Recalling fiction’s most contrary architect
The downside of Howard Roark’s reputation is that he dynamited his own perfectly serviceable social housing project because he didn’t like the aesthetic. Unfortunately this was also the making of him.
Born under the influence of amphetamine, Roark was rejected by 12 publishers before he made it to print in 1943. This is not surprising as this is how his story begins, with another explosion: ‘Howard Roark laughed. He stood naked at the edge of a cliff. The lake lay far below him. A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight to the sky over motionless water … The stone had the stillness of one brief moment in battle.’ Ayn Rand conceived him to champion the individual out of an unhappy Soviet upbringing where her father was twice relieved of his chemist shop by communists. She fled the workers’ paradise in 1926. Word of mouth rather than critical acclaim made Roark’s arduous story a bestseller, but his career was greatly assisted by the 1949 film starring Gary Cooper; a melodrama of such perversity but with such quotable lines it transcends its pretext: the creeping menace of socialism.
Roark’s action cemented a notion of architectural heroism unqualified by the creation or experience of any actual building. Rand had worked briefly in an architectural office, and Andrew Saint traces his real-life affiliations, but it is in Rand’s idealism that Roark became not just a character, but a mythic hero, a hero underlying the perception of the modern architect.
Each Christmas I show masters students The Fountainhead. One scene never fails to bring a wave of sympathy. It seems that Roark has finally won a competition, his brave design markedly more efficient than his competitors, and he is called to a meeting to clinch the deal. But there is a catch, for the coterie, from their back pockets, bring out some rather cunningly devised Neoclassical do-dads that they offer to his model as improvements. Roark, of course, even in the direst straits, storms off in disgust with his integrity and his design intact. Other scenes, in particular when he is drilling rocks while his love interest seems in danger of wetting her knickers, also evoke swathes of nervous laughter.
Rand (who wrote the screenplay too) conflates two myths in her sexy genius, and the film is gripping for somewhat the wrong reasons − for instance we never know why his buildings might be any good, or why his love interest enjoys being raped. However we are still transfixed; it’s uncanny, but architecture is of course the sexiest profession and we need individual authors’ names to tag on buildings. Perhaps that’s a problem.
But whereas real architectural heroes seem versed in the tragic nature of their endeavours, Roark presents a Viz cartoon of the Nietzschean superman. So, when architects are not sexy male heroes, they become Tom Hanks: what Rand called ‘second handers’ (or Peter Keating). So Roark prefigures generations of silver screen architects who, in tune with events, become either undone as a mirror of failing America, like Paul Newman in The Towering Inferno or Woody Harrelson in Indecent Proposal; turn vigilante like Charles Bronson in Death Wish; or make the final transition to full-blown anti-hero, the unscrupulous starchitect of today, as in the graphic novel Batman: Death By Design. Mere rom-com architects are soft, they hold the babies; they do not challenge the skyline. Neither do critics, socialists or homosexuals, especially if they are all three (as in Ellsworth Toohey). Women just quiver.
Roark’s mentor is clearly a thinly disguised Louis Sullivan, but Roark gains none of his sentiment and Cameron dies muttering about plastics. Roark’s love interest is Dominique Francon, a woman so disturbed as to throw anything she loves immediately out of the window; a woman who Rand admitted behaved like her in a bad mood. Their emotional tug of war was sogripping as to throw Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal into the sack themselves, much to the detriment of Cooper’s marriage; his wife no doubt noting that final scene where Francon glides adoringly up the side of Roark’s enormous skyscraper.
Ayn Rand (1905-1982)
Dealing with the mediocrity surrounding him, represented by Ellsworth Toohey
Bombing of his housing complex to retain the integrity of his design
‘To sell your soul is the easiest thing in the world. That’s what everybody does every hour of his life. If I asked you to keep your soul - would you understand why that’s much harder?’
Fiction and fact at times coincide, and nobody tried harder to reconcile idealist philosophy with its disastrous practical consequences than Rand herself or her numerous and powerful political acolytes. FLW went as far as to say her thesis was a great one. This says a lot about him, but so does the fact he demanded an astronomic $250,000 to do the production design. The job went to rookie set designer Edward Carrere.
Wright is often cited as the model for Roark, but a chillier source might be Mies van der Rohe, as he had less redemptive pretence. Carrere’s production simply stretches the logic of forced perspective, what has to go up goes further up; what has to go along goes further along; and sometimes, as with the Enright House, they go along as they go up, because in films, that’s exactly what you can do. After all it is not tangible aspects of building design we are asked to believe in, just that they be true to themselves. At the time the architectural press was ‘astonished’ and ‘outraged’ at what it considered a mongrel vision; blaming Hollywood for ‘the silliest travesty … a total perversion of formal and structural elements’. However the Wynand Building prefigures John Portman.
Roark has legs: in his thrusting individualism he didn’t just aid McCarthy, but he was right for Reagan and he’s still talisman for the Tea Party, all without professing any politics. By wielding nothing but his pencil, he has come to represent the core values of neo-liberalism. Whenever the American economy needs a bump, Rand is there to encourage an intellectual walk out.
But Roark’s, and Rand’s, enemy is people. Dominique and Roark spit integrity at each other, Gail Wynand shoots himself for lack of it. In this world of histrionics, it is always high noon. Such a horror story of an ideology (so-called objectivism) wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t so attractive to the pseudo-Darwinian mechanisms of marketplace. When Rand died in 1982, Alan Greenspan had a six-foot floral tribute in the shape of a dollar sign mark the funeral, and in a groundswell of resurgent popularity, Silicon Valley schools began to fill with Ayns and Randys. In the US today, criticising Roark is like criticising Moses; there is no point, he is a myth we need, and to many of the wider architectural profession he’s still Santa Claus (somebody you should preferably grow out of). However there is no point complaining he doesn’t exist.
Ammunition against his mythical powers comes via parody. I’ve found Rand on the web writing a whole new chapter of Atlas Shrugged in a toilet cubicle of Studio 54 after a roaring contest (!) with Liza Minnelli. Slavoj Žižek is amused by Rand, and enjoys her precisely because she demonstrates so wonderfully how preposterous she is.
But in the end architects should note there is much in Roark that is merely convenient. Rand chose a profession whose working methods are notoriously lonely. Architectural students inevitably feel heroism at the drawing board and then crushing public defeat, and many can see heroism in FLW who should know better. Further we cannot imagine Roark doing it for the money. Hence, entry-level students haven’t a clue why Roark dynamited his housing project but final-year students all too painfully do. This is why his myth has legs, and why it continually needs a bomb under it.