Sunday, July 08, 2007

A FountainHead Moment

Inevitably, as an architect, you’ll encounter at least one reference to Ann Rand’s most famous of novels, The Fountainhead. Most likely someone will ask you if you a) have met architects with the ego of her most famous of characters, Howard Roark, and b) do you think Mr. Roark was right?

In reading the book or watching the film, I couldn’t help it; a small part of me admired Howard’s commitment to doing things his way. He lived in an idealized world of architecture practice – he believed in his expertise and talent and demanded the same from others. Yes, he suffered. But, it was for his art. And isn’t that the most respectable thing you can do?


Studio is a unique place, a hybrid zone that is both reflective and ignorant of the realities of the profession of architecture. It was our practice battlefield, where weeks were spent answering to yourself, your expectations, your logic. Development was a labor intensive process of experimentation, with the luxury to fail. To make a mistake. To decide that, yes, that was really stupid. It was practice to make perfection, to create a final plan of attack that would, hopefully, yield a victory come final reviews.

In every studio, each professor asked us to push ourselves harder, produce more. Like over-zealous parents, harping on our irresponsible behaviors, they never seemed content. But, it makes sense, because, ultimately, it was through our work that we would argue our position. Our work was our proof, our method of persuasion, to convince strangers that our ideas had validity.

While, at the time, our professors seemed like blowhards, I can see a point to their methods. Our professors were training us not only in how to approach design, but how to believe in ourselves and our talents. Because if we didn’t, then why would anyone else? And if they couldn’t trust in our talent, then why would they bother to listen?


The thing about working is that, often times, you’ll find yourself second-guessing that self-belief. Time and time again you find design decisions being driven by factors that seem to be far beyond your control. Or input. You get rejected, again or again. You learn the phrase “value engineered”. After enough times, you begin to wonder what’s the point?

I guess that I find the value of Architecture to be diminished in this day and age of market-driven desires. When a name raises a property value rather than the potential of the idea. When money talks more than social responsibility. When it seems like the final decisions are made by spreadsheets and dollar signs.

Sure, the money is important. I mean, things don’t build themselves. And, well, I eat because someone pays my company, who then pays me. I get it. Architecture is a business as much as it is anything else.

But, when compromise seems to be less about give and take, and more about being railroaded, or just silenced, then I think we need to step back, take stock, and ask ourselves, what happened? When did we become ignorable?

So, while pulling a Roark on my next project isn’t really what I plan to do, I can see how I might want to. Instead I am taking stock. Evaluating. Do I have the faith in Architecture to change the world? The talent to contribute to that pursuit? Or am I worth more somewhere else?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am 54 years old and spent quite a bit of time working in NYC. Roark was always in the back of my mind and in the beginning, it was not difficult to design to some kind of standard. In later years I found myself forced to build plastic Victorian homes and other structures that I practically had to do with my eyes closed.

Now, I live on Roatan, a Caribbean island. Guess what? Everyone wants to build Mediterranean hulks.
The average client knows no better than what he sees or is told by builders. Here, the builders have created a style they call Mediterranean. Aside from the fact that we are nowhere near that sea and styles vary from country to country around it's shores, these builders have convinced the public (mainly American's) that their style is indeed Mediterranean.
Forget Caribbean...thats a no no.

So I find myself thinking of the "Fountainhead" once again. It does seem like we have been in some sort of classical revival...a mish-mosh of days gone by. There are plenty of buildings I would love to see blown to smithereens!!!

Unfortunately, clients do not see Architecture as an art form or a means to change the world.
Years ago I switched to corporate work because I found I could be more streamlined. Now I face the old frustrations and feel like a traitor to my art.

Ah well, I enjoyed your post. Good luck climbing and clawing in New York...been there, did that and had some heady moments. Unfortunately I found that the higher I got, the less personal life I had.

I still try to convince my clients to do something "contemporary" I found the word "modern" sends them running to the hills !!!

10:21 AM  
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