Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Architects in Cinema - "The Fountainhead"

The movie The Fountainhead was released in 1949, starring Gary Cooper as Howard Roark, architect, and Patricia Neal as Dominique Francon, architectural critic and author mouthpiece.  Roark is arguably the most well-known fictional architect ever, and this film (based on the book by Ayn Rand of the same name) helps illustrate just why this is such a problem.

The first scene opens with a shot of a perspective drawing of a very Modernist building - it looks a lot like Mies van der Rohe's "Brick Country House," an unbuilt project Mies designed in 1924.  The drawing is one of Roark's - he's being berated for it by his professor at architecture school and for his originality and obstinacy.  "There's no place for originality in architecture," his professor says.  "You won't accept anybody's judgment but your own..."  This gets Roark expelled from school.  The film clearly frames Roark as a maverick from the very beginning, and sets up the dichotomy between his stoic independence (good!) and the mediocrity that is demanded of him (bad!).

The next scene introduces Peter Keating, a student in the same class as Roark's who is much more sanguine about the nature of architecture and business.  "You can't hope to survive unless you learn how to compromise."  Peter's character is set up as the architect with no talent but lots of ambition - eager to please without an original thought in his head.  He is the perfect populist architect who would be Roark's opposite number, if Roark gave a single damn.  (Roark gives no damns.  Ever.)

The third scene introduces Henry Cameron, a washed-up architect who had great design talent but whose business failed when public opinion swung against his work.  He's furious that Roark has come to work for him because it means he can no longer ignore how far he's fallen, but takes him on anyway.  Cameron is the architect who had integrity but lost it because he lacked strength in the face of failure.  He is also heavily drawn on Louis Sullivan, particularly in the role of mentor to Roark.  Cameron even says "The form of a building must follow its function" later in the film (essentially on his deathbed).

It's at the end of this third scene that we finally see Roark's face - up until now he's been turned away from the camera and stone-still, letting the words of these three men wash over and past him.  Roarke is always straight-backed, firm, unwavering.  He remains confident that "those who want me will come to me," and doesn't give a damn about anything anyone else says or thinks about him or about architecture, even when his own practice has no clients for over a year.

He is so independent that even with utility shut-off notices and eviction notices, he says nothing more to his school chum Peter than "that is my concern, not yours... I don't give or ask for help."  This is interspersed with telephone ringing that Roark practically vaults over his desk to answer - he may be independent, but he still needs clients.

In the boardroom meeting next shown, Roark stands next to a terrifically modern building that anticipates the Seagram Building (by Mies, completed in 1958), standing on concrete-looking pylons or pilotis (one of Le Corbusier's Five Points of Architecture).  The board director tells him, 'Mr. Roark, you have the commission!" and Roark is smiling.  But then, that word "compromise" rears its ugly head - a condition that is required to finalize his selection as architect.  The boardmen then bring out their cleverly stashed classical add-ons for the model, as Roark looks on in horror.  (In fairness to Roark, the add-ons ARE pretty horrific.)  What I find interesting about this scene is the undiluted praise for the plan of the building, and the request for compromise on the elevations.    I think this anticipates the meteoric rise of Modern architecture for the business world and (imperfectly) predicts how mediocrity will engulf the new architectural style.  One could argue that Rand predicted Post-Modernism even before Modernism reached its peak.

Roark, pillar of strength that he is, refuses the commission on these terms.  "If you want my work you must take it as it is or not at all... I set my own standards."  One of the boardmembers points out "after all, we're your clients, it's your job to serve us!"  A valid point.  But Roark has none of it: "I don't build in order to have clients, I have clients in order to build."  And then Roark takes his ball (read: blueprints) and goes home, just as confident as ever.

At the end of this scene, the villain of the story is revealed - Ellsworth Toohey, architectural critic and professional troll.  He appears earlier in the scene but is in shadow or silhouette until the very end, casually smoking.  (Smoking had less of the "I am a villain!" vibe in 1949 than it does now - his cigarette holder is meant to emphasize his cultural standing as one of the elite.)  It was at his recommendation that this committee asked Roark for a proposal and requested the classical add-ons, "as an experiment."

Toohey says something very interesting in the next scene, in which he is recommending Peter Keating, now made partner at Francon and Keating (one of the most successful firms in New York) to Gail Wynand, owner of the Banner newspaper and one of the most powerful men in the city.  "There is no personality stamped upon his buildings - thus he represents not himself but all men in their multitudes."  I'm less enthused about "all men in their multitudes" but am quite partial to the "no personality stamped upon his buildings."  In the context of The Fountainhead this is meant to indicate Keating is weak-willed and subservient to the whims of fashion (those whims being largely directed by Toohey as architectural critic in the Banner) but a more modern interpretation could mean that the architect does not impose his style on each project (I'm looking at you, Gehry and Hadid) - rather the project is developed on its own merits and with its own design vocabulary.  Roark, of course, is guilty of this personality sin, but since his buildings are Modern and Original, this is praiseworthy.  

However, Wynand is under no illusions about Toohey's motivations, and is certain that Toohey is promoting Keating for his own ends.  Wynand is unimpressed with Keating's portfolio, which is a mish-mash of classical trappings on uninspired buildings.  (From a design point of view, Keating's portfolio is doubly dull because they only show elevations of buildings - flat, lifeless, and boring.  Roark drawings have always shown perspectives of the buildings - full of depth, lively, and dynamic.) 

With this in mind, Wynand decides to also consult Dominique Francon (yes, Guy Francon of Francon and Keating is her father), another architectural critic (two on the same paper! we should be so lucky!) who is Rand's slightly deranged avatar and who also knows Toohey for what he is.

Our first glimpse of Dominique is at her apartment, where she is dropping a priceless statue out of the window to smash in the courtyard below.  No, really.  Once one gets past this shock, the appearance of Dominique herself and her apartment become evident.  They are lacking almost entirely in ornament - she wears a single pearl necklace, and the walls of the room lack trim at the doors and windows.  It becomes clear in the scene that she tolerates Wynand (and Wynand is besotted with her), despises Keating (her fiancee!) and has no knowledge of Roark.  Dominique then explains why she destroyed the statue - "because [she] loved it, and didn't want to be tied to anything.  [She'd] wanted to destroy it rather than let it be part of a world where beauty, genius, greatness have no chance."

In the next scene, at Wynand's home for dinner with Dominique and Keating, Wynand offers the next big commission to Keating with the caveat that he must break his engagement to Dominique for it.  This is an obvious parallel to Roark's compromise trial, and one which Keating fails his non-existent integrity (and makes his ambitions clear) by accepting and then taking off.  Dominique is irritated at Wynand for assuming she would go along with this plan, and declares her incapability of love and her desire to feel, expect, and want nothing.  Like Xanax, I imagine.

Dominique takes off for her father's quarry in Connecticut to feel nothing, and goes to watch the men working in the sun, where she spies - Roark, incognito!  Who made good on his promise to become a day laborer if he couldn't build with his integrity.  Dominique and Roark then have a 30 second conversation only through longing glances, which Dominique then relives in her bedroom that evening.  Roark says (interestingly) that he and Dominique are staring at each other for the same reason, assigning sexual agency to a female character.  He then makes a variety of innuendo-laced comments, which chases Dominique off in surprise and confusion.

In her bedroom, she deliberately breaks the marble hearth on the fireplace to bring in Roark to replace it.  Roark is subservient to her, counter to his behavior in the quarry, and she is disappointed when he doesn't try to seduce her, and furious when he doesn't come back to set the replacement stone himself.  She chases him down on horseback, yells at him for not setting it himself, horsewhips him and dashes off.

The next scene, back in her bedroom, he breaks in through the french doors, grabs her and kisses her against her will (she's running from him and beating on his chest), and then the scene ends with her crying on the patio and him looming over her, smiling.  In the book, he actually rapes her - alluded to in the film, but not overtly stated.

As though the universe is rewarding him for rapine, when he returns to his room he has a note from an eager client waiting for him - thus he leaves the quarry and Dominique, off to go design buildings again.  I have a strong impression that the client, Roger Enright, is not unlike Edgar Kaufmann, who was the client for Frank Lloyd Wright who commissioned Fallingwater.  Toohey, naturally, has a number of nasty things to say about the Enright House, a modern building of luxury apartments, which becomes a crusade for the Banner to boost circulation.  (Slow news day? I can't imagine a general-circulation newspaper launching a crusade against an architect purely on stylistic objections making this story the front page headlines.)

Dominique and Toohey both agree that the Enright House is a masterpiece, but Toohey practically twirls his mustache when he says his motives for denouncing it are more complex.  Dominique goes to Wynand to call off the crusade, protesting for the greatness of the building.  Wynand tells her he will sacrifice anything but the Banner, so Dominique resigns in protest.

Enright is a positive avatar for Rand - he is the self-made man who doesn't give a damn and has made his money and success in industry.  He throws a party for the opening of the building when it's complete, and Dominique circulates to find out the public's opinions - again, the engineering is praised, but the appearance is denounced.  The Enright House becomes an empty failure because of this crusade instigated by Toohey.

At the same party, Dominique finally discovers that the quarryman who raped her is Roark, and freaks out about it.  Roark takes it in stride, with a wry smile.  Dominique confronts him with her deranged love of him and her fear for him and his integrity.  Roark confesses his love for her, Dominique offers herself but only if he gives up architecture to protect him from the world "where beauty, genius, greatness have no chance."  Roark says "I wish I could tell you that was a temptation" and refuses her. 

Dominique then goes to Wynand and offers herself in marriage to him, signaling her break in attempting to protect Roark.  Roark takes the news stoically, as ever.

What follows is a montage of building sites, all with signboards noting the architects, none of whom are him.  At one of these sites, Roark runs into Toohey, who tries to antagonize him into conversation.  "Tell me what you think of me in any words you wish," Toohey says.  "But I don't think of you," Roark replies, and walks off.  Like a boss.  You can practically hear Toohey's teeth gnashing.

The little projects trickle in - a gas station, a storefront - and gradually build up to residential projects, a high-rise, and factory.  True to Roark's prediction, the clients come for him.  "Any man who calls for me is my kind of man," he says.  He is then shocked to discover that Wynand has called for him.  He meets Wynand and has the most awkward client meeting in the history of architecture, about the vacation home he wants Roark to build to produce a temple to his wife, Dominique.  When she finds out, she is horrified and furious at Wynand for forgetting about the smear campaign against Roark, but gloats when Wynand takes back everything about Roark's genius.  Roark, as usual, doesn't give a damn, and exacerbates Wynand's anger by remaining calm and smiling wryly.

Wynand then decides he is going to have Roark as his pet architect but only if he will make colonial, classical, and rococo crap.  Roark agrees and sketches a piece of crap classical thing, counting on Wynand's integrity to snap him out of his funk, which is exactly what happens.

What follows is the most awkward dinner in the history of architecture, when Roark comes to the Wynand house.  The Temple to Dominique is accepted by Dominique as a tribute from both Wynand and Roark (I need to find OT3 fanfiction), who freaks out about it as she usually does.  At a stern word from Roark, she knocks it off.

The climax of the movie centers around the great Cortlandt Homes project, a plum of a commission that has "the land, the money, the materials - all it needs is the man to do it."  (This is never the order of things in a project.)  Keating is desperate to get this job, and goes to Roark to beg for his help.  Roark wants Cortlandt, too, but knows that he would never get past Toohey's gatekeeping or any committee.  Roark strikes a deal with Keating - Keating can put his own name on the work, but only if the project is done exactly as Roark designed.

Roark's design for Cortlandt Homes looks like a squattier knock-off of Le Corbusier's Radiant City - I'm not sure how much of this is Rand and how much of this is the production team and props designer.  Wynant then invites him on a months-long cruise, taking Roarke out of New York, leaving Keating to fend for himself to fight for Roark's Cortlandt design.  He then inevitably has to fight with the committee (and three other architects) who want to make changes just for the sake of changing things and imposing their own personalities on the development.  Keating complains that his contract stated the buildings would be built exactly as designed, and one of the members shrugs, "What's a contract?"  After more arguing, one of the other architects says, "Aw, what's the use of talking, let's get to work" and smashes the model with his cane.  Like a boss.

It then cuts to the buildings under construction, looking nothing like Roark's original design, with Keating bleating to Roark himself about how he couldn't help it, couldn't fight them.  Having discovered Keating's weakness, Roark, who must be thinking "if you want something done, do it yourself", goes back to the (literal) drawing board.  Dominique suddenly returns to confront Roark again, to confess that she's going to leave Wynand.  Roark takes that in stride, and asks Dominique to help him "fix" Cortlandt Homes.  Dominique takes it for a test of her courage - Roark impatiently shuts her up and explains his plan.

The next scene is Dominique orgasming while Roark dynamites Cortlandt Homes, nearly killing herself in the process.  Roark stands and waits next to the plunger for the police to show up, confident that everything will come out in the trial.  Toohey riles up the rabble against him in advance of the trial.  Wynand runs an editorial against Toohey, as a mouthpiece for Rand.

Toohey goes to Keating and breaks him, forcing his confession that Roark designed Cortlandt and getting him to sign this confession.

Roark agrees that he's selfish, "I live by the judgment of my own mind and for my own sake."  Wynand is convinced he can save Roark with the Banner, to swing public opinion, but this confession will sink Wynand.  Rather than be a part of it, Wynand refuses to publish, and Toohey (the architecture critic!!) manages to bring most of the workforce down with him when Wynand fires him.  Dominique, lover of lost causes, decides she's proud to work for the Banner and takes up her old job again.  Toohey manages to turn the entire city against the Banner, and Wynand refuses to give up, running it into the ground.  This breaks Wynand, who discovers that all his power was non-existent.  "Give in or close the banner," his board says, and Wynand, a broken man, gives in and denounces Roark, taking back Toohey.

Following this is the trial of Roark.  Naturally, because Roark gives no damns, he represents himself and gives a speech to the entire courtroom, with Dominique, Keating, Wynand, and Toohey all looking on.  (Dominique has her adoring Nancy Reagan face on, Keating looks constipated, Wynand looks like he's eaten a lemon, and Toohey has a proverbial raincloud over his head.)  His speech creates a dichotomy of Creator and Parasite.  In this speech, Roark is again Rand's mouthpiece, in this case to denounce the communism of the Soviet Union.  Miraculously, this gets him acquitted, in spite of the fact that he comes out and states that he dynamited the Cortlandt Homes.

Wynand, upon hearing the Not Guilty verdict, runs from the room, knowing that his integrity was tested and he failed.  Shortly afterward, Wynand hires Roark to build the Wynand Building - "the last skyscraper in New York," and an empty shell of a monument to Wynand himself.  Wynand pleads with Roark to "Build it as a monument to that spirit which is yours, and that could have been mine."  After Roark and Wynand sign the (unread!) contract and leaves, he then shoots himself in the head.

The final scene has Dominique (Mrs. Roark!) coming to visit Roark on the Wynand building job site, where Roark stands atop the skyscraper, wind machines at his feet, arms akimbo, looking nothing so much as a heroic Captain Morgan.  But with a skyscraper instead of a barrel.

What a film.  What a story.  What a dreadful role model for architects everywhere.

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