It seems that Donald Trump and a host of his cabinet nominees are fans of the late Ayn Rand. Her philosophy of “objectivism” exalted the individual over the group. Her two best-selling novels are Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. The first is a paean to innovative business tycoons who must surmount government obstacles to succeed. The second, which was made into a film starring Gary Cooper in the role of Howard Roark, is about a modern architect who bucks his profession’s establishment.
Both books are fascinating reads, veritable page-turners except for their occasional tedious descent into “objectivist” philosophizing, which can last for page after page and has surely caused many readers to bail.
I have little to say about Atlas Shrugged. Maybe government should get out of the way. Ayn Rand was not the first to have that thought! You can be an individualist without also having to hate the government or the people or democracy or religion. These traits make politicians uncomfortable, but you can believe in God and Darwinism at the same time. (Didn’t God create evolution on Day 6?) I’ll let greater minds mull the effect of reading Rand on Trump, his cabinet and their policy agenda.
But Trump’s admiration for Fountainhead protagonist Howard Roark does worry me. The Providence Journal ran a story, “Influence of Rand permeates Trump’s circle,” by James Hohmann in the Washington Post. He writes:
The president-elect said this spring that he’s a fan of Rand and identifies with Howard Roark, the main character in “The Fountainhead.” Roark, played by Gary Cooper in the film adaptation, is an architect who dynamites a housing project he designed because the builders did not precisely follow his blueprints. “It relates to business, beauty, life and inner emotions. That book relates to … everything,” Trump told Kirsten Powers for a piece in USA Today.
The Fountainhead was published in 1943, and would have been conceived and written before modern architecture became the default style of the field’s establishment. Supposedly based on Frank Lloyd Wright, Roark is portrayed by Rand as the independent man against the architectural establishment, ramming his skyscrapers up the wazoo of the tightly sphinctered Peter Keating, the novel’s prototypical establishmentarian traditionalist. Through Roark, modern styles of design are seen as bold, independent and innovative, charting the field’s progress into the future. As a literary hero, the fictional Roark is responsible for the decision of many young people in the postwar era to enter the field of architecture, hoping to heave dead cats onto the porches of authority (channeling Mencken).
Today, however, modern architecture is the establishment and has been since not long after the book was published. In almost every relevant way, modern architecture reflects the worst habits of entrenched power. It betrays all the flaws of cronyism, authoritarianism, bureaucratic stultification, delusions of grandeur and omniscience, massive and systemic incompetence, abhorrence of self-examination, and the suppression of those who disagree – all of the things that Rand criticizes about government in Atlas Shrugged.
Lance Hosey painted the picture eloquently in “The Fountainhead: Everything that’s Wrong with Architecture” for ArchDaily in 2013 (a very rare instance of self-criticism in an establishment architectural journal).
I realize that Trump Tower is water under the bridge, but if the Trump administration really wants to make America great again, its leader should understand that if The Fountainhead were written today, Howard Roark would be a classical architect. Trump should bear that in mind. Flipping the bird at the hated establishment means, among many things, promoting architecture that the actual people will love. Those who voted for him would expect no less.
Good article; however, I do have one beef. In the book, Howard Roark disassociates from so-called modern architecture as well. Rather than being a part of any tradition or group, he used his own principles and his own tastes to create things that he himself liked. If The Fountainhead was written today, he would not be a modernist. He would not be a classicist. He would be a Roarkist, Anyway, just had to get that off my chest. You do make some interesting points.
“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” Attributed to John Rogers
I remember a cover letter (with a resume) to an office I worked for. The letter bemoaned the mediocrity of architecture which The Fountainhead had railed against, and celebrated the architect as hero. It was written by a recent graduate, so she can be, perhaps, forgiven these 30 years later.
Great stuff, Peter. Thanks especially for that delightful Rogers quote. There are few writers whose entire ouvre can be slurped up entirely without deleterious results. I love Hazlitt and Mencken but would never embrace their full slate of views. Likewise Rand.