Oct 11, 201309:00 AMPoint of View


The Fountainhead All Over Again

The Fountainhead All Over Again

Gary Cooper as Howard Roark, doing his Don Draper impression.

Courtesy King Vidor, The Fountainhead (Warner Brothers, 1949).

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.


Last month, after Rafael Viñoly’s “fry-scraper” began reflecting enough heat to cook cars and eggs on the sidewalk in London, New York magazine ran a review of other recent disasters, “When Buildings Attack.” Mishaps are so frequent, the magazine offered a graphic key to distinguish between five kinds of architecturally induced ailments: burning, glare, ice, sway, and death. Evidently, F*heads are dangerous.

Zaha Hadid channeling “mystery and deepness.”

Courtesy Cameron Sinclair.

The F*heads are martyrs.  

“Thousands of years ago, the first man discovered how to make fire. He was probably burned at the stake he had taught his brothers to light.”—Howard Roark whine

After the London incident, Viñoly passed the buck by blaming a “superabundance of consultants” he says he didn’t want: “Architects aren’t architects anymore,” he whined. “You need consultants for everything. In this country there’s a specialist to tell you if something reflects.” He didn’t explain how the same thing happened in Las Vegas a few years ago, when his Vdara hotel was scorching sunbathers. 

Martyr complexes are common among the F*heads, who complain about loss of control. In a recent lecture, Rem Koolhaas reportedly lamented about the architect’s waning power, the draining certainty that “things will be as you want them.” And Gehry gripes, “I don't know why people hire architects and then tell them what to do.” 

The creator, announces Roark, “needs no other men.” But architects really do “need consultants for everything” because no single person or profession knows everything, and listening to the rest of the team might help avoid, say, unwittingly roasting the neighbors.  

The F*heads don’t care about you.

“The creator serves nothing and no one. He lives for himself.” —Howard Roark

Anyone who has ever toured any Frank Lloyd Wright house has heard the same old stories about the roof leaking on the dining table, the owner asking the architect for help, and Wright’s reply: “Move the table.” The price of genius? Wet furniture.

In the past couple of years, after nearly a decade of development, Pritzker-winner Rem Koolhaas finally oversaw completion of the CCTV Tower in Beijing. Its broken-trellis façade streaks terribly from rain and soot, and very little of the interior has been leased, so the owners are commissioning other architects to make the interior more habitable. Last fall, the Huffington Post called CCTV one of “the world’s ugliest skyscrapers,” “a 44-story Mobius strip of awfulness.”

Yet, in 2010, a group of elite architects voted CCTV one of the most important buildings of the past 30 years, and New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff hailed it as possibly “the greatest work of architecture built in this century.” Describing the building as “an eloquent architectural statement about China’s headlong race into the future,” Ouroussoff revealed the elitism that characterizes much of architectural theory. Do communities want architects (especially foreign ones) to create “statements” about them, or would they prefer their surroundings to nourish and enrich their lives?

All of this raises an essential question: What is the purpose of design? Is it meant to please the designer, or is it meant to please everyone else—the people who actually live and work in or around buildings? Architectural historian Peter Collins once wrote that behind the original notion of taste—both aesthetic and culinary—was a basic desire to please the consumer, a value that has all but disappeared in contemporary architecture, which tends to develop around the designer’s capricious interests. But, as Collins put it, to focus on personal expression is like judging an omelet by the chef’s passion for breaking eggs; or frying them in the street.

The F*heads seem to believe that the only relevant measure of their work is whether they like it, because the opinions of the rest of us don’t matter.

Move the table.



Lance Hosey is chief sustainability officer with the global design practice RTKL. His latest book is The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design (Island Press, 2012).

Old to new | New to old
Oct 14, 2013 08:23 am
 Posted by  Mitch

Thank you for this article about F*head architects. As a (biology) professor at a Chicago institute, I've never understood why its buildings by Mies and Koolhaas are celebrated. Leaks, lack of insulation and poor temperature control ... less is less after all.

Oct 15, 2013 03:03 pm
 Posted by  Rutilo

Well, maybe I got the book wrong but as I understand, the character of Howard Roark is, by detonating the building, precisely preventing the construction of a building he knew was going to fail, he defended his right judgement of things, and is precisely the good judgement that is lacking recently in architectural commissions. Architecture carries a great responsibility, not just with society, but with the developers, the users, the owners and with himself, a responsibility not only of usability but of safety and sustainability, not only ecologically speaking but in general.

It's the media that raised Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and some others to the status of Diva-Stars that are allowed and encouraged to do whatever they want, and is us, architects that have supported this. It is unfair to quote the book to blame on all architects the acts of a few. Actually what Howard Roark defends all along in the book is the responsible architecture.

We live in another time yet we make the same mistakes. Cities all over the world keep on wanting to repeat the Bilbao Guggenheim at any cost, literally; they mistakenly commission sculptures instead of buildings to get the world's attention and as long as long as there is someone paying for them we will keep on suffering the effects of Starchitects.

At the same time great architecture keeps on evolving all over the world and visionary clients, not looking for the front cover of a magazine but for a great building keep on supporting great, and sometimes anonymous architects who, given the focus of media in sensationalism and theatre, sadly might remain in anonymity. Editors will always chose a "sculpture" over a building for a front cover, and so will clients and developers if the media keeps misleading them into making these decisions. Maybe is a mater of who's responsible now for the architecture described in the article. Of course these architects are greatly responsible of what's happening, but so are we for consuming their architecture.

Oct 15, 2013 05:30 pm
 Posted by  David J Gill

The idea that F*head star architects is just superficial overstatement. Anyone in any field of endeavor that achieves the endorsement of fame can start to believe their own hype. These guys are hired to put their signature on something, hence their behavior and it can get out of control. But Howard Roark was a psychological mess and NO architect endorses that characters' motivations. 'The Fountainhead' is not about the disturbing, tragic narcissism of architects, it's about at he absurdity of Ayn Rand's 'would be' philosophy.

The Frank Lloyd Wright roof leak fable is true and the client was Herb Johnson of SC Johnson Wax. Wright's comment was certainly a joke. Wright indulged in this kind of self deprecating overstatement of arrogance as humor tinged with the truth. He charmed and disarmed his clients this way; but to think he didn't respect them and could build with disregard for their interests is untrue. Surprisingly, the plan of Johnson's house is based on a sketch that Johnson did and gave to Wright; something that would really piss-off most architects.

MITCH...You are obviously an intelligent person with an ability to understand the relevance of any piece of data to the question at hand. You don't judge the value of architecture as an art form based on it's need for maintenance or because it's internal mechanical systems are outdated. Mies's buildings at Chicago are still great architecture, but the roof needs to be fixed and the air-conditioning needs to be replaced. The Koolhaas building has shortcomings. but the same ideas applies.

Oct 15, 2013 06:02 pm
 Posted by  13axxess

Mr. Hosey, your right to express yourself is, fortunately, embedded in the American way of life. As fortunately, so is mine to take issue with your juvenile and offensive F*heads characterization.

Apparently, the education you were subjected to did not extend to allow you to grasp the significance of fiction, whether modeled after a notorious public figure or not. Whatever credibility you may have laid claim to was severely damaged by your pointless and ultimately self-damaging rant about practitioners of the profession you have chosen. The anecdotal "evidence" you provide in defense of your point of view may be dramatic. But it does little to convince this reader that "thou doth protest too much".

Oct 15, 2013 06:15 pm
 Posted by  Archadam

The only F*heads are people who don't read books and then write articles about them that are irrelevant. The Fountainhead wasn't about starchitects, and even if it were, Guy Francon was the starchitect, not Roark.

Go to school and learn some reading comprehension before you write a load of crap about a great author -- glad I unsubscribed from Metropolis a long time ago.

Oct 16, 2013 08:26 pm
 Posted by  14850

"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."

The Bill of Rights is intended to guarantee that the will of the majority does not infringe on certain rights of the individual. The United States is a democracy, but it is not governed by simple majority rule.

"When the lines between individualism and democracy blur, it’s safe to say that Rand’s ghost still haunts us."

By appending the Bill of Rights to the Constitution, the founders were intentionally blurring the lines between majority rule and individual rights.

I'm an attorney and a first-year M.Arch I student. Let me know if there's anything else I can clear up for you.

Oct 19, 2013 11:05 pm
 Posted by  Frank Lloyd Wright

Wow, you guys really don't know satire when you see it, do you? Funniest thing I've read about architects in a long time. (Hey, attorney dude, there IS something you can clear up for us: Does your arrogance come from your law training, your architecture training, or your innate character?)

Oct 19, 2013 11:35 pm
 Posted by  Doritoguy

Lawyer-turned-architect, your civics lesson is pretty simplistic. There's a difference between individualism and equality for individuals. The latter is the backbone of democracy, while the former threatens democracy by thwarting the social contract.

Individualism holds that the individual is more important than the community. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: "Individualism ... disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellow-creatures; and to draw apart with his family and his friends; so that, after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself... [I]ndividualism proceeds from erroneous judgment more than from depraved feelings; it originates as much in the deficiencies of the mind as in the perversity of the heart...; individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but, in the long run, it attacks and destroys all others...."

Oct 10, 2014 12:17 am
 Posted by  Hapless Student

Would still like to see this redone in a good way. Atlas Shrugged 1, 2, and 3 could have been better. Just film back to back and try to keep the same people. Schools, offices and courtrooms are not that pricey. As long as it is good writing it can be pulled off. The morals in the story are still relevant for today. My parents were house builders and they thought out side the box in their designs and use of materials. So the story has some meaning to me there also.

Oct 21, 2014 12:08 pm
 Posted by  cliftonlemon

Fabulous piece! I can't believe how persistent Ayn Rand's narcissistic mythology still is and how much power it continues to wield on our collective unconscious in architecture.

Love Doritoguy's post!

Not all starchitects are all bad- Frank lloyd Wright was certainly one, but he did some good things too.

Here's a thought- starchitect buildings with their ridiculously un-green glass and steel are very much in the minority and probably have an exaggerated impact because they're so visible. It's when people try to imitate them in the wrong building types that we get into worse trouble. The vast majority of buildings are mediocre in design and performance, but they can be improved gradually with a better approach to practical considerations- true sustainability is very much about this. People may worship Bilbao but they don't want to live in buildings like that.

Green and sustainable doesn't have a compelling single aesthetic like modernism, that's why it's difficult to see. We can change that. Replacing the culture of Narcissitecture with a building culture that is civic-minded and truly sustainable/resilient is a step in the right direction.

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