Blog post

Deconstructing A Tea Party Muse

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.

Josh Stephens | November 1, 2010, 11am PDT
Share Tweet LinkedIn Email Comments
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?"

Share Tweet LinkedIn Email