A fountainhead of foolishness, Rand-style


The bigger they are the harder they fall. There’s no future for futuristic skyscrapers on the low-energy horizon. Photo: Bo47 via Flickr.

If you’re one of the 16 or so people who has seen the recent release of Atlas Shrugged: Part I, you’ll be heartened to know there’s another Ayn Rand film adaptation to enjoy while you’re waiting for the next Atlas installment (but don’t hold your breath). That film is The Fountainhead, released in 1949.

Russian-born Ayn Rand (1905-1982), a staunch anti-Communist, promulgated a philosophy of extreme individualism called Objectivism. It holds that man is an end in himself, and it rejects altruism in any form.

I wish to be treated as an object

The title of her 1964 book, The Virtue of Selfishness, sums up the philosophy succinctly. Objectivism promotes the capitalist system, especially property rights, and reviles “distribution of wealth” carried out – or stolen, in Rand’s view –in the form of taxes. Above all, Objectivism exalts the primacy of the gifted individual, the doers and “wealth builders,” unfairly shackled by the less productive in society (Rand called the poor and non-acheivers “moochers” and “looters.”)

Objectivism gained some traction at the outer edges of libertarianism, peaking in the 1960s. Atlas was one of Rand’s many novels and non-fiction works to promote her views.

Cold and brainy glam

As a personality, Rand exuded a certain brutal glamour that attracted a number of acolytes to her camp, despite critics’ widespread panning of her writing ability. With their stilted dialogue and cardboard characters, Rand novels don’t lend themselves easily to film, a factor that the reception to Atlas seems to bear out.

Exception to the rule

But The Fountainhead is in a different category altogether. Directed by King Vidor, it features some of the best-known stars of the era, high production values, and a stirring score by iconic Hollywood composer Max Steiner.

The Fountainhead is the story of uncompromising architect Howard Roark, played by Gary Cooper. Roark struggles against the critics and conformist builders who reject his visionary ideas and conspire to break him. Beautiful, spirited Dominque Francon (Patricia Neal), a columnist for an influential newspaper, swoons for both Roark and his pure principles. She helps him at a crucial point when a rival architect betrays him, in an act that lands Roark in jail. He defends himself heroically in court and wins his freedom.

For such a high-minded film, The Fountainhead contains a number of unintentionally funny– or at least confounding—scenes, most of them suffused with heavy breathing and barely suppressed libido. Like the scene in which Dominique stalks Roark to the quarry where he’s reduced to working as a common laborer. As she gazes down on him from the rim of the quarry, wordlessly admiring his, er, drill, you just know that these two superior specimens are meant to merge. Later, she pursues him on horseback, occasioning another turbulent encounter involving jodhpurs and whips.

Peak oil cinema

So what qualifies Fountainhead as a Peak Oil flick? It’s the staggeringly tall buildings that Roark dotes on and struggles to build.

Most of the film takes place in or around sleek high-rise buildings, inspired by the Internationalist architecture movement that took root in the US following World War II. In cavernous offices devoid of bourgeois values like utility or comfort, the film displays its surroundings as the pinnacle of modern achievement. (Interestingly, Vidor’s great 1928 silent film, The Crowd, presented the large, impersonal city, with its towering buildings, as a spirit-crushing environment. The veteran director also portrayed ordinary working people in the film with compassion and affection.)

Viewed from today’s perspective, ultra-tall buildings occupy a moment in time that is likely on the wane – or at the least, their use may be open to repurposing. (Some thinkers propose that high-rises could be put to better use as, perhaps, silos or vertical farms). Almost everything conspires against this building style: the rapid increase in the cost of structural materials, from steel to glass; the trend toward building height limits in some cities; the obvious vulnerability to seismic activity; the energy demands of elevators and water pumping against gravity; and the design barriers that complicate both rescue and evacuation in emergencies (tragically confirmed in the World Trade Center attacks).

Energy demand

From an urban planning perspective, their presence encourages social isolation.  But the most decisive deficit of skyscrapers, one almost certain to deepen in the future, is their outsized energy demand.

Just as a prospective buyer of a Hummer today has to ask himself, “Am I gonna afford to drive this thing, or just put it up on blocks and turn it into a storage shed?” every responsible contemporary architect must consider the energy cost of every proposed structure on the drawing board. For everything we build or buy going forward, the energy cost embedded in the entire product life cycle will take on increased importance.

None of this mattered in 1949, with the country on the cusp of a long-term economic surge and one of the biggest building booms in history. A mere 16 years later, New York City and several northeast U.S. cities experienced a huge power blackout. The 2003 reprise affected not only New York City but also a dozen other US cities and parts of Canada. The symptom of an aging, centralized power system for which there is neither the will nor national revenue to modernize, the blackouts presaged more of the same in the future.

The bigger they are, the harder they fall

Peak oil author and architectural commentator James Howard Kunstler asks in his must-read book The Long Emergency

What will happen in a city full of skyscrapers when the electric grid goes out unpredictably for hours at a time? What will happen to people stuck in the elevators? What will happen to the people down at street level who need to get upstairs to their twenty-ninth floor office or apartment? What will happen to the elderly? What will happen during a summer heat wave? It’s one thing if a blackout occurs in a big city once every fifteen years. It’s another thing if it happens every year, or several times a year, or once a month, or twice a week.

But old habits die hard, and investment seemingly can be found for any real estate vanity project. The newest “Tallest Building in the World,” the Burj Khalifa complex, opened in Dubai in January 2010. At 2,717 feet it’s taller than any other man-made structure ever built. Despite its oil-based riches, the debt-ridden Dubai government had to borrow petrodollars from its Arab emirate neighbor to bankroll construction costs.

And there are other looming problems.

Towering triumphs, towering ruins

As the Los Angeles Times reports, the Burj Khalifa — like many of the offices, hotels and housing developments constructed around the world during the late building boom — may never attain full occupancy of its shops, business suites, and 900 hotel rooms. The profligate use of natural resources on the scale of Burj Khalifa won’t be feasible in a future of dwindling raw materials and global deficits.

But in the  Rand/Roark world, such structures are not unsustainable monuments to folly; they’re lofty expressions of the unfettered individual – no matter the cost to society or nature.

After lots of tedious speechifying about the tyranny of the creative impulse squelched by mob mediocrity, Fountainhead wraps up with Roark’s architectural vision vindicated. He and Dominique reunite as happy newlyweds.  As the film ends, she visits her hubby on the construction site of his latest gigantic project. She takes the lift up, up, up about 1000 stories to the roof, where Roark awaits her, silhouetted like a solitary god against the skyline.

Government, keep your hands off my Medicare

Ayn Rand and her supporters despised the ideal of the commonweal. Their values have resurged in our day in the no-taxes orthodoxy of some politicos and talk radio hosts. They demonize public employees i.e., the teachers, firefighters, nurses, etc. who provide services for the collective good, and press to privatize or eliminate them. Which leads to an ironic postscript.

Near the end of her life Rand, stricken with cancer, registered for government medical benefits and Social Security under her married name, O’Connor.

Although she had paid into the Social Security system during her working life, it was the collective contribution of millions of the deprecated masses of her adopted country that supported her in a time of need. The American “socialized entitlement” system enabled her to afford decent medical care and not have to live out her remaining years in a state of penury.

So much for rugged individualism.

Cross-posted from Williard Works.

– Gerri Williams, Transition Voice

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  1. Auntiegrav says

    I’m probably one of only a handful of people who have read “The Adjustment” by Charlie MacArthur.

    I don’t think you can even get a copy of it now.
    The book presents a practically researched scenario for what happens when the power goes out in a large city for more than a few hours.
    Subways flood, police cannot respond, traffic comes to a standstill. If it is winter, those skyscrapers burn down because people will be starting fires to keep warm and there won’t be a fire department or sprinklers to put out the mistakes.
    The eventual result is a firestorm that consumes all of the close-packed buildings.
    Humans once created the perfect survival tool. It’s called “the town”. Just enough size to be secure from most threats (not all), and not too big to live mostly on local resources. Unfortunately, we have murdered the town in favor of the “community”, where people build bedrooms that are only reachable with gasoline and “industrial zones” where they only work for someone else’s profit.
    “Mixed use” means adding a shopping mall to the bedrooms, but the people who work in the mall can’t afford the bedrooms next to it.

  2. ptriolo says

    Very well done article…I think the author could also have mentioned that our recent Fed Chairman, Mr. Greenspan, was an acolyte of Rand, and it was her philosophy that almost certainly contributed to his gross negligence in missing all the warning signs of the economic disaster that befell us as a result of unregulated securities. He could just not believe that corporate titans did not understand what their companies were doing, and his Randian blinders guided him not surprisingly into taking no action at times when the worst of the crisis could have been avoided…Ayn Rand, the gift that keeps on taking….

  3. Bishop Dansby says

    Very well written. You never know where technology might lead, however. Photovoltaic windows could turn skyscrapers into pretty good energy generators. Also, buildings as exemplified by the recent rehab of the Empire State building, can be made more energy efficient.

    Thirty years ago I wrote a piece I called “Rockwellia,” on a theme similar to that enunciated by ptriolo above, where towns would be connected to the world such that business could be international but daily life would be local. i submitted it to the Futurist magazine, but they ignored it.

  4. says

    One unexpected thing hidden in the Rand tomes is a fairly good description of the unraveling of society. The backdrop of Atlas Shrugged (book) is the crumbling of American infrastructure, from industrial plants, to transportation networks, to supply chains. One section that sticks in my mind is an extended description of how the breaking of a copper wire leads to train delays which lead to lettuces decaying undelivered in a boxcar which simultaneously results in farmers going out of business and starvation in the city. This linking of seemingly unrelated things — an extended series of “straws that broke the camel’s back” — completely parallels Kunsler forecasts. This chaotic crumbling is exactly what we have to prepare for. By building much greater resilience in our local communities, we are more able to detach from the extended series of straws-that-are-breaking, thus better equipped to survive and thrive.

    • says

      Hey Joanne — Not having read the book (I only saw the movie), I didn’t realize that Rand was so prescient about supply chains and lines. It does sound like Kunstler’s diagnosis of the vulnerability and fragility of the system. I wonder if the prescription would be different? If Rand wants more freedom for the entrepreneur to keep society’s big systems running, Kunstler seems to be closer to what you propose, and what I believe too: that the big national and international systems have gotten too big to rely on anymore, and that we’d be much safer in future with a bunch of little, local systems.

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