Revisiting Roark

The fictional protagonist of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead is a hero for generations of architects. Is it time for that to change?

Roy Gaiot

Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead is the only novel that I ever tossed into the recycling after reading the last page. I still remember the THUNK of paperback against the side of the bin. I had read it out of a sense of professional obligation, having worked with and around architects for a long time. For several generations of architects, The Fountainhead’s architect-protagonist Howard Roark is an inspiration. If you Google “famous fictional architect,” you’ll get a list with his name at the top. Roark was the top fictional architect chosen by in 2009. He was the first mentioned on a similar list published by The Guardian in 2012. He was number two on Architectural Record’s list from 2008, but only because they cheated, arguing the non-fictional life of Frank Lloyd Wright was dramatic enough to knock Roark out of the top spot.

The existence of a single “most famous fictional architect” is more than a little strange. It’s rare for one character to become the dominant representation of a profession: there are dozens of fictional doctors, cops, politicians, lawyers, scientists, journalists, and businesspeople. But Roark is to architects something like what Sherlock Holmes is to private detectives. He is the central depiction of a profession within fiction. But Roark is more than that. He is also the leading man in one of the literary touchstones of the political Right wing.

Decades after The Fountainhead’s 1943 publication, Rand still has many prominent libertarian and Republican fans. They include former American President Donald Trump (reported in 2016 by USA Today to identify with Roark), former Chair of the Federal Reserve of the United States Alan Greenspan (who knew Rand personally), former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Paul Ryan (who has given Rand’s books as Christmas gifts), and former United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (who has named Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as his favourite book).

Referencing Rand’s name alone has become a shorthand for a certain brand of Right-wing politics. It would be inaccurate to call her a conservative. She developed her own capitalist libertarian-adjacent philosophy (Objectivism) and critiqued more collectivist ideas ferociously within her novels and other works. The Fountainhead is an intentional work of propaganda. As Rand writes in her 1968 introduction for the novel’s 25th anniversary, her goal was to show Howard Roark as an idealized man, who she saw as only able to exist under a laissez-faire capitalist system.

“She had a specific audience in mind, which was young people,” says Jennifer Burns, Associate Professor of History at Stanford University, and author of the biography Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. “She wanted people to get drunk on the novel; [for them to have] that experience of imagining your life without limits. She felt it’s much easier for an 18-year-old to have that feeling than a 48-year-old.”

Burns says each section of The Fountainhead had originally started with a headnote from Friedrich Nietzsche. This was taken out by Rand before publication. “It really was this kind of Nietzschean Übermensch against the world, and she wrote it to seduce the reader into identifying with the superman, as opposed to the mob.”

The Fountainhead has a duality in that it’s celebrating individual creativity in a way that you can take without the politics. Or you can take the politics. There’s a little more flexibility to take it your way. With her later work, it’s very interwoven.”

The Fountainhead’s plot follows the dramatic highs and lows of Roark’s professional career, contrasting him against an array of characters who fall short of the individualist-creator ideal. Some of these characters are decried within the text as “parasites” or “second-handers,” people who are unable to create for themselves, often contemptuous or jealous of Roark’s talent. The book climaxes with Roark blowing up Cortlandt Homes, an under-construction housing project that he secretly designed for the much less-talented architect Peter Keating (one of his central foils throughout the novel). Roark’s motive is that his original design was betrayed by Keating, who fails on a promise to preserve the integrity of Roark’s design. Roark is put on trial. He represents himself, admitting he dynamited the building. He delivers a fiery courtroom speech on the importance of ego-driven individualist-creators. The speech is also a severe condemnation of altruism and the aforementioned second-handers: “The code of the second-hander is built on the needs of a mind incapable of survival. All that which proceeds from man’s independent ego is good. All that which proceeds from man’s dependence on men is evil.”

Because this is a novel with a point to get across, Roark’s jury renders a verdict of not guilty. He goes on to design a skyscraper in Hell’s Kitchen, and he marries the novel’s heroine, Dominique Francon, who he violently rapes earlier in the story. The complicated sado-masochistic dynamic between Roark and Dominique in The Fountainhead is important to mention. My focus in this article is the novel’s connection to architecture, but I would still ask: given that we are talking about a character meant to represent an ideal man, what type of behaviour is Rand ultimately condoning? What happens if people act like Howard Roark?

Throughout the entirety of the book, it’s clear that Rand wants readers on Roark’s side. Rand’s point is to celebrate and exonerate Roark as an idealized creator who lives for himself and doesn’t compromise principles. And like Roark, Rand wasn’t big on compromises. She closes her introduction in the anniversary edition with a paragraph that dismisses those who don’t agree with her as betraying their own souls. I am paraphrasing slightly from a copy that I re-purchased in service of writing this article. (Beyond betraying my soul, I am out twenty-seven Canadian dollars plus tax.) The new copy included an insert, much like a magazine subscription tearaway, directing readers to free information on Rand and her Objectivist philosophy, something I haven’t seen in a novel before or since.

To me, all of this: the novel’s plot, the Right-wing politics, even the little tearaway insert, raises the question: why is this the famous novel about architecture? I think part of that answer lies in Rand’s real-world influences.

There is a note from Rand at the outset of The Fountainhead, stating, in part: “No person or event in this story is intended as a reference to any real person or event.” But Rand was clearly writing with real people in mind. In researching Goddess of the Market, Burns gained access to Rand’s personal papers, providing detailed insights into her work, collaborators, and creative process when she was writing The Fountainhead. To cover only a few of the characters: Peter Keating was based on architect Thomas Hastings; Gail Wynand was based on William Randolph Hearst, Guy Francon was based on architect Ely Jacques Kahn (whose office Rand volunteered at for months while working on The Fountainhead).

Howard Roark—even down to a project he designs in the novel—is based on Frank Lloyd Wright, who Rand originally saw as an inspiring figure.

“She really idolized him,” says Burns. “She hated being told her ideas and books were unrealistic, so Frank Lloyd Wright became an example of Howard Roark come to life.”

According to Burns, Rand shared early portions of The Fountainhead with Wright, seeking out a meeting with him and buying an expensive dress for the occasion. They met several times, though calling them friends is a stretch. Burns says that Rand eventually became disillusioned with Wright, following a visit to Taliesin, where she was left unimpressed by a culture of followers imitating a master without question. But “I honestly think she subconsciously modelled herself on that,” says Burns. “This is the age of the entourage: when you get famous enough, you get a group of five to six people who follow you around and act like you. And I think [Wright] set a template of what success means, that she then followed as a novelist.”

For his part, Wright seems to have initially disliked Rand, then warmed to her enough to design her a house, then reverted to disliking her again. In Ada Louise Huxtable’s Frank Lloyd Wright: A Life, he is described as thinking little of being a model for Roark in The Fountainhead, quipping meanly: “I deny the paternity and refuse to marry the mother.” He apparently changed his tune slightly after the book became a hit. Huxtable describes that Wright “tolerated” Rand, “but she was as opinionated as he was, and her visits to Taliesin were a trial.” Wright is said to have become irritated with her smoking in their last meeting, tossing her cigarette in the fire and ordering her to go. Rand also never built the house that Wright designed for her. Instead, she bought an existing house designed by Richard Neutra: a choice that Huxtable notes as being both cheaper for Rand, and potentially offensive to Wright, given that he saw Neutra as “an archenemy.”

Revisiting the story of Rand’s life, this type of falling-out doesn’t seem out of place. She had severe breaks with many people she knew, even within her close circle.

“I think there’s a big tension in her life between wanting to be a champion of rationality, and being a person very much driven by emotion and passion. Nonetheless, she had rationality set up in the [Objectivist] system, and if anybody didn’t follow it, she would reject them in a state of high emotion,” says Burns. “It was a romantic view of rationalism. . . if that can be said. She wasn’t a robotic, low-affect person, who just wanted to be rational all the time. She was subject to these sweeps of passion. I think that’s why she was drawn to rationality, maybe, because of the bound-ness.”

As for what The Fountainhead means to architecture as a profession, it’s important to think about. Fiction is fiction, but it shapes people’s conception of the world. The Fountainhead is a book with lasting impact, political and otherwise. Almost 80 years after its first publication, I was able to go to my local bookstore and buy a stocked copy right off the shelf.

I do think it’s worth interrogating whether a single “most famous fictional architect” is a worthwhile thing to have, especially if the character in question arrives deeply tied to a political viewpoint. I clearly don’t like Rand’s politics much, but it would be equally bizarre to me if Howard Roark were being written as propaganda from any other point on the political spectrum. Architects are not any sort of political monolith; they are an increasingly diverse group of professionals who often believe disparate things for their own reasons. I’d rather have the books I read reflect this complexity. To me, it makes for a better story.

Jake Nicholson is a writer based in London, Ontario, with extensive experience working on proposals for architectural and engineering firms.