A Point In Design

Commentary – Cribnotes for Architecture Fiction
August 29, 2012, 5:39 am
Filed under: Commentary/Reviews

Hello readers,
I came across this great synopsis of the novel/movie the Fountainhead on ArchDaily’s website today. Here is the link to the summary.

Photo from the 1949 Movie

Below is the trailer from the 1949 movie starring Gary Cooper in case you want to check out the movie adaptation.

Book: The Fountainhead
Author: Ayn Rand
Pages: 704 pages
Year Published: 1943

I have never read the book or seen the 1949 movie, yet after reading the précis I would have no desire to read it either. I had heard of this book before and it was even mentioned in passing in a design studio lecture, but I never really knew what it was about other than it featured the life of an architect, so for me this plot summary was a real time-saver.

The characters in this novel are truly repugnant. Howard Roark, the novel’s protagonist embodies the absolute worst personality characteristics associated with a difficult and demanding artist. Sure, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier had huge egos like Roark and were cantankerous to boot, but today even the biggest names in design such as Frank Geary or Rem Koolhas quietly acknowledge that they are not infallible and that their work does go out of favor. Not so with Roark who was blinded by his own ego.

The central theme in Rand’s work espousing the value of greed and selfishness as the path to personal freedom completely ignores the value of Roark’s friends, mentors, and lovers that helped build his career. Rand also seems to overlook that Roark’s personal failure in business was a direct result of his own selfishness. I find it amazing that the incoherent rambling of Rand are given so much credence in today’s society or at least within the inner circles of power in DC. But aside from my personal reactions to the story, I thought it would be interesting to examine just how accurate Rand’s fictional portrayal of the architecture profession really was.

Fact vs Fiction
Are architects as unwilling to compromise on their designs as Roark in the real world?

I would say no, architects are trained to be flexible and open minded, perhaps even too much so. In reality the client exerts lots of influence as they are ultimately paying for the building and they are the one who actually uses it. If you are really really famous like Peter Zumthor or Louis Kahn, then you can get clients to bend to your vision even on the smallest of details, but it is worth noting that even though these 2 men are acknowledged geniuses they were also known to be difficult to work with and lost just as many if not more clients than they got.

Would an architect deliberately destroy one his own creations as Roark did because his vision wasn’t executed as he designed it?

No. The most he/she may do is leave it off his catalog resume, if he felt it was really bad, but today architects are often lobbying to preserve their creations in the face of public opposition set on tearing them down. The architectural community rallied behind Kallmann, McKinnell, & Knowles to preserve Boston City Hall even though the mayor and the general public declared it an ugly and unsuitable building.

What is the most accurate aspect of the novel?
I would say that most if not all architects never achieve the fame, recognition, or wealth by practicing architecture. It is a profession where struggle is paramount. Most architects go through a personal bankruptcy or end up closing their practice at some time during their career. Roark had to close his office and take employment at a stone quarry to make ends meet. Kahn with all his fame and recognition died bankrupt. This is not an uncommon story either.

That is my two cents. If you have an opinion on the Fountainhead, feel free to leave it in the comments section of this post.

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