The Fountainhead: A Very Bad Architect

The Fountainhead: A Very Bad Architect February 3, 2017


The Fountainhead, part 1, chapter 1

As we’ve learned, Howard Roark has his own idiosyncratic style which is the only way he’ll design buildings. He even refuses to do schoolwork that requires him to sketch a building in a classical style. Because of this, he’s dropping out of college to launch his career. But with an attitude like that, what makes him think he’s going to fare any better in the working world?

“Look here, Roark,” said the Dean gently. “You have worked hard for your education. You had only one year left to go. There is something important to consider, particularly for a boy in your position. There’s the practical side of an architect’s career to think about. An architect is not an end in himself… Have you thought of your potential clients?”

“Yes,” said Roark.

“The Client,” said the Dean. “The Client. Think of that above all. He’s the one to live in the house you build. Your only purpose is to serve him. You must aspire to give the proper artistic expression to his wishes. Isn’t that all one can say on the subject?”

Roark’s soon-to-be-ex-dean has a good point. Being an architect is the furthest thing imaginable from a solitary, lone-wolf job. (Just imagine: “I’m building this skyscraper for myself!”) To put up buildings, you have to have clients who hire you, and clients will almost certainly have some idea of what they want built and how it should look.

If Roark retains the attitude he showed in school (and he does), he’ll demand everything his own way and quit in a huff the instant a client wants him to modify one of his oh-so-perfect designs. That’s the recipe for an extremely short career. But he’s undaunted:

“Well, I could say that I must aspire to build for my client the most comfortable, the most logical, the most beautiful house that can be built. I could say that I must try to sell him the best I have and also teach him to know the best. I could say it, but I won’t. Because I don’t intend to build in order to serve or help anyone. I don’t intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build.”

… “Do you mean to tell me that you’re thinking seriously of building that way, when and if you are an architect?”


“My dear fellow, who will let you?”

“That’s not the point. The point is, who will stop me?”

No doubt Ayn Rand intended this to sound grand and defiant. In reality, it just sounds stupid.

Roark isn’t going to embark on an architectural reign of terror, ruthlessly erecting new buildings wherever he pleases. He needs clients who’ll hire him and contract with him, and so yes, the proper question is “Who will let you?”

I mean, would you hire an architect to build you a house, if his conditions were that he would get to build exactly what he pleased and you’d have no say whatsoever in the process? Wouldn’t you, wouldn’t anyone, be concerned about spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and ending up stuck with some hideous white elephant?

And that applies even more to an entire housing development, or a shopping mall, or a billion-dollar skyscraper. These megaprojects are expensive, high-stakes propositions. No developer in their right mind would leave it all up to one guy’s whims. Like it or not, a building’s value depends on whether people want to live and work there, so public opinion of an architect’s style does matter. Any halfway decent architect ought to pay attention to the trends of the time, no matter what he personally thinks of them.

As I observed in my review of Atlas Shrugged, Rand is willfully perverse when it comes to choosing professions for her heroes. Dagny Taggart runs a railroad, and Howard Roark is an architect. These are among the worst careers imaginable for stubborn, uncompromising individualists.

In the real world, because there are so many stakeholders in such massive projects, both jobs require the kind of people who work well with others, who are good at compromise, who are diligent about soliciting feedback and obtaining permission, who are willing to balance and blend many opinions. Rand’s heroes have the opposite of every one of these traits.

It’s likely that she chose these careers out of romanticism, not practicality. After all, railroads are cool: they’re coal and smoke and steampunk, gleaming rails and puffing engines. Skyscrapers are impressive and masculine, soaring up to make that picture-postcard skyline. But neither is suitable for a person who thinks they can make all the decisions themselves without listening to anyone. The only reason her heroes don’t immediately crash and burn is because there’s an author on board, scripting events to favor them.

“But you see,” said Roark quietly, “I have, let’s say, sixty years to live. Most of that time will be spent working. I’ve chosen the work I want to do. If I find no joy in it, then I’m only condemning myself to sixty years of torture. And I can find the joy only if I do my work in the best way possible to me. But the best is a matter of standards — and I set my own standards. I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.”

“How old are you?” asked the Dean.

“Twenty-two,” said Roark.

Again, this would be comical arrogance in almost any other novel, but Ayn Rand doesn’t intend us to take it that way. Sure, if you’re a world-renowned architect hired for some prestige project, you might expect to have more creative freedom. But not if you’re a twenty-two-year-old dropout with no diploma and no work record to point to!

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do what you love, but it’s absurd to expect that your entire career will be spent doing only what you want to. That’s why it’s, you know, work – because sometimes you don’t enjoy it. A rational calculation ought to tell Roark that he should begin his career by designing buildings the way his clients want him to, because that’s how you build a reputation and gain the credibility to be allowed to do things your own way. It’s just like working your way up from the mailroom: you have to prove yourself at one level before you can move on to the next.

What’s absent from Rand’s thinking is the notion of paying your dues. Her heroes step onto the stage fully-formed and perfect, and she expects the world to immediately recognize their greatness and pay them the tribute they deserve. When that doesn’t happen, she treats it as an indictment of humanity, rather than a natural reaction to a braggart making grandiose claims that they have no way to back up.

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