'The Fountainhead' at 50 Expectations of Architects Have Changed

May 23, 1993|By EDWARD GUNTS

"I do not recognize anyone's right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine. . . I am a man who does not exist for others."

With that angry soliloquy by Howard Roark in "The Fountainhead," Ayn Rand forever changed the face of American architecture.

Her epic characterization of Roark -- the fictional architect who dynamites his own building halfway through construction because others drastically compromised his design -- may have done more to shape public opinion about architecture and those who practice it than decades worth of actual construction. "The Fountainhead" left an indelible impression of the architect as an arrogant, selfish iconoclast who builds to satisfy his own ego rather than to serve clients.

Nothing is cast in stone? Roark's genius and integrity were as unyielding as granite. By the time Ms. Rand had finished chiseling his features, so was the public's perception of architects. And America's real practitioners have been trying to live it down ever since.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of "The Fountainhead." It was published in May of 1943, hit the best seller list that July, and was on and off of it for the next six years. Warner Bros. released a motion picture version starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal in 1949. The Ayn Rand Institute in Marina del Rey, California, estimates that 100,000 copies are sold every year and that six million volumes are in print -- making "The Fountainhead" one of America's all-time best sellers.

And this year, Roark is poised for a comeback. Signet Books just issued a 50th anniversary edition of "The Fountainhead." Ms. Rand's literary executor, Leonard Peikoff, is preparing to publish the "Fountainhead journals," an extensive collection of notes and character sketches that the author made while writing the book. And Giant Pictures recently disclosed that it is working with producer James Hill and Warner Bros. on a remake of the movie.

"Nobody can say it's a good book. But in a way, it's a great book," observes architectural historian Vincent Scully. "It played a large part in shaping a generation of architects. . . It's the message that shaped the late modernism of the 20th century."

"Everybody is always looking for a hero," agrees Washington architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen. Ms. Rand "made a hero out of Howard Roark, and a number of very bad architects thought they were Howard Roarks."

Fifty years after its publication, "The Fountainhead" is instructive to read not only as a philosophical construct, but also for its insightful, almost prophetic, observations about the architectural profession after the Great Depression.

"The Fountainhead" tells the story of a gifted young architect and his battle against lesser mortals who thwart his efforts at every turn. The plot is thickened by Roark's secret relationship with Dominique Francon, a woman whose force of will is as strong as his own. He enlists her aid to blow up a public housing project after discovering that his design for it has been altered by others.

Ms. Rand, who died in 1982, contended that she wrote the book to depict the projection of the "ideal" man and that the literary work was an end in itself. But she also admitted the book set forth a philosophical framework for its characters, a "rational code of ethics" or moral compass by which their actions can be judged.

That statement of principles stressed the importance of the individual over the masses, the creator over the "second hander." It helped win an enthusiastic, almost cult-like following for Ms. Rand's philosophy of "objectivism," which has been characterized as the "deification of selfishness."

For many who seek out the book for its philosophical underpinnings, Roark has come to personify Ms. Rand's belief that man's ego is the fountainhead of human progress. His battles against mediocrity epitomized her central theme of individualism vs. collectivism -- not in politics but in man's soul. Because he was fictional, his moves and motivations could be drawn more sharply than any living architect's ever could be.

"I don't intend to build in order to have clients," he states early in the book. "I intend to have clients in order to build."

In notes made to herself while writing "The Fountainhead," Ms. Rand explained how the subject of architecture fit into her portrayal. "The book is not about architecture," she wrote. "It's about Roark against the world and about the workings of that thing in the world which opposes him."

But even if Ms. Rand intended the book to be a character study, "The Fountainhead" soon took on a life of its own as a tale about architecture. From the beginning it captivated America's architects, who thirsted for any mention of the profession in the popular press. The plot's credibility was due to extensive research done by the author, who worked for six months without pay as a secretary in the office of New York architect Ely Jacques Kahn, solely to learn about the field.

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