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"You want to stand alone against the whole world?" That's certainly how it seems for Howard Roark as he's expelled from architecture school for refusing to copy the classical styles of the past. He'd sooner work as a day laborer than compromise his imaginative designs. He knows that every building, like every person, must have integrity if it is to survive in a harsh world. He'll take his lumps, but at least he'll keep his self-respect.
Long before Atlas Shrugged became the bible of Ayn Rand's Objectivist movement, and long before fans and critics would argue over Rand's status as novelist or philosopher, there was The Fountainhead and Howard Roark.
A representation of his creator's romantic ideal, Roark is tall and strong, all straight angles, like the structures he builds. He's a student when we meet him in the New York of the 1920s, standing naked on a cliff, laughing, staring down into the caverns of granite that beckon below—the raw material for his buildings-to-be. He's an original, and the dean sends him packing.
Others will stay on because they have learned to mimic the traditional styles, but Roark will have none of it. He'll succeed on his own terms and no others—although, under the wing of architect Henry Cameron, he learns that such success comes at great cost.
Cameron is a bitter man. He warns Roark that survival is not possible in a city ruled by Gail Wynand, publisher of The New York Banner, a vulgar, mass-circulation tabloid that dictates popular tastes. With no commissions coming his way, Roark takes a job in a quarry—and pretty soon he's locking stares with Dominique Francon, a Banner columnist who just happens to be the daughter of the country's most prominent architect.
She sees him, drill in hand, all sweaty, and there's no turning back. The sex explodes in a "rape by engraved invitation," as Rand would later call it; the scene risked irritating the censors in King Vidor's 1949 film version of Rand's 1943 novel, but it clearly didn't irritate Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, who were steaming it up off-screen as well as on.
Francon eventually discovers who Roark is, only after he has designed the innovative Enright House, which becomes the focal point of public fury. She begs Roark to renounce architecture, for she can't bear the thought that he might be destroyed by those who protest his work. Not until the novel's end does she fully respect her lover's courage, taking his hand in marriage.
The Banner's architectural critic, Ellsworth Toohey, instigates the protests. Spouting humanitarian platitudes, he urges everyone to sacrifice "selflessly" for a higher good, all the while conniving for personal power. Toohey recognizes—and mocks—Roark's greatness, stirring up a public outcry against the architect's "monstrosities."
Roark is undeterred. He'll design anything from skyscrapers to hotels to temples to gas stations, so long as he can build in his own way. This leads him into a deal with former school classmate Peter Keating, who desperately wants a commission to design a cost-effective, low-rent housing project called the Cortlandt Homes. Roark has perfected plans for cheap, good-quality housing, but he knows the influential Toohey will block him from getting the commission, so he allows Keating to submit the plans as if they were his own.
Keating must only promise that the project be built exactly as Roark specifies. Smelling Roark's ingenuity, however, Toohey is not fooled. He helps engineer the alteration of Roark's designs—and leaves Roark with no recourse but to dynamite the disfigured Cortlandt Homes.
In Rand's version of the Trial of the Century, it is American individualism that has been indicted—and must be vindicated.
By now, however, Roark has a surprising new ally: Wynand, who recognizes an inspiring and incorruptible soul and attempts to sway public opinion in Roark's defense. But Wynand soon discovers that he is less influential than he believed: Banner circulation dwindles, Toohey leads an employee rebellion, Wynand capitulates. And Howard Roark is left to argue his own case.
He does this with a psalm to all the martyred creators in human history:
"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. ..."
Creators, says Roark, are not "second-handers," not parasites on the achievements of others; they are self-motivated and independent; they have a right to exist for their own sake. The gallant Roark is acquitted of all criminal charges, and he agrees to rebuild Cortlandt Homes according to plan.
Rand—who immigrated to the U.S. in 1926 after escaping Soviet communism—faced similar challenges. She was scorned by left-wing critics for her admiration of capitalism and by right-wing critics for her atheism. She nonetheless would sell millions of books, influencing philosophers, psychologists, entrepreneurs and even a future chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.
The Fountainhead has been a cult classic since its publication, a rite of passage for many a young soul who identified with the lonely struggle of its hero.
At the end of the story, as in the beginning, Roark stands atop a cliff. But this is a cliff of his own making, of girders and steel. It is the peak of the construction site for the Wynand Building, the tallest skyscraper in New York, which means the tallest building in all the world. It is but another icon placed on the grand altar that is New York's skyline, "the will of man made visible."
Ayn Rand worshiped at that heroic altar: "Is it beauty and genius people want to see? Do they seek a sense of the sublime? Let them come to New York, stand on the shore of the Hudson, look and kneel. When I see the city from my window ... I feel that if a war came to threaten this, I would like to throw myself into space, over the city, and protect these buildings with my body."
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Chris Matthew Sciabarra is the editor of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. He is also the author of the Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy that began with Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, continued with Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, and culminates with Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. He is the coeditor with Mimi Reisel Gladstein of Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, and a founding coeditor of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. He is also the author of two monographs: Ayn Rand: Her Life and Thought and Ayn Rand, Homosexuality, and Human Liberation. He maintains the regularly updated "Notablog." In 2003, he was also named an Assistant Editor for The Free Radical (he's also a featured "personality" at SOLO HQ, with a featured profile). He was a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Politics at New York University from January 1989 through August 2009.