seems to suggest that Keating’s was the inspiration and Roark is limited to making minor improvements. (Really, how complicated can it be to “untangle exits” or “straighten stairways”? What does this even mean – did the original design have an exit that just led back into the same room, or a staircase that had bizarre and purposeless jags and kinks?)

“And the elevation?”

“Oh, to hell with your elevation! I don’t want to look at your damn Renaissance elevations!” But he looked. He could not prevent his hand from cutting lines across the perspective. “All right, damn you, give them good Renaissance if you must and if there is such a thing! Only I can’t do that for you. Figure it out yourself. Something like this. Simpler. Peter, simpler, more direct, as honest as you can make of a dishonest thing. Now go home and try to work out something on this order.”

Just as there’s “good classic“, now there’s “good Renaissance”. For all that Roark claims to despise the architectural styles of the past, he seems grudgingly capable of working with them. It’s a mystery, which the novel never deigns to explain, why he won’t do so for his own clients but agrees time and again to do so to benefit someone whom he despises.

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