It seems sometimes like one out of every ten times somebody finds out that you are an architect, they bring up Ayn Rand’s the Fountainhead. Well, under the theme of Hubris, it was the perfect time to explore the book/movie’s relation to the profession. I definitely didn’t say all I could about it, but here’s what I wrote in 2006.
The Fountainhead (1949), 114 minutes
“King Vidor turned Ayn Rand’s preposterous “philosophical” novel into one of his finest and most personal films, mainly by pushing the phallic imagery so hard that it surpasses Rand’s rightist diatribes and even camp (“I wish I’d never seen your skyscraper!”), entering some uncharted dimension where melodrama and metaphysics exist side by side.”
– Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
“Any move I would make against such grossly abusive caricature of my work by this film crew would only serve their purpose. They belie the one decent thesis of The Fountainhead, the inalienable right of the individual to the integrity of his idea. It is best to laugh.”
– Frank Lloyd Wright
This book (and by proxy, this movie as adapted by Ayn Rand herself) may be the saddest, most infantile, pretentious, illogical, asocial, wrongheaded, and just plain nonsensical thing ever associated with the architectural profession. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Ms. Rand’s book has remained in print for decades, during which time it has sold millions of copies and may have (frighteningly) held sway over almost as many people. It is also no stretch to say that the conception of the architect as depicted by this book and movie has pervaded our collective self-image, even if it just mans a post on the far side of that spectrum.
In fact, it isn’t hard to get the sense that most people still see the architect in the Howard Roark-ian sense: as a hyper-masculine (in the Western, heteronormative sense) Übermensch who has an unyieldingly rigid phallus, err—I mean, sense of right or wrong, a dictatorial relationship to his perceived lessers, and who is generally disdainful of popular aesthetic taste. Potency, in particular the male sexual kind, via the popular image of the architect was extremely well documented in a brilliant essay by Nancy Levinson in the book Architecture and Film (Mark Lamster, ed.). Not only does this raise the issue of the place of femininity within architecture (as it stood in 1949 and today), but it serves as an introduction into thinking about what exactly is the power of the architect. Power, roughly defined, is the ability of a person to change their environment. In that sense, power and architect could be synonyms. This season’s film series, “Hubris,” looks to examine the architect, his power, and the responsibility that comes concurrent.
But, Frank Lloyd Wright, upon whom the protagonist Howard Roark was based, may have prescribed the pithiest advice towards The Fountainhead: “It is best to laugh.” And laugh we shall.
(originally written 9/11/2006)