The Fountainhead: Famous Failures

The Fountainhead: Famous Failures January 19, 2018


The Fountainhead, part 2, chapter 6

This chapter begins with a brief description of Roger Enright, the oil baron whose commission rescued Roark from the granite quarry:

Roger Enright had started life as a coal miner in Pennsylvania. On his way to the millions he now owned, no one had ever helped him. “That,” he explained, “is why no one has ever stood in my way.” A great many things and people had stood in his way, however; but he had never noticed them. Many incidents of his long career were not admired; none was whispered about… He made a poor subject for blackmailers or debunking biographers. Among the wealthy he was disliked for having become wealthy so crudely.

Like all her supergenius millionaire executive heroes, Roger Enright is the person Ayn Rand imagined herself to be. She, too, insisted that no one ever helped her (a blatant lie). She, too, imagined that her life was pure devotion to work and there was nothing scandalous in her background for anyone to find (not quite). And she, too, seemed to revel in being disliked (OK, I can’t quibble with that one).

He hated bankers, labor unions, women, evangelists and the stock exchange.

Because, of course, it wouldn’t be an Ayn Rand novel without yet another heroic woman-hater. Seriously, I’ve seen MRA rants with less misogyny than The Fountainhead. Between this and Roark’s rape of Dominique, the sheer amount of sexism in this book is astonishing, considering it was written by a woman.

In fact, one could point out that Roark’s rape of Dominique is symbolically the moment at which his fortunes turned. Before that, he was working as a manual laborer breaking rocks in a quarry, with no hope of ever returning to architecture. Almost immediately afterward, he’s hired by a millionaire and returns to the profession. For the rest of the novel, his status never sinks that low again. It’s as if Rand is advancing a perverse Law of Attraction-type logic that if you just take what you want, say by violently raping a person you desire sexually, the universe will respond and start raining wealth and success down on you.

Enright again:

Besides his oil business he owned a publishing house, a restaurant, a radio shop, a garage, a plant manufacturing electric refrigerators. Before each new venture he studied the field for a long time, then proceeded to act as if he had never heard of it, upsetting all precedent. Some of his ventures were successful, others failed. He continued running them all with ferocious energy. He worked twelve hours a day.

It’s remarkable to read that some of Enright’s startups failed. Clearly, at this point in her career, Rand was still trying to write characters who resembled normal human beings.

By the time she wrote Atlas Shrugged, she’d given up on that. Her heroes’ competence reached escape velocity, making them demigods who succeed at everything they do: like Francisco d’Anconia inventing calculus at twelve and infallibly predicting the stock market, or John Galt proving that a good enough capitalist can overcome the laws of thermodynamics.

With Enright’s commission, Roark reopens his firm and goes back to work:

Roark reopened his office, the same big room on the top of an old building. He enlarged it by the addition of an adjoining room — for the draftsmen he hired in order to keep up with the planned lightning schedule of construction… In the crowded tension of the days that followed he never spoke to them, except of their work. They felt, entering the office in the morning, that they had no private lives, no significance and no reality save the overwhelming reality of the broad sheets of paper on their tables. The place seemed cold and soulless like a factory, until they looked at him; then they thought that it was not a factory, but a furnace fed on their bodies, his own first.

I think that’s meant to be a compliment, but unless you’re steeped in Objectivist thinking, it doesn’t come off as one. “My job is a furnace that’s slowly consuming me” isn’t the kind of thing you’d expect to hear from a person who loves their work.

There were times when he remained in the office all night. They found him still working when they returned in the morning. He did not seem tired. Once he stayed there for two days and two nights in succession. On the afternoon of the third day he fell asleep, half lying across his table. He awakened in a few hours, made no comment and walked from one table to another, to see what had been done. He made corrections, his words sounding as if nothing had interrupted a thought begun some hours ago.

And after the lightning-fast construction of the Enright House is complete, it’s discovered – too late – that a crucial structural beam was missing from the design because Roark accidentally left it out of the blueprint when he fell asleep at his desk. The building collapsed soon after the ribbon cutting, resulting in the deaths of sixteen people and a multibillion-dollar lawsuit.

I kid, of course. That doesn’t happen in this book. But maybe it should have.

Rand’s made-of-iron heroes can drive themselves harder than any normal human being should be able to, with no consequences either in the short term or the long. Chronic lack of sleep, grueling round-the-clock work schedules with no breaks, and constant heavy stress make them more productive, not less. In real people, as I’ve noted before, sleep deprivation causes cognitive impairment similar to being drunk. But even when Rand’s heroes fail, it’s never because they made bad decisions in a hazy mental state after weeks of poor sleep. If anything, the author would probably attribute it to them working not quite hard enough.

Architectural history is shot through with famous failures and critical design mistakes like the one I imagined. I’ve already mentioned the structural flaws in Fallingwater, designed by Roark’s inspiration Frank Lloyd Wright, but there are bigger ones.

One of the most famous was the Tacoma Narrows bridge, built in 1940 across Puget Sound in Washington state. When it opened, it was the third-longest suspension bridge in the world, a slender and graceful ribbon of steel. Too slender and graceful, as it turned out: the deck of the bridge was prone to flexing and swaying violently in the wind. The gusts were causing aeroelastic flutter, a destructive self-reinforcing pattern of vibration. Just four months after its opening, the bridge utterly collapsed in a strong gale.

Another famous failure is the Vdara Hotel in Las Vegas, built with a curved glass face that, it was realized too late, focused sunlight into a “death ray” fierce enough to scorch hair and melt plastic among unsuspecting guests down by the hotel pool.

Then there was the 1977 Citicorp Center, a New York City skyscraper that almost became a catastrophe when it was discovered that the building’s unusual design made it susceptible to collapse in a heavy windstorm. The architect and engineers had to work around the clock to reinforce it, even as the NYPD prepared an emergency evacuation plan for dozens of blocks of Manhattan just in case.

Image: 1926 bridge collapse via Wikimedia Commons

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