The Fountainhead: Caput Mundi

The Fountainhead: Caput Mundi July 26, 2019

The Fountainhead, part 4, chapter 20

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In the closing passages of The Fountainhead, Dominique has come to visit her husband Howard Roark at the Wynand Building construction site. The superintendent gives her a lift on an open-air elevator:

She stood, her hand lifted and closed about a cable, her high heels poised firmly on the planks. The planks shuddered, a current of air pressed her skirt to her body, and she saw the ground dropping softly away from her.

She rose above the broad panes of shop windows. The channels of streets grew deeper, sinking… The city spread out, marching in angular rows to the rivers. It stood held between two thin black arms of water. It leaped across and rolled away to a haze of plains and sky.

…The hoist swung like a pendulum above the city. It sped against the side of the building. It had passed the line where the masonry ended behind her. There was nothing behind her now but steel ligaments and space.

She saw him standing above her, on the top platform of the Wynand Building. He waved to her.

…She passed the pinnacles of bank buildings. She passed the crowns of courthouses. She rose above the spires of churches.

Then there was only the ocean and the sky and the figure of Howard Roark.

I have no problem admitting that this is a good passage to close out the book. It’s a lyrical, almost poetic description of the beauty of a city seen from above. It’s one of the best illustrations of Ayn Rand’s special affection for New York, about which she said:

“The skyline of New York is a monument of a splendor that no pyramids or palaces will ever equal or approach. But America’s skyscrapers were not built by public funds nor for a public purpose: they were built by the energy, initiative and wealth of private individuals for personal profit. And, instead of impoverishing the people, these skyscrapers, as they rose higher and higher, kept raising the people’s standard of living…”

(from The Virtue of Selfishness, chapter “The Monument Builders”)

But, as always, Rand’s writing talent was hampered by her ideological blinders. In reality, plenty of New York skyscrapers and high-rises were built with public funds and for a public purpose, not for profit. Co-op City, where my great-grandmother lived, was built with financing from the New York State Housing Finance Agency. Battery Park City in lower Manhattan was another planned residential development by state and city agencies. And that’s not even to mention the other iconic New York buildings that were built for public purposes, like the Main Branch of the New York Public Library, or Grand Central Terminal with its famous celestial ceiling.

Rand is persistently blind to the actual, meaningful contributions that government has made. This is something we also saw in Atlas Shrugged, where she waxed rhapsodic about the heroic capitalists who built railroads across the continent, ignoring the fact that they relied on state funding and land grants. She also erased the achievements of government science in her insistence that individual inventors are responsible for every achievement in history.

Whether it’s in public or private housing, humanity’s future is in the cities. According to U.N. statistics, 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and in the coming decades, that’s projected to rise to two-thirds. This is a good thing because, as Stewart Brand says in a line I’ve quoted before, “Cities cure poverty” (shocker – something a libertarian like Ayn Rand and a liberal like me can agree on!).

Cities are engines of economic opportunity, creating jobs and providing services that can’t be found in the countryside. They boost the education of their residents, foster tolerance and multiculturalism, reduce the birth rate, and shine a spotlight on lingering social problems so they can be noticed and dealt with. Big, dense cities are also greener and more eco-friendly than dispersed rural populations.

Why do cities make us richer? Partly, it’s because we’re moving away from the old economy of resource extraction – land to be plowed and planted, trees to be turned into timber, ore and coal to be mined, oil to be drilled – and toward a knowledge economy based on human capital. Some of the best-paid jobs are in fields like software, engineering, biotechnology, finance and entertainment. Companies in these industries tend to cluster, because you have to be where the workers are.

The Fountainhead takes an entirely atomistic view, arguing that cities are the sum of individual contributions by individual builders. This is false, as I’ve noted earlier. Cities aren’t just the output of capitalistic competition; they’re the frozen shape of human cooperation and community, as expressed through the democratic process via the mechanism of law, regulation and public goods.

Of course, regulation can have harmful effects when done badly. America’s spread-out and segregated suburbs, which were shaped in the 1930s by federal housing codes, are a case in point. But to balance against that, well-conceived regulations – as with fire safety codes mandating sprinklers and fire escapes, or hard-hat regulations for construction sites – have saved innumerable lives that would otherwise have been lost to the callousness of sweatshop owners and slumlords. Smart urban planning also counteracts sprawl and gridlock and makes cities places where people actually want to live. It even increases trust.

Most of all, we need better planning so that cities can grow and people can move to where they can make better lives for themselves. Unfortunately, many prosperous cities are hamstrung by constrained housing supply and NIMBY attitudes among existing residents who try to erect barriers to keep others out. And it’s not just a U.S. problem, as Matthew Desmond writes in Evicted:

The problem of unaffordable housing is not America’s alone. Over the last several decades, millions of people from around the world have migrated from rural villages and towns. In 1960, roughly one-third of the planet lived in urban areas; today, more than half does. Cities have experienced real income gains that have brought about global poverty reductions. But therein lies the rub, for the growth of cities also has been accompanied by an astonishing surge in land values and housing costs. Urban housing costs have risen around the globe, especially in “superstar cities” whose real-estate markets have experienced an influx of global capital, driving housing prices upward and crowding out low-income residents.

This is why this book still matters, and why you and I have been devoting our Fridays to these reviews for the past two and a half years: because housing affects everything. The story of where and how we live is really the story of what we value as a society. And despite its age and antiquated politics, the radically individualist, let-them-eat-cake philosophy of The Fountainhead still has many adherents. Including this one:

Trump described himself as an Ayn Rand fan. He said of her novel The Fountainhead, “It relates to business (and) beauty (and) life and inner emotions. That book relates to … everything.” He identified with Howard Roark, the novel’s idealistic protagonist who designs skyscrapers and rages against the establishment.

If we continue down the path we’re on, the future that lies ahead is grim: a sweltering, crowded world of stratospheric inequality, where the elite live in skyscraper palaces surrounded by sea walls and the rest of us are condemned to polluted slums or homelessness.

But if we make better choices, a utopian future lies within our grasp. We could have a world of decarbonized cities powered by sun and wind; of peaceful, safe neighborhoods existing harmoniously with nature and built on human scale, where everyone can live in comfort and dignity; of majestic architecture and public space for everyone, not reserved for a handful of the rich. It’s not too late for humanity to make better choices, but we’ll never build that happy ending by following the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

Next week: We delve into the 1949 movie version of The Fountainhead.

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