Oct 11, 201309:00 AMPoint of View
The METROPOLIS Blog
The Fountainhead All Over Again
Gary Cooper as Howard Roark, doing his Don Draper impression.
Courtesy King Vidor, The Fountainhead (Warner Brothers, 1949).
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It came out in 1943, exactly 70 years ago this summer. In the movie version a few years later, Gary Cooper played Howard Roark, the character famously modeled after Frank Lloyd Wright. Since then, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, her “hymn in praise of the individual” (New York Times), has made legions of young people want to become architects. The late Lebbeus Woods wrote that the story “has had an immense impact on the public perception of architects and architecture, and also on architects themselves, for better and for worse.” I’d say worse. In fact, the Fountainhead remains the perfect representation of everything that’s wrong with the profession.
Consider the plot. Here’s the most popular story—maybe the only popular story—ever written about an architect, and in it the hero defends his right to dynamite a building because it wasn’t made the way he wanted. “I destroyed it because I did not choose to let it exist,” declares Roark. At best, this is like a kid throwing a tantrum and smashing his toy blocks. At worst, it’s terrorism masquerading as free speech.
Today, they say the Fountainhead is dead, but everywhere you look architects are portrayed as if they’re strange and special beings, somehow more than mortal. And their views are decidedly Roarkian. Frank Gehry, the most famous architect of our time, has said that denying the architect’s right to self-expression is like denying democracy. But democracy is the will of the majority, not the individual, and Ayn Rand hated democracy because she felt that it crushes personal freedom. When the lines between individualism and democracy blur, it’s safe to say that Rand’s ghost still haunts us.
Yes, the Fountainhead is alive and well among some architects. Call them F*heads.
To celebrate the anniversary of The Fountainhead here’s a look at how it continues to characterize the most celebrated designers.
Rafael Viñoly’s “Fry-Scraper” (20 Fenchurch Street, London). “Architects aren’t architects anymore.”
Courtesy VancouverSun.com. Photograph by: Peter Macdiarmid , Getty Images
The F*heads know best—or think they do.
“[The creator] held his truth above all things and against all men.” —Howard Roark
Angel Borrego Cubero’s forthcoming documentary, The Competition, chronicles the development of five starchitects’ designs for one building. At the end of the trailer, Jean Nouvel, in a black hat and cloak, whispers to the director, “I hope you clearly captured the mystery and the deepness.” Delusions of profundity run rampant among the F*heads.
But the architect has no clothes.
Nouvel’s Museé du Quai Branly in Paris has been touted as “green” because of its vegetated façade, but the exotic plants and hydroponics are gluttons for water—green but not sustainable. An earlier project, the Arab Institute, also in Paris, features a kinetic façade that adjusts automatically to changes in light, except that it doesn’t. From the outset, the expensive system had significant problems, including failing gizmos and noisy parts, so for years the façade has been fixed in place. There’s nothing “mysterious” and “deep” about squeaky windows—they’re just annoying.