The Fountainhead

In the spring of 2017, I read about Louis Sullivan in The Function of Ornament.  Sullivan is probably the most famous American architect no one has ever heard of.  He is known as “the father of the skyscraper,” is the author of the phrase “form follows function,” and was the mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright (the American architect who nearly everyone has heard of).

While reading Sullivan’s entry on Wikipedia back then, I skimmed over a section relating an Ayn Rand novel to the architect.  The only prior knowledge I had of Ayn Rand was that she had a very controversial political ideology – what that was, I didn’t know.  When I learned of this connection of hers to architecture, albeit fictional, I decided to pursue my curiosity about her.  I didn’t start with The Fountainhead, though.  I went straight to Rand’s “magnum opus,” Atlas Shrugged, to get a sense of what made her views so contentious.  It took months to read all 1,000+ pages.

Then I went on to read The Fountainhead – only 720 pages.  By this point, it had been close to a year since I read anything about Louis Sullivan and my only memory of his Wikipedia entry was that there was a character in the book whom, some believed, was based on Sullivan.  All the while reading the book, I was trying to guess whether it was Howard Roark or Peter Keating.  Neither character fit what I knew from that one, brief study of Louis Sullivan.

Ding, ding, ding!  Correct answer!  It was neither of those characters.  It was Howard Roark’s mentor, Henry Cameron.

That the fictional character of Henry Cameron in Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel The Fountainhead was similar to the real-life Sullivan was noted, if only in passing, by at least one journalist contemporary to the book.

The fictional Cameron is, like Sullivan – whose physical description he matches – a great innovative skyscraper pioneer late in the nineteenth century who dies impoverished and embittered in the mid-1920s. Cameron’s rapid decline is explicitly attributed to the wave of classical Greco-Roman revivalism in architecture in the wake of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, just as Sullivan in his autobiography attributed his own downfall to the same event.

The major difference between novel and real life was in the chronology of Cameron’s relation with his protégé Howard Roark, the novel’s hero, who eventually goes on to redeem his vision. That Roark’s uncompromising individualism and his innovative organic style in architecture were drawn from the life and work of Frank Lloyd Wright is clear from Rand’s journal notes, her correspondence and various contemporary accounts. In the novel, however, the 23-year-old Roark, a generation younger than the real-life Wright, becomes Cameron’s protégé in the early 1920s, when Sullivan was long in decline.

~Wikipedia, “Louis Sullivan”

I totally missed it.

Before finishing The Fountainhead, I had come across a PhilosophersNote TV episode on the novel by Brian Johnson.  I was intrigued because he doesn’t ordinarily discuss fiction, but I waited to finish the book before I watched the video for fear of spoiling the end – or giving away who Louis Sullivan’s character was.  There was no reason to worry because somehow Brian managed to select seven Big Ideas from the book that, surprisingly, have nothing to do with architecture or politics.

Whether you agree with Ayn Rand’s Objectivism philosophy or not, the big ideas highlighted in Brian Johnson’s review are the attributes ascribed to Rand’s character, Howard Roark, and are, in essence, the attributes required of anyone wishing to pursue genuinely creative work:

  • having a deep sense of self
  • not living for the praise of others
  • loving the “doing,” regardless of the rewards
  • always living on purpose
  • being independent of others’ opinions – good or bad
  • never making comparisons
  • consistently doing what one believes in, which requires the greatest kind of courage

Through the characters of Henry Cameron and Howard Roark, Ayn Rand illustrates  what living these ideals could look like for an architect and why it takes such courage.

Whenever I feel the pull of caring too much what others think of me, I hope I will remember these lessons from The Fountainhead.

[Ellsworth Toohey] Mr. Roark, we’re alone here.  Why don’t you tell me what you think of me?  In any words you wish.  No one will hear us.

[Howard Roark] But I don’t think of you.