Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Howard Roark versus Frank Lloyd Wright

In a senior seminar I have been teaching I introduce the students to some basic economics, namely that of Henry Hazlitt and Friedrich Hayek, and then discuss ideas about success in authors with varied ideological views such as Reinhard Bendix, David McClelland and David Riesman. We then discuss popular success literature including that of Benjamin Franklin, Elbert Hubbard, Dale Carnegie, Stephen Covey and Napoleon Hill. Then we analyze the character of Howard Roark in Ayn Rand's Fountainhead in light of economic, sociological and popular ideas about success.

If you haven't read Ayn Rand's novel, The Fountainhead, consider it.  As good is her novel Atlas Shrugged.  One point that students sometimes raise is whether Howard Roark is meant to be Frank Lloyd Wright.  What are the similarities and differences between Howard Roark and the real life Frank Lloyd Wright?

I checked out Great's page on Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright's architecture, such as that of the Edgar J. Kauffman residence, Falling Water pictured above, is unique. Wright's work lives up to Rand's euphoric descriptions of Howard Roark's. Like Roark, Wright left college without graduating (in the novel Roark is thrown out of architecture school, but Wright dropped out of the University of Wisconsin). From there, Roark goes directly to work for the Louis Sullivan character, Henry Cameron.  Louis Sullivan was the real life architect who said "form follows function," which Rand attributes to Cameron on page 45 of the novel.  The real life Wright went to work for the firm of J.L. Silsbee before going to work for Adler and Sullivan.

In the novel, Roark builds moderate income housing and invents new architectural forms and approaches in the Sullivan mode. According to the website:

"Wright evolved a new concept of interior space in architecture. Rejecting the existing view of rooms as single-function boxes, Wright created overlapping and interpenetrating rooms with shared spaces...Through experimentation, Wright developed the idea of the prairie house...

"...Wright responded to the need for low income housing with the Usonian house, a development from his earlier prairie house."

One quote from Wright on the site sounds something like something we might expect Roark to say:

"Our schools today, busy turning out 'the common man,' seem to be making conformity a law of his nature...and the old adage—'those who can, do, those who can't teach..'—was never more truly descriptive of purveyors of 'the higher education' in architecture. Life-long I have been shocked by the human deficiency capitalized by American education."

I think you will enjoy the photos at Great  Rand describes Roark's designs in a way that sounds like Wright's. 

Like the fictional Roark, Wright built several temples and chapels, such as the Unity Temple in Oak Park Illinois and the Unitarian Meeting House in Madison, Wisconsin. However, unlike Roark, the temples were not destroyed by John Dewey or Lewis Mumford (in the novel Ellsworth Toohey, whose name rhymes with John Dewey but seems to be something like Lewis Mumford--an influential social and architectural critic who lived in the 1920s--has the Stoddard Temple reworked into a nursing home). Also, unlike Roark, Wright didn't build any New York City skyscrapers and did not live in New York City, which was Rand's adopted home. (Rand had emigrated from the USSR.) The only skyscrapers shown on the Great Buildings site are the Johnson Wax headquarters building in Racine, Wisconsin and the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. It is unfortunate that Wright did not design any of the major skyscrapers in New York City, although the Guggenheim Museum is ample testimony to Wright's imagination.

Here are some of my favorites:

Martin House, Buffalo, 1904

Guggenheim Museum 1959

Pfieffer Chapel 1938 and here

Walker Residence, Carmel California, 1948

Jacobs House, Madison, Wisconsin, 1936.

Several of these structures seem commonplace; recall that Wright designed them as early as 1904. Other architects have had more than a century to imitate Wright's designs, which look ultra-modern even today.  Wright's work resonates with the triumph of the human spirit, but he was criticized for excessive individuality.

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