This is the fifth in a series of posts on aesthetics and ethics in architecture. 

The Fountainhead (1949) is a very complex and layered Hollywood movie. It is the only movie I know that is about architecture, that is, in which architecture is not merely a background, but is the central issue in the narrative, around which the lives of the characters revolve. Further, it is the only movie that ties architectural aesthetics to social ethics, much in the way Nietzsche did, writing of theater, in his The Birth of Tragedy. The fate of human relationships rises and falls on the way architecture visually portrays concepts of integrity and moral value. Arguably, this movie has had an immense impact on the public perception of architects and architecture, and also on architects themselves, for better and for worse. Given its age, and the fact that most people today have never seen the movie, this influence is largely indirect. Nevertheless, it persists.

 These distinctive features are due to the author of the screenplay and the 1942 novel on which the movie is based, Ayn Rand. A Russian who immigrated to the United States in the 30s, Rand was a vehement anti-Communist, who embraced American ‘rugged individualism’ and free-market Capitalism as the ultimate alternative. She chose as the hero of her novel and screenplay—a morality play of the individual vs. the collective—an architect, naming him Howard Roark. Her model for the character was Frank Lloyd Wright, an independent American soul if ever there was one. Indeed, she asked Wright if he would design the architecture for Roark, but he refused. So, the buildings we see from Roark in the movie are 40s Modernist, a mish-mash of Neutra and whomever else Hollywood set designers found fashionable at the time. This creates some serious contradictions in the film, in terms of the architecture and therefore the narrative. Not the least of these is that the struggle between Roark’s style of modernism and the literal historicism of the corporate architects in the movie was effectively over by the 30s.

However, this lack of historical accuracy does not affect the main theme: the architect, a man of intense personal integrity, will not compromise his designs for any reason. They must be built exactly as he has made them, or he walks away from the commission. In one case, at the climax of the film, when his design for a low-cost housing project is aesthetically compromised by others during construction, he dynamites the unfinished buildings.

Rand had aspirations to philosophy, and its shows here, and not only in the linking of aesthetics to ethics. Later, she would write of ‘the virtue of selfishness,’ which is the supreme right of any individual to pursue his (in the 40s it was assumed to be ‘his’) own interests. Rand argued for the rights of the creative individual over groups of any kind, including established social institutions such as private corporations. Her architect in The Fountainhead claims the right to his own ideas and designs “against the whole world.” In the movie, architecture is explicitly referred to as an art. An artist of worth cannot care what others think. However, the implication of the movie’s conclusion is that society is ultimately served by such individualism, that is, Roark is vindicated (after an idealistic speech in court, no less), and the virtue of enlightened self-interest is affirmed.

It is hard not to think about a remake. Would it be possible, or in any way valuable to remake this ‘classic’ movie today? Are the issues it raises still relevant–or, were they ever relevant? The ‘artist against the world?’ In todays’s climate of artistic ‘appropriation’ and ‘social responsibility,’ this position seems out of date, hopelessly reactionary and right-wing, for most people. How do the young artists feel? The young architects? The Fountainhead poses the struggle between the individual architect and the corporate architects? Is that still of interest today?

And what would Roark’s architecture be like? In the movie, Roark designs luxury apartment buildings, banks, and private houses for the wealthy. He also designs gas stations, farms, and factories. What building types would the remake have Roark design? Whose architecture would serve as the model?

My opinion is that stubbornly creative individuals have always been scarce and have become increasingly so. The triumph of global corporatism appears irreversible. Reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), we find that The Savage (the stubborn non-conformist in a technologically controlled society) is not only destroyed in the end, but also that no one mourns his passing. The World works perfectly well without him.


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