The Fountainhead: Everything That’s Wrong with Architecture

Gary Cooper as Howard Roark in a film adaptation of . Via Courtesy King Vidor, (Warner Brothers, 1949).. Image Courtesy of

Howard Roark, the fictional architect envisioned by Ayn Rand in The Fountainhead, has possibly done more for the profession in the past century than any real architect at all – inspiring hundreds to enter architecture and greatly shaping the public’s perception. And, according to Lance Hosey, Chief Sustainability Officer at RTKL, that couldn’t be more damaging. In his recent article “The Fountainhead All Over Again,” for Metropolis Magazine, he details why it’s such a problem, going so far as to accuse Ayn Rand’s dictatorial protagonist of committing architectural terrorism.

It came out in 1943, exactly 70 years ago this summer. In the movie version a few years later, Gary Cooper played Howard Roark, the character famously modeled after Frank Lloyd Wright. Since then, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, her “hymn in praise of the individual” (New York Times), has made legions of young people want to become architects. The late Lebbeus Woods wrote that the story “has had an immense impact on the public perception of architects and architecture, and also on architects themselves, for better and for worse.” I’d say worse. In fact, the Fountainhead remains the perfect representation of everything that’s wrong with the profession.

Consider the plot. Here’s the most popular story—maybe the only popular story—ever written about an architect, and in it the hero defends his right to dynamite a building because it wasn’t made the way he wanted. “I destroyed it because I did not choose to let it exist,” declares Roark. At best, this is like a kid throwing a tantrum and smashing his toy blocks. At worst, it’s terrorism masquerading as free speech.

Today, they say the Fountainhead is dead, but everywhere you look architects are portrayed as if they’re strange and special beings, somehow more than mortal. And their views are decidedly Roarkian. Frank Gehry, the most famous architect of our time, has said that denying the architect’s right to self-expression is like denying democracy. But democracy is the will of the majority, not the individual, and Ayn Rand hated democracy because she felt that it crushes personal freedom. When the lines between individualism and democracy blur, it’s safe to say that Rand’s ghost still haunts us.

Yes, the Fountainhead is alive and well among some architects. Call them F*heads.

Jean Nouvel’s Musee du Quai Branly. Image © Flickr User chimaybleue

To celebrate the anniversary of The Fountainhead here’s a look at how it continues to characterize the most celebrated designers.

The F*heads know best—or think they do. 

“[The creator] held his truth above all things and against all men.” —Howard Roark

Angel Borrego Cubero’s forthcoming documentary, The Competition, chronicles the development of five starchitects’ designs for one building. At the end of the trailer, Jean Nouvel, in a black hat and cloak, whispers to the director, “I hope you clearly captured the mystery and the deepness.” Delusions of profundity run rampant among the F*heads.

But the architect has no clothes.

The Walkie-Talkie by Rafael Vinoly, more recently dubbed the “fry-scraper”. Image Courtesy of Metropolis Magazine

Nouvel’s Museé du Quai Branly in Paris has been touted as “green” because of its vegetated façade, but the exotic plants and hydroponics are gluttons for water—green but not sustainable. An earlier project, the Arab Institute, also in Paris, features a kinetic façade that adjusts automatically to changes in light, except that it doesn’t. From the outset, the expensive system had significant problems, including failing gizmos and noisy parts, so for years the façade has been fixed in place. There’s nothing “mysterious” and “deep” about squeaky windows—they’re just annoying.

Last month, after Rafael Viñoly’s “fry-scraper” began reflecting enough heat to cook cars and eggs on the sidewalk in London, New York magazine ran a review of other recent disasters, “When Buildings Attack.” Mishaps are so frequent, the magazine offered a graphic key to distinguish between five kinds of architecturally induced ailments: burning, glare, ice, sway, and death. Evidently, F*heads are dangerous.

The F*heads are martyrs. 

“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.”—Howard Roark whine

After the London incident, Viñoly passed the buck by blaming a “superabundance of consultants” he says he didn’t want: “Architects aren’t architects anymore,” he whined. “You need consultants for everything. In this country there’s a specialist to tell you if something reflects.” He didn’t explain how the same thing happened in Las Vegas a few years ago, when his Vdara hotel was scorching sunbathers.

Martyr complexes are common among the F*heads, who complain about loss of control. In a recent lecture, Rem Koolhaas reportedly lamented about the architect’s waning power, the draining certainty that “things will be as you want them.” And Gehry gripes, “I don’t know why people hire architects and then tell them what to do.”

via Cameron Sinclair. Image Courtesy of Metropolis Magazine

The creator, announces Roark, “needs no other men.” But architects really do “need consultants for everything” because no single person or profession knows everything, and listening to the rest of the team might help avoid, say, unwittingly roasting the neighbors.

The F*heads don’t care about you.

“The creator serves nothing and no one. He lives for himself.” —Howard Roark

Anyone who has ever toured any Frank Lloyd Wright house has heard the same old stories about the roof leaking on the dining table, the owner asking the architect for help, and Wright’s reply: “Move the table.” The price of genius? Wet furniture.

The CCTV Tower, by OMA/Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren. Image © Iwan Baan

In the past couple of years, after nearly a decade of development, Pritzker-winner Rem Koolhaas finally oversaw completion of the CCTV Tower in Beijing. Its broken-trellis façade streaks terribly from rain and soot, and very little of the interior has been leased, so the owners are commissioning other architects to make the interior more habitable. Last fall, the Huffington Post called CCTV one of “the world’s ugliest skyscrapers,” “a 44-story Mobius strip of awfulness.”

Yet, in 2010, a group of elite architects voted CCTV one of the most important buildings of the past 30 years, and New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff hailed it as possibly “the greatest work of architecture built in this century.” Describing the building as “an eloquent architectural statement about China’s headlong race into the future,” Ouroussoff revealed the elitism that characterizes much of architectural theory. Do communities want architects (especially foreign ones) to create “statements” about them, or would they prefer their surroundings to nourish and enrich their lives?

All of this raises an essential question: What is the purpose of design? Is it meant to please the designer, or is it meant to please everyone else—the people who actually live and work in or around buildings? Architectural historian Peter Collins once wrote that behind the original notion of taste—both aesthetic and culinary—was a basic desire to please the consumer, a value that has all but disappeared in contemporary architecture, which tends to develop around the designer’s capricious interests. But, as Collins put it, to focus on personal expression is like judging an omelet by the chef’s passion for breaking eggs; or frying them in the street.

The F*heads seem to believe that the only relevant measure of their work is whether they like it, because the opinions of the rest of us don’t matter.

Move the table.

Lance Hosey is chief sustainability officer with the global design practice RTKL. His latest book is The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design (Island Press, 2012).

Cite: Hosey, Lance. "The Fountainhead: Everything That’s Wrong with Architecture" 14 Nov 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 01 Aug 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=447141>

71 comments

  1. Thumb up Thumb down -9

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +18

      if what you find architecture can’t stand a healthy critic than please, let it die, and burry it with your ego.

      • Thumb up Thumb down +7

        This won’t cause architecture’s death. This one’s an initiation for change. This essay’s right, contemporary architecture is all ego.

  2. Thumb up Thumb down +17

    When architects find they have not cultivated their own voice they like to blame outside influences on the state of things. It is a shame they do not take responsibility as an individual. Maybe they should spend more time on self reflection instead of reciting populist rhetoric.

  3. Thumb up Thumb down +13

    “Why doesn’t the world recognize my genius, why do all the other architects get attention, it is probably those F*heads” – Lance Hosey whine

    There is no possible way it could be the quality work coming out of RTKL.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +11

      precisely, what work has rtkl done, i simply can not remember. the firm is just like gensler, running around as if they care about good architecture, when their one and only motivation is to cower to corporations and their every whim, in the hopes of landing that next big fee. they say nothing about the quality of the building [and obviously the design] and the craftsmanship and rigor that is inherently required to achieve a building that leaves a positive lasting mark on the landscape. after all architecture is not a product to sell that will be replaced or forgotten in a few years, it will and should last for generations and is the responsibility of each generation to make sure it leaves this world a better place because of it. it does take strong willed architects to fight for quality and not mediocrity manifested by ones ego, greed or shortsightedness.

      • Thumb up Thumb down 0

        Dearest JB,
        It seems that by your definition 99.9% of us do not live, or work, or play, or enjoy entertainment in “architecture”, but some lesser form of construction which you deem unfit for even mere mortals.

        Wild guess here, but your passionate distaste for Lance’s writing might find its source at the same egomaniacal urges that all F*heads exhibit. Not every building has to twist. Not every building has to be shiny. Not every building has to do back flips to say “look at me!! I’m cool!”. Not every building has to cost $1Bln to be deemed a “success”.

        Having worked in the offices of firms like Gensler and firms of the little F*heads I can safely say that, while you may not see them published in every archiporn publication, it is these types of firms that shape the public’s perception of, and interactions with, architecturearchitecture on a daily basis. That is not to say that they don’t strive to move the design language forward, they do, but why use a $10 word when a 5cents one will do fine: personal expression.

        While I admire some of the work of the F*heads, I also admire equally the effort and result put forward by the likes of Gensler and RKTL for their corporate clients because the prove the real value of design: to solve problems creatively, no matter how banal they may seem. And, they do so by paying people a living wage, not sub-minimum wage you can expect working for the F*heads.

        So, finally, big kudos to Lance for sacking up and writing the article I have always wanted to write about the single most destructive piece of writing that has impacted the profession of architecture. It should be banned from every studio because it creates and supports the myth of the singular “architect” who does everything alone: the biggest fallacy known to any design professional.

        Architecture is a team sport. That book creates F*heads that run onto the field and take credit for every shot taken and every goal scorered, even if they just put the ball in play from the side lines.

      • Thumb up Thumb down 0

        Dearest Ryan C,

        Congrats on working at Gensler! I really like the Shanghai Tower,can’t believe they were able to pull off such a curvy skyscraper without any precedents for non orthogonal buildings. I’ve never heard of little F*heads, I’ll have to check that out later, sounds exciting though!

        I am excited to hear RKTL is a forward thinking firm, thanks for sharing the specifics of the buildings that are forward-thinking, I needed some new precedents. Lance dropped the ball on that one!

        My favorite part is the way you tell everyone to not take responsibility and do what the non-living-wage paying corporations tell them to do, way to continue to status quo, it’s my favorite quo of all time, life possibly couldn’t get better.

        Finally, big kudos to you for explaining that architects don’t act alone, the clients and I hadn’t noticed the other people in the office, how arrogant of us. Don’t worry, that extra $9.95 came from the client, not the architect.

      • Thumb up Thumb down -1

        ryan c / you completely missed the point of my message in your rush to support the author of the article. i made no mention of size and or cost as it relates to quality. keep in mind, in decades past we did not need buzz words like ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’, those elements were just considered part of good architecture. I also know exactly what gensler is like, I worked there for years. their pyramid scheme of a corporate structure is not conducive to creating good architecture nor for creating a nurturing environment for employees.

        the following are a few good books to read, unfortunately for the current generation some are out of print or very expensive. there is a great introduction design book [that was in every school in the 1970's] everyone should read many times, the author slips my mind at the moment, when i find it, i will post it here. the beginning forward is priceless.

        architecture: a modern view / richard rogers
        world as design / otl aicher
        design as art / bruno munari

        [hey arch daily, why can one not reply to ryan c's comment directly]

  4. Thumb up Thumb down +32

    This is one of the most juvenile pieces of whinery I’ve read in a while. So those F*heads should just stop trying to do anything exceptional at all because of the missteps of a few? So what then, the exceptional, inspiring architecture – which apparently is a disservice to the profession and public at large – shouldn’t replace tried and tested mediocrity? Absurd.

  5. Thumb up Thumb down +18

    This article seems a bit off base by pushing the notion that the attitudes of starchitects relfects the profression as a whole. To say that book promotes the ego of the architect in a negative way is justified if you read the book, but realize the book is also outdated and I have yet to come across any ‘Roarkians’ or F*Heads in any standard practice.

  6. Thumb up Thumb down +23

    You state that the “basic desire to please the consumer… has all but disappeared in contemporary architecture.” However, the consumers continuously seek out these same architects that you call “F*Heads”. If these firms weren’t pleasing the consumer, they wouldn’t still be in business? You should let the free market economy determine which architects are doing their jobs.

  7. Thumb up Thumb down +18

    “…everywhere you look architects are portrayed as if they’re strange and special beings, somehow more than mortal.” Give me a break!

  8. Thumb up Thumb down -13

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

  9. Thumb up Thumb down +21

    Upon reading the authors mini-bio, the implied agenda became very clear. Lance Hosey, “Sustainability officer,” clearly is a progressive on a tirade… He repudiates The Fountainhead because of Ayn Rands’s regard for the individual. Then, continues to repudiate “starchitects” because of their individual success.

    Listen, Lance; just because Ayn Rand’s views and the success of particular individuals doesn’t fit into your idealist Agenda 21 outlook–doesn’t they are wrong, nor ruining our profession.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +1

      you took the words out of my mouth, J. At first I thought “oh..ok.” Then I thought, “wait… mmeh.” Then I saw the Bio. The bio always reveals the agenda–in this case, not a particularly great one, nor a thoroughly conceived one.

  10. Thumb up Thumb down +3

    Huffington Post > Nicolai Ouroussoff right? True there are unreasonable divas out there but to solve it by socializing design and putting it into a majority vote?

  11. Thumb up Thumb down +13

    I do not know how an article like this could be published, while the main point of the article is clearly wrong. All the architects (except FL Wright) who are described as f*ckheads (what are you, a little child?) are the Peter keatings of this society. If you do not see that, you’re either blind or you should read the book.

      • Thumb up Thumb down +12

        F*ckheads was implied. You should try reading between the lines.

  12. Thumb up Thumb down +10

    “the hero defends his right to dynamite a building because it wasn’t made the way he wanted”

    no

    As I understand it Roark’s compensation for his professional design services was by agreement non-monetary – that it would be built exactly as he had designed it – ‘that is my price for my work’…

    All debates on merits of remedy aside it seems the author of the article might want to read the book again, for a better understanding of this critical aspect…

  13. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Well, it’s not fair to put the blame on a novel which will indeed just cover the failure of self control of so-called star architects’ over the power they are supposed to deliver properly. The novel didn’t give power to those star architects or indeed the huge mechanism that has been generated for the interest of popularity and economy in the world that has transformed, but the loss in the battle which we should have won to secure the power being used for the goodness of the planet. So the novel didn’t bring Architecture to this stage, it’s the lack of principles and foundation stones in the field of Architecture brought this profession to a power or economy pleasing machine.

  14. Thumb up Thumb down +11

    I’m tired of architects thinking they can get praise (or projects) by sh*ting on the whole profession based on a few others. I agree that The Fountainhead is an awful model for architecture practice. In “The Competition” its enraging to watch Zaha’s team do all the work and then claim it was all her, even though she wasn’t at the presentation. Further, frankly, the buildings enumerated are not my favorites either. However, all of this ignores that all of the buildings and architects that have been cited had clients who were under no obligation to build the design. While that certainly doesn’t excuse the safety issues mentioned, just because you don’t like it, or would have done something else, doesn’t mean that the architect forced it on the client. This sort of defeatist, self-deprecating narcissism is the worst kind of response. While I agree that many architects should be more responsible and f*ck up’s do occur, visionary thinking is the only way for the built environment to remain relevant and actively positive. To do that we should work with clients and communities but that doesn’t make professional expertise and innovation irrelevant, it makes it more important. This type of self castration has been a cottage industry for over half a century, and as a result the populous service only approach to architecture has committed objective crimes against environment and people in the name of the humble servant (suburbs and suburban office parks are probably the best example). In other places Lance has had some great comments about the condition of the environment relative to building, but all of these changes and realizations will not come if we timidly sit by the side waiting for a client to ask for it (so we can deliver that and no more).

  15. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Do not need the Zahas & Koolhaases of the world? These people had the guts to push the boundaries, think differently and keep Architecture moving forward. Did the author of this article not realise that the Fountainhead was based on (among other ideas) the start of modernism?!!

    • Thumb up Thumb down -8

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

  16. Thumb up Thumb down -2

    Wasn’t the Fountainhead a story about the beginning of modernism??? Do we not need the Koolhaases and the Zahas of the world? People like this constantly push the boundaries and think differently – how is this a negative thing? We need to keep Architecture moving forward!

  17. Thumb up Thumb down +20

    Why is democracy untouchable. Hitler was democratically elected. Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner. Might does not make right. And the whole article is trash. Total misrepresentation and overly simplistic in just about every way. Boo

  18. Thumb up Thumb down +9

    ‘Frank Gehry most famous architect of our time’ – since when? Big in your country maybe but not particularly in the rest of the world.

  19. Thumb up Thumb down +9

    I wonder why all the message in this article sounds like whining to me? Is the author of this article an under achieved architect? Sometimes you just need to stop writing if your tongue is bitter.

  20. Thumb up Thumb down +28

    A wonderful essay by Ellsworth Toohey!

  21. Thumb up Thumb down +4

    The Fountainhead had a far bigger and worse effect, not only in architecture. Adam Curtis explains it wonderfully in one of his works “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”. Hiiighly recommend!

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