Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Fountainhaus

Recently I watched The Fountainhead again. It's an extraordinary film in many ways, not least the bizarre manner in which the characters elaborately spout their philosophical world views during everyday conversation. In this it's also very faithful to Ayn Rand's book on which it's based, where Rand chucks in whole pages of dubious theorising on architecture and civilisation regardless of plot or character.

Throughout the book Rand attacks the continued use of classical and beaux arts styles in architecture. She specifically equates the use of these as being un-American and anti-freedom. Rand’s hero Howard Roark is an unyielding modernist whose designs challenge the orthodoxy of the prevailing taste for classicism. The opening scene of the film version shows Roark being thrown out of his Ivy League university because of the uncompromising modernity of his designs.

So much, so familiar. But Rand’s reason for this is that she believes that the innovation and energy of Modernism was a vehicle for singular artistic genius. For Rand, the learnt rules and accepted hierarchies of classicism were a way to subdue the desires of the individual genius in favour of the needs of the collective.

In his big court speech indicting Roark, the architecture critic Ellsworth Tooey explicitly states that he has attempted to destroy Roak’s career because Roark’s individual genius transcends and therefore ridicules the needs of the collective. Tooey advocates the rules of classicism in order to help impose his notion of socialism. A socialism which must crush individualism as it seeks to glorify the collective.

Oddly, this is exactly the opposite of the conclusion reached by Tom Wolfe in his 1981 book From Bauhaus to Our House. Wolfe’s book, which is mostly, unfortunately, total rubbish, hinges on the idea that the architecture of the International Style was inherently un-American. For Wolfe the International Style and modernism was born from European Socialism. It's use in America strikes him as not only inappropriate but somehow insulting to the achievements of American capitalism. He constantly refers to modernist office blocks and skyscrapers as ‘worker housing’ as in:

"Worker housing, as developed, by a handful of architects, inside the compounds, amid the rubble of Europe in the early 1920's [What rubble you might ask? I think he means the second world war which was when the cities of Europe were bombed to smithereens. But anyway....] was now pitched up high and wide, in the form of Ivy-League art gallery annexes, museums for art, apartments for the rich, corporate headquarters".

Those same Ivy League universities that rejected Roark's modernism perhaps? Wolfe dislikes modernist architecture because it is un-American and un-capitalist. It is socialist and European. For him, true American architecture and design lies in the beaux arts skyscraper and the baroque Cadillac tail fin.

Rand equates Modernism both with individual freedom and an explicitly American capitalist sensibility. Wolfe comes to exactly the opposite conclusion but from a sympatheticly right-wing starting point. I'm not sure what this tells us as both writers are clearly a little crazy and use architecture as the vehicle for their own ends. Rand's view at least has the benefit of being fairly unique. Wolfe's is a more routine and familiar piece of philistinism. Rand had the slightly more outre taste in hats too.


Anonymous said...

Worker housing, as developed, by a handful of architects, inside the compounds, amid the rubble of Europe in the early 1920's [What rubble you might ask? I think he means the second world war which was when the city's of Europe were bombed to smithereens. But anyway....]

I hope Wolfe also explains how the rubble from WWII traveled back in time to the early 1920's. That's probably the more interesting story anyway.

p.s. It's "cities" you were looking for. Unless some city has an "of Europe" I don't know about.

Charles Holland said...

I think you have missed my point. It is Wolfe who is confusing his world wars up.I was drawing attention to it. i.e. Where was the rubble from the first world war, which was not fought in cities and didn't involve intense bombing of urban areas? Read it back again.

I concede the grammatical point though. That is quite shoddy.