The Fountainhead: Green Space

The Fountainhead: Green Space October 5, 2018

The Fountainhead, part 4, chapter 1

The fourth and final section of The Fountainhead begins by zooming in a young man who’s just graduated college, riding his bicycle along a trail that winds through the rural hills of Pennsylvania. Rand tells us that the year is 1935 and that it’s a gorgeous spring day:

The leaves streamed down, trembling in the sun. They were not green; only a few, scattered through the torrent, stood out in single drops of a green so bright and pure that it hurt the eyes; the rest were not a color, but a light, the substance of fire on metal, living sparks without edges.

As I’ve often observed, there’s a contradiction in Ayn Rand’s works when it comes to nature: a clash between what she shows and what she tells. She describes the wilderness – in this book and the other one – in terms that make it seem beautiful and majestic.

Yet she tells us that nature by itself is ugly and useless – “senseless space” is The Fountainhead‘s term – and she strongly implies that people who admire a forest, an ocean or a mountain for its own sake are evil. Her protagonists hate the sight of wilderness unless it’s “improved” by people chopping down trees, damming streams and putting up billboards.

This section at least nods toward a resolution. Rand seems to believe that human work should be an “improvement on nature”, but often falls short of that standard:

He could not name the thing he wanted of life. He felt it here, in this wild loneliness. But he did not face nature with the joy of a healthy animal — as a proper and final setting; he faced it with the joy of a healthy man — as a challenge; as tools, means and material. So he felt anger that he should find exultation only in the wilderness, that this great sense of hope had to be lost when he would return to men and men’s work. He thought that this was not right; that man’s work should be a higher step, an improvement on nature, not a degradation. He did not want to despise men; he wanted to love and admire them. But he dreaded the sight of the first house, poolroom and movie poster he would encounter on his way.

The trail that the young man is following climbs a ridge, and from the top, he glimpses something unexpected:

There were small houses on the ledges of the hill before him, flowing down to the bottom. He knew that the ledges had not been touched, that no artifice had altered the unplanned beauty of the graded steps. Yet some power had known how to build on these ledges in such a way that the houses became inevitable, and one could no longer imagine the hills as beautiful without them — as if the centuries and the series of chances that produced these ledges in the struggle of great blind forces had waited for their final expression, had been only a road to a goal — and the goal was these buildings, part of the hills, shaped by the hills, yet ruling them by giving them meaning.

The houses were plain field stone — like the rocks jutting from the green hillsides — and of glass, great sheets of glass used as if the sun were invited to complete the structures, sunlight becoming part of the masonry. There were many houses, they were small, they were cut off from one another, and no two of them were alike.

It’s interesting that Ayn Rand seems to be an advocate of biophilic design: architecture that includes elements of nature or blends in with natural surroundings. She seems to consider that the highest and most beautiful type of building. (One of my favorite examples of this aesthetic: Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, a futuristic green park known for its immense steel “supertrees” covered with native plants and flowers.)

But if that’s the case, why are her heroes so adamantly opposed to classical architecture, which often incorporates design elements drawn from nature like leafy vines or bunches of grapes? Isn’t that a step in the right direction?

Conversely, if her heroes prefer buildings that preserve “the unplanned beauty” of natural surroundings, why are they such admirers of New York City? Especially in the 1920s, it was one of the least biophilic cities imaginable: all nature eradicated except for parks surrounded by concrete, many natural rivers and streams paved over and turned into sewers, all the land leveled and cut into an orderly geometric grid of streets.

The young man thinks he’s alone in his admiration, until he notices a stranger with orange hair sitting on a boulder, looking down at the valley. He asks the stranger what this place is:

“It’s a summer resort. It’s just been completed. It will be opened in a few weeks.”

“Who built it?”

“I did.”

“What’s your name?”

“Howard Roark.”

“Thank you,” said the boy. He knew that the steady eyes looking at him understood everything these two words had to cover. Howard Roark inclined his head, in acknowledgment.

Despite her confused attitude toward whether we should appreciature nature or not, I think this is one instance where we can agree that Ayn Rand stumbled on something true. Ironically, although she insisted that humans have no instincts, this is one of the better-evidenced examples to the contrary: humans do have an instinctive preference for environments that resemble those our species evolved in.

It’s no coincidence that some of the most expensive and desirable real estate in Manhattan can be found in the buildings that look out over Central Park. Nor should it be a huge surprise that New York’s High Line, once criticized as a quixotic fantasy, has proven wildly popular and has caused prices in the surrounding Chelsea neighborhood to jump. Given the chance, people prefer to live someplace where they can look out on trees and water and greenery, even in the middle of a concrete jungle.

And this isn’t just an aesthetic preference. Proximity to nature has real, measurable benefits for our mental health and well-being. As I wrote in an old post, “Under Green Leaves“:

For example, in one famous study, surgical patients who could see trees outside their window recovered faster and required fewer painkillers than patients whose window looked out on a brick wall. Other studies have found that greener urban areas have lower crime rates and that being in green environments lessens the symptoms of ADHD and improves schoolchildren’s academic performance.

There are many other studies which find the same result. An experiment in Philadelphia found that turning vacant lots into parks and community gardens reduced feelings of depression by 68% (!) in surrounding blocks.

Along the same lines, the practice of “forest bathing“, which originated in crowded and urbanized Japan, has spread to the U.S. One study has found that going for a walk in the wilderness reduces blood pressure and levels of stress hormones, even compared to walking an equal distance in a built-up urban environment. The benefits of nature are real, and they’re something that every architect would do well to take note of, whether their buildings are modern and geometric or elaborate and classical.

Image: The “supertree” grove in Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay. Photo by Jan via Wikimedia Commons, released under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Other posts in this series:

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The Fountainhead: NIMBY & BANANA

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