When I started wondering, before the election, whether graphic designers all leaned left politically, I must confess I thought I knew the answer: yes. Ah, that blue state state of mind! So I was surprised when Republican designers stood up to be counted. What could this mean? As they explained their positions, some phrases popped up here and there: personal responsibility, suspicion of big government, the primacy of the individual. It all sounded somehow familiar. And then it hit me: could the connection be Rand?
I'm not talking about the relatively obscure father of American graphic design, Paul Rand. I mean the chain-smoking, cape-wearing, Russian-accented best selling author, the founder of "Objectivism," the woman who launched a thousand design careers: Ayn Rand.
I read The Fountainhead for the first time in the ninth grade. Before The Incredibles, before The Cheese Monkeys, there we found our first designer hero.
The central theme of The Fountainhead is the same of most Ayn Rand books: how individuals of creative genius, although the source of all human productivity, are misunderstood and persecuted by the great unwashed. The books usually end with the heroic genius triumphing over adversity, often by delivering an amazingly long speech, and going on to have great sex with another heroic genius of the opposite sex. As a bookworm with good grades, bad acne, and no social life to speak of, this central theme had considerable appeal for me. I ended up reading it eight times before my junior year of college.
Most of our readers already know the basic plot of The Fountainhead and about its hero, the heroic, red-headed architect Howard Roark. The book begins with him being kicked out of architecture school for doing single-mindedly modern work for class assignments that call for Renaissance villas. His story is contrasted with that of his classmate Peter Keating, a teacher's pet who graduates at the head of the class and goes to work for a firm not unlike McKim, Mead and White, where he ultimately becomes partner. Roark instead goes to work briefly for a fictionalized version of Louis Sullivan and then works on his own. (Although it seems obvious to anyone reading the book, Rand always denied that Roark was based on Frank Lloyd Wright. Nonetheless, Wright later told Rand that in his opinion Roark should have had white hair instead of red.)
In the rest of the book, Roark never compromises and suffers horribly but without complaint. Keating is a duplicitous second-rater who never has an original idea and consequently enjoys much success. Roark meets a woman who is recognizes his genius but is perversely determined to destroy him before the great unwashed can get around to it. He ends up more or less raping her near a stone quarry he's forced to work in. (The tone of this romantic interlude in the novel is admirably crystallized in the 1949 movie version starring Gary Cooper as Roark and Patricia Neal as his love interest. Neal's first glimpse of Cooper is as he drills the rigid shaft of his jackhammer into hard but ultimately yielding marble.) There are complications and reversals, and in the end Keating asks Roark to allow him to take credit for Roark's work in the design of a public housing project. Roark agrees on the condition that the project be built as designed. When changes are made to the design -- these include adding blue metal balconies and omitting closet doors -- Roark enforces his agreement by dynamiting the project. Amidst great public outcry, Roark makes a passionate, amazingly long speech at his trial that underlines the Randian philosophy and gets him acquitted. He is united at last with his love interest and the book ends with the image of them atop Roark's latest skyscaper.
Today, The Fountainhead is viewed with, at best, affectionate derision by most practicing architects and designers I know. But Roark's view towards clients -- "I don't intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build." -- still seems to describe the private yearning harbored by most of my fellow professionals whether they care to admit it or not.
The world of design was certainly simpler in 1943, when the book was published. In the ninth grade, when I read Roark's declaration that "A house can have integrity, just like a person, and just as seldom" I could clearly imagine the kind of house he was talking about: it looked like the pictures I had seen of Fallingwater. I had yet to read Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, which would confuse things a bit by making a fairly persuasive case for things like blue metal balconies.
What hasn't changed a bit are the compromises we designers are asked to make. At 15, Rand's clients seemed like impossibly grotesque caricatures to me: surely these simpering fools didn't actually babble nonsense like, "Our conservatives simply refused to accept a queer stark building like yours. And they claim that the public won't accept it either. So we hit on a middle course. In this way, though it's not traditional architecture of course, it will give the public the impression of what they're accustomed to. It adds a certain air of sound, stable dignity..." Today this sounds exactly like the kind of quite reasonable stuff I listen thoughtfully to — and God help me — sometimes even acquiesce to, every day. This is a thought that depresses me a little bit.
Not everyone who reads Ayn Rand becomes a designer, of course. And many of her biggest fans are spread across the political spectrum, although I would guess there aren't that many dyed-in-the-wool Democrats among them. Yet most of us enter the design professions with an ideal of indomitable creativity burning in our hearts, and many of us may gotten the flame from the same source. I suspect that, despite a world that more than ever seems to reward Peter Keating's craven machinations, Howard Roark is alive and well.
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