Deconstructing A Tea Party Muse

Josh Stephens's picture
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For some lucky candidates, tomorrow's election will have a storybook ending. Unfortunately for anyone who understands architecture, planning, and land use, that storybook will, in many cases, turn out to be The Fountainhead.

The train wreck of ideologies that is emerging this election season is too much for anyone to categorize. Nevertheless, among the Tea Party candidates, emboldened Republicans, and indefatigable Libertarians, at least a few of this week's winners will ascribe to the hyper-rational, individualistic proclivities of Ayn Rand

The debate over the value of socialism versus unfettered capitalism is a legitimate one for both the statehouse or the dining room. But Rand's fetishizing of rationality and individual autonomy is no basis for public policy -- most obviously because her seminal document, The Fountainhead, is neither rational nor objective but is, in fact, pure fantasy. And it's a fantasy that strikes at the heart of what land use planning is all about. 

Rand's central argument, as embodied by the architect Howard Roark, is that mere mortals should never stand in the way of genius. If political and economic structures would just allow genius to rise to the top (by commissioning Roark or, say, electing Rand Paul), then the world would be better off. It's ironic, though, that she illustrates genius by way of architecture.

Rand would have us believe that Roark's creations overtop those of Wright, Gehry, Meis, and Wren all at once. His soaring edifices delight both tenant and passer-by, making bold statements where they meet the ground, where they meet the sky, and through every inch in between. They are sited perfectly, so the rays of the sun will bathe tenants in golden light. Inside their walls, men stand taller and women discover deeper levels of allure. So brilliant are Roark's masterpieces that they cause enlightened financiers to unlock their vaults to ensure their construction and so ennobling that planning commissions invite Roark to re-write zoning codes. Their lines, materials, proportions, and finishes are perfect. Once built, they stand forever. 

Close your eyes. Just picture it. It's breathtaking, isn't it?

Now open your eyes. You're not looking at a building. You're looking at words.

When I read The Fountainhead years ago, I too was inspired. For about a week. In that week I felt the same way that many free market enthusiasts must feel every day as they crusade against tyranny (as if 99 percent of Americans don't support the free market in the first place). But if you wave your hands in front of you and realize that Rand's images are only air -- that they pertain to no city that any planner would recognize -- then you can start thinking about serious matters again. 

As an entertainer, Rand uses fantasy as it should be used. She replaces the real world with something more appealing, where the usual rules are no longer in play. And yet, in accepting The Fountainhead as an actual economic allegory, Rand and her followers fall into a circular argument, using both premises and conclusions that are fictional. The lynchpin in her philosophy is that Roark is a genius, and she "writes" a building to illustrate that genius. The desperate need to realize Roark's artistic vision thus justifies the demolition of the regulations and other obstructions that gum up the free market.

To make this point, what The Fountainhead offers in lieu of argumentation is simply an empty assertion -- a demand that we suspend our disbelief while coaxing ourselves into wonderment. It is not an analysis of reality, with all of its nuances, but rather an escape from reality. When your building is fake, you don't have to worry about whether it casts a shadow or whether the roof leaks. When don't have to worry that maybe it's so butt-ugly that it diminishes the value of neighobhoring propertiees, which might be owned by honest, freedom-loving Americans. Likewise, the most common criticism levied at Rand is that her characters ares so flat as to be inhuman. So, in one fell swoop, we have unreal people operating in an unreal world. Voting for a political candidate according to what Ayn Rand says would be like drafting Roy Hobbs for your baseball team. 

(It's worth noting that Atlas Shrugged relies on a similar deus ex machina: that of a magic metal and limitless energy. Rand would have us believe that these inventions were foiled by corruption, human frailty, and over-regulation of markets. But the real reason is much simpler: they don't exist.)

The Fountainhead preys on readers who haven't given much thought to economics – and even less to architecture. Any planner or architect surely appreciates that no matter how astounding Roark's buildings may be on paper, Rand chooses to illustrate the value of individualism via the one arena of human endeavor that, by definition, must heed the collective.  In the real world any alteration of the built environment necessarily invites an infinite array of opinions and exernalities. Rand fails to understand that Americans can disagree on matters of taste as much as they can on matters of economics. 

For instance, we can disagree on whether Rand's own writing exhibits the slightest bit of artistry. Given her stiff characters, contrived, unrealistic plots, and awkward mixing of literalism and fantasy, her own books provide insufficient support for her claims about the nature of genius. In other words, just as a lone egomaniacal architect plenty capable of designing a crappy building, so is a lone, egomanical author plenty capable of writing a crappy book. Hollering about the triumph of the individual doesn't make the building, or the book, any less crappy.

Le Corbusier was probably just as eccentric as Rand, but at least he had the guts to put something in the ground and see if itwould work. Thank goodness Jane Jacobs came along to explain why it didn't. I suspect that Ayn Rand would have hated Jane Jacobs. Rather than create something unreal and irrelevant, Jane Jacobs described the world as she actually saw it.

I almost can't believe I'm writing this, because it all seems so obvious. And yet election day approaches on a freight train hewn in part by Rand. Comical though they may be these days, elections still form the foundation of civil society. But in too many ways the hyperbolic, inspirational abstractions of Rand's fantasy world seep into real-world discourse. Anyone who seeks anwers in Rand's stories forgets, however, that fiction is best when posing questions and not being so presumptuous as to try to supply answers. 

That's why we still ask whether we ought "to be, or not to be?" And it's why, in the voting booth tomorrow, we should stop asking, "Who is John Galt?"

Josh Stephens is a contributing editor of the California Planning & Development Report, an independent newsletter covering land use and policy.

Comments

Comments

Sure, whatever

keep the sheeple in line as you may while Rome burns. Leftists love to conjur up all these silly images, but that won't stop a collision course with the declining standard of living in America. You want to look at the world as it really is: ok - how about Federal budget debts and unfunded liabilities that will literally come due soon with no method of payment. How about printing money as the only answer to anything - kiss your savings and your purchasing power goodbye. How about the prospect of higher taxes to potentially increase unemployment? We'll all be paying off the current and recent excesses of government with higher taxes and higher inflation with stagnant wages. Is that real enough for you? Or would you prefer the 3rd world nanny state Shangrila brought to you by the Obama/Geithner/Bernanke triad? If you boil this election down into urban planning and architecture terms, you're not paying attention to more pressing stuff.

Josh Stephens's picture
Blogger

Sure, why not?

I don't necessarily disagree with any of the above.

I boiled it down to planning terms because this is a planning website.

then why mock the tea party?

is there plenty to mock - sure. But, look at the other parties. They are disgraceful as well, just get away with it because they are so entrenched.

Josh Stephens's picture
Blogger

Mock?

I don't think I was mocking the Tea Party per se. I was critiquing the tendency to blindly follow Ayn Rand. If someone is going to vote with the Tea Party that's their business, but I hoped to offer some food for thought. I think that's timely, no?

And I don't think I said that the other parties weren't worthy of mockery. This one just happens to be most au currant, and I saw a connection to land use. A blog post can tackle only so much at once.

Contrary to reality

Contrarian is quite misinformed about the challenges we face and obviously too far in the throws of mind-numbing partisan passion to evaluate planning practice from a realistic perspective. Planners, when they are following the code of ethics, are the front line of democracy. We ensure that decisions are made in a thoughtful, inclusive way, reflective of the popular will, such that positive consequences may be maximized and negative ones minimized. Every successful family and business engages in planning too. Those who say government should be run like a business never admit that. It's so sad when Objectivists are the farthest thing from objective in their critiques.

The country just roundly rejected the far left and the perceived excess of single party rule, but those who mistake that for an endorsement of the far right or ideological blockades to legislative progress, will find the electorate a fickle bride in some not too distant poll.

Ayn Rand and Jane Jacobs

Actually, Ayn Rand recommended and was highly impressed by The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Rand is the most underestimated and misunderstood 20th Century writer. Get it straight. She was NOT a conservative. See her essay "Conservatism: An Obituary." Note that she rejected the Marxist paradigm in its entirety, seeing clearly what we all see now that the crash has come and has not hit bottom. Business people and corporations that are in bed with Washington have ceased to be free market, laissez faire actors, but rather have become fascistic bureaucrats and leeches. I give you most of the banks, Enron, Madoff, Skilling, Greenspan (whom Rand expelled from her circle for dishonesty), and more. Take your pick of villains; fascist socialism has arrived big time. If that pairing of words vexes you, remember that the sobriquet "Nazi" stood for National SOCIALISM. Rand and Hayek were among the first to spot the dishonesty in denying that, at root, both socialism of any stripe and fascism are barely distinguishable in the end. There is no benevolent state. The power of the state is the power of the gun. The American Constitution sought to limit state power to one function: protection of individuals from force, fraud and threats of force. Nobody has the right to initiate the use of force against anybody else. Today, the fascist state is becoming the prime violator of all of the rights of its citizens. The parallels to Weimar Germany are portentious. Political correctness, certain strains of extreme environmentalism and multicuturalism are being used not to unite us but rather to drive wedges where there should be none. It can reasonably be expected that these trends will head toward abolition of freedom of speech and hence, the curtailment of freedom of action. Note that Elena Kagan has spoken of a 'redistribution of speech opportunities'. That is an indecent little phrase attacking freedom of speech. That said, Rand was in total agreement with Jane Jacobs and asked that all of her fans read Jacobs. Mr. Stephens fails to understand the difference between fact and romantic fiction. I refer him to Rand's "The Romantic Manifesto."

Ayn Rand and the Constitution

"The American Constitution sought to limit state power to one function: protection of individuals from force, fraud and threats of force."

Not true. The constitution puts specific limits on state power - for example, it protects freedom of speech and freedom of religion - but this general limit on state power is based on libertarian ideology, not on the constitution.

On the contrary, the constitution clearly says that the government should "provide for the ... general Welfare of the United States"

Charles Siegel

Josh Stephens's picture
Blogger

Source?

Interesting. What's your source for Rand's affinity for Jacobs?

Please note, though, that I wasn't speculating directly on whether Rand would like Jacobs' ideas. I was saying that she wouldn't be able to relate to Jacobs' interest in reality, as opposed to the fantasy worlds that Rand creates.

I also find it contradictory that Rand would be in "total" agreement with Jacobs. I imagine that Rand sympathized with Jacobs' battle against Robert Moses. But what if some Howard Roark-type wanted to build a skyscraper and a huge parking lot in the middle of Greenwich Village and could pay for it himself? Wouldn't Rand have to support that architect's heroic vision?

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