The Fountainhead: There Can Be Only One

The Fountainhead: There Can Be Only One September 7, 2018

Solitude

The Fountainhead, part 3, chapter 6

In the first half of The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand hammers the message that classical styles of architecture are objectively Bad. Virtually all of human history, from the building of the Parthenon to the 1920s, consists of mere mindless regurgitation of what came before, driven by subhuman mediocrities who are incapable of making anything but copies (of copies of copies of copies…)

But in the twentieth century, after millennia of darkness, there’s finally light. Howard Roark and his mentor Henry Cameron are the first human beings in many centuries who are capable of original thought. They want to forge a new modernist style, showing the world what can be done with glass and concrete and skyscrapers, coming up with bold ideas that no one ever had before them.

For the sin of originality, these visionaries are met with hostility and rejection. The world turns away, shuts its eyes, covers its ears. Cameron’s clients inexplicably desert him, and he dies in poverty. Roark’s critics do everything in their power to ruin his career. He flirts with bankruptcy, loses lawsuits, toils in obscurity, but soldiers on.

In part 3, Rand tells us of a new development: modern architecture is starting to catch on. Increasingly, people are rejecting classical styles, and other architects are putting up buildings that resemble Henry Cameron’s.

Is it a victory for our heroes? No:

In the past ten years, while most of the new residences continued to be built as faithful historical copies, the principles of Henry Cameron had won the field of commercial structures: the factories, the office buildings, the skyscrapers. It was a pale, distorted victory… Many stole Cameron’s forms; few understood his thinking. The sole part of his argument irresistible to the owners of new structures was financial economy; he won to that extent.

In the countries of Europe, most prominently in Germany, a new school of building had been growing for a long time: it consisted of putting up four walls and a flat top over them, with a few openings. This was called new architecture. The freedom from arbitrary rules, for which Cameron had fought, the freedom that imposed a great new responsibility on the creative builder, became mere elimination of all effort, even the effort of mastering historical styles. It became a rigid set of new rules — the discipline of conscious incompetence, creative poverty made into a system, mediocrity boastfully confessed.

You see, Henry Cameron’s buildings are spartan and geometric and lack ornamentation, which makes them Good. However, these other architects’ buildings are spartan and geometric and lack ornamentation, which makes them Bad.

What’s the difference? Rand asserts that Cameron’s buildings are driven by a coherent aesthetic, whereas the other architects are motivated by mere incompetence and laziness. But it’s not at all clear what that translates to in practical terms. Of Cameron’s famous Dana Building, Rand says: “Its lines were hard and simple… It displayed nothing but the precision of its sharp angles, the modeling of its planes”. And Rand says that the new architects “stole Cameron’s forms”, so doesn’t that mean their buildings look like his?

If you feel like this is a double standard, you’re not alone. Just as Roark considers it a grave insult to be complimented if the compliment is anything less than calling him the greatest architect ever, Rand dismisses this as a “pale, distorted victory” because other architects are influenced by Cameron’s thinking, but aren’t building exactly like him.

But wait – if they did slavishly copy Cameron’s style, wouldn’t that be “second-hand” imitation and also wrong, just as it was wrong for generations of later architects to slavishly copy the Parthenon? Just what the heck does Rand want other architects to do?

It seems that what she has in mind is impossible. She expects new architects to build in a way that’s both exactly like Cameron’s style, but also completely unique and original.

We may have hit on the real reason for the “One Steve Limit” in Rand’s novels, the implicit rule that there can only be one Objectivist Hero in any profession. Her philosophy demands that Objectivist Heroes are original and capable of things no one else can do; but it also requires that their solutions are provably correct and deduced purely from objective principles of reason.

This means there can’t be two competing Objectivist Heroes in the same line of work, because they’d come up with all the same ideas and neither would be able to prove how much more awesome he is than everyone else. The only feasible solution is to have only one – or, as in Roark and Cameron’s case, a maximum of two: one master and one apprentice. (Hmm, where have I heard that before?)

Cameron and a few men had broken the path and paved it with their lives. Other men, of whom there were greater numbers, the men who had been safe in copying the Parthenon, saw the danger and found a way to security: to walk Cameron’s path and make it lead them to a new Parthenon, an easier Parthenon in the shape of a packing crate of glass and concrete. The palm tree had broken through; the fungus came to feed on it, to deform it, to hide it, to pull it back into the common jungle.

It’s charming how Rand dismisses lesser architects as “fungus”. That dehumanizing epithet was also used in the same way by the Nazis, just in case you were wondering.

At a luncheon where he had to speak on architecture, Peter Keating stated:

“In reviewing my career to date, I came to the conclusion that I have worked on a true principle: the principle that constant change is a necessity of life. Since buildings are an indispensable part of life, it follows that architecture must change constantly. I have never developed any architectural prejudices for myself, but insisted on keeping my mind open to all the voices of the times. The fanatics who went around preaching that all structures must be modern were just as narrow-minded as the hidebound conservatives who demanded that we employ nothing but historical styles. I do not apologize for those of my buildings which were designed in the Classical tradition. They were an answer to the need of their era. Neither do I apologize for the buildings which I designed in the modern style. They represent the coming better world. It is my opinion that in the humble realization of this principle lies the reward and the joy of being an architect.”

As we saw earlier, Rand considers change to be a character flaw. Her other characters speak admiringly of the fact that Howard Roark has never changed his mind about anything in his life. He’s held all the same beliefs, desires and preferences unaltered since childhood.

In this chapter, we see the flip side of that. The way you know Peter Keating is a worthless sponge is because he changes his style in response to popular views, rather than mechanically plodding along at the same thing his whole life and ignoring any potential customers who want something else. And even though he’s now designing in the modern style, as Howard Roark would’ve, and even calling it a representation of a coming better world, that’s not going to save him.

As far as Ayn Rand is concerned, coming around to the right opinion later in life is just as bad as being wrong the whole time. It means you changed your mind, which means you can’t be trusted not to change your mind back later on. What she tried to achieve, with this book and the others, was a peculiarly literary form of predestination. She doesn’t want to convert people to her views, not as such. She only desires the allegiance of people who believed the same things as her all along.

Image credit: Hendrik Dacquin, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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