The Fountainhead: Living Small

The Fountainhead: Living Small November 9, 2018

The Fountainhead, part 4, chapter 2

The newspaper titan Gail Wynand is telling Howard Roark why he asked him for a meeting:

“I never meet the men whose work I love. The work means too much to me. I don’t want the men to spoil it. They usually do. They’re an anticlimax to their own talent. You’re not. I don’t mind talking to you…” He shrugged. “I think I’ve destroyed, perverted, corrupted just about everything that exists. But I’ve never touched that. Why are you looking at me like this?”

“I’m sorry. Please tell me about the house you want.”

Bear in mind that Wynand and Roark have known each other for all of five minutes. And, as we’ll see momentarily, Wynand isn’t familiar with Roark’s life or career. But he just knew, through that telepathic Objectivist intuition, that Roark would be different from all those other guys who’ve let him down.

We read last time that Wynand wants Roark to build him an estate in the countryside. However, it’s not going to be the huge, ostentatious McMansion you might assume:

“I want it to be a palace — only I don’t think palaces are very luxurious. They’re so big, so promiscuously public. A small house is the true luxury. A residence for two people only — for my wife and me. It won’t be necessary to allow for a family, we don’t intend to have children. Nor for visitors, we don’t intend to entertain.”

It’s interesting that this information – that Wynand and Dominique don’t intend to have children – comes in the form of a tossed-off remark. We never see them discuss this at any point in the novel, so it’s unclear whether this is what they both want, or whether one of them is deadset against having kids and the other one reluctantly agrees. But knowing Ayn Rand, it’s probably the former.

It fits with what we see in Atlas Shrugged about how Rand almost completely ignores children, parenting and family because they don’t fit well into her philosophy. Really, I should say it doesn’t fit into either of her philosophies: where The Fountainhead‘s highest virtue was individuality and going your own way, Atlas Shrugged exalted capitalism and profitable work.

But whichever Ayn Rand you choose, neither meshes well with the personal sacrifices required to raise a family. Having small children who need to be fed, bathed, dressed and put to bed every day makes it a lot harder to chase your own dreams above all else. And if you work around the clock to increase shareholder value like an Atlas protagonist, when would you have time to conceive kids, much less be a part of their lives? It’s no coincidence that all of Rand’s protagonists in both novels are childfree.

“I must tell you much more about the house I want. I suppose an architect is like a father confessor — he must know everything about the people who are to live in his house, since what he gives them is more personal than their clothes or food. Please consider it in that spirit — and forgive me if you notice that this is difficult for me to say — I’ve never gone to confession.”

This is an excellent point, and it’s one that the rest of the novel flatly contradicts, since Roark can magically build houses that are perfect for people’s needs without understanding people or what their needs are.

“I can’t stand to see my wife among other people… I must take her away. I must put her out of reach — where nothing can touch her, not in any sense. This house is to be a fortress. My architect is to be my guard.”

Roark sat looking straight at him. He had to keep his eyes on Wynand in order to be able to listen.

… “This house is to be a prison. No, not quite that. A treasury — a vault to guard things too precious for sight. But it must be more. It must be a separate world, so beautiful that we’ll never miss the one we left. A prison only by the power of its own perfection. Not bars and ramparts — but your talent standing as a wall between us and the world. That’s what I want of you. And more. Have you ever built a temple?”

For a moment, Roark had no strength to answer; but he saw that the question was genuine; Wynand didn’t know.

“Yes,” said Roark.

We’re meant to gasp at the dramatic irony of Roark having to build a house that will keep him away from the woman he loves. But if this is meant as a Chekhov’s Gun, it’s another misfire, because this never becomes an important plot element. (Spoiler alert: When the time comes for them to be together, Roark – shocker! – drives up to the house and knocks.)

Let’s talk about Wynand’s desire for a small house. Although Rand idolized wealth, she never depicted her heroes as flaunting their riches or living coddled lives of luxury. Even the richest of them live simply and work as hard or harder than any of their employees. This seems to be part of her argument that unrestricted capitalism and higher inequality would be a net benefit to society.

However, this – like her assertion that caring about money makes you more moral and trustworthy, rather than less – fails to be reflected in how real rich people behave. Our homes are a good example.

American houses have ballooned in the last few decades. The average size of a new house has more than doubled since the 1950s, to more than 2500 square feet. In sync with this growth, the average amount of living space per person has expanded by a similar proportion.

Where one bathroom and shared bedrooms for children used to be the norm, buyers now consider multiple bathrooms and separate bedrooms for each child to be “needs”, even as families tend to be smaller than in the past. As houses get bigger and bigger, builders find increasingly contrived excuses to tack on more and more rooms: separate “formal” living rooms and dining rooms, TV rooms, game rooms, “mess kitchens” that are supposed to get dirty while the kitchen you show to your guests can remain spotless..

And note that these figures are for average houses. The very rich go to even more comical extremes of wastefulness and arrogance, like one house cited in the NPR article that’s 30,000 square feet and has 21 bathrooms. (One interesting exception: Warren Buffett, who’s worth around $80 billion, still lives in the modest Omaha house he bought in 1959 for $31,000.)

The vast majority of this space is wasted. It consumes energy and emits carbon pollution to build it, to furnish it, to heat and cool it, but time-use studies (like this one by UCLA researchers) find most of it is never occupied or used. The only reason for such giant houses to exist is as a status symbol, flaunting the owner’s wealth through conspicuous consumption, like the palaces built by kings and lords of old.

However, as ecological consciousness becomes more widespread, more people are revolting against the irresponsible giant-house trend. Millennials show a preference for smaller dwellings, and some people go all the way to the other extreme with tiny houses – some as small as 80 to 100 square feet. (Yes, it takes some cleverness to fit everything required for daily life.)

Although there can be class privilege wrapped up in the tiny-house movement, I think the motivations behind it are good ones. A small house consumes less energy and has no room for useless possessions, which demands a less wasteful, more minimalist and more environmentally friendly lifestyle. They’re quicker and easier to clean, and because they’re smaller, they’re also cheaper, which means a smaller mortgage or none at all. They’ve even been suggested as affordable housing for the homeless. Tiny houses won’t save the planet by themselves, but we could do worse than to see this trend catch on.

Image credit: Ivy Acres, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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