Through Thoreau

One of the more famous books about architects is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Many of us read it in college more as a cautionary tale than for inspiration. We might all dream of being Howard Roark. Yet we all find a bit of Peter Keating in ourselves too. Me? I’m more Elwood P. Dowd, but that’s another story.

 

 

A critic smarter than I described Howard Roark as an individualistic young architect who refuses to compromise his artistic and personal vision for worldly recognition and success. The story follows his battle to practice modern architecture while opposed by an establishment centered on tradition. Rand’s novel was quite the success. And Gary Cooper & Patricia Neal made it a good movie. Howard is heroic, an individual fighting the establishment. He is a metaphor for every next generation confronting what has come before.

 

“The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.”

I admire Ayn Rand’s work on many levels, and of course, she was telling a story. She did her homework, spending time in architects’ offices, watching, asking questions, learning. It put the meat on the bones of her plot. I think the actuality of it is less heroic than her story.

Howard Roark just hears a different drummer. Henry David Thoreau’s famous quote sums it up:

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

 

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Howard’s approach was uncompromising, my way or the highway kind of confrontation. He firebombed a building when they screwed around with his design. He is smarter than they are, he will show them! This is Classic Type A Personality and he makes a great protagonist in a Greek Comedy.

We can also learn from Greek Tragedy, from another great movie about being oh so smart:

Years ago Elwood’s mother used to say to him, “In this world, Elwood, you must be,” — she always called him Elwood — “In this world, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.” Elwood’s analysis on this ultimatum? “Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”

And so I shall. Thanks, Elwood.

 

Ego drives competition, which encourages us to keep coming up with better ideas. If you are good at this, you will be rewarded. Ergo, ego!

My two favorite examples of ego are Howard and Elwood. Each is at one extreme from the other. Both effective. If you could pick one as a role model, who would it be?

Howard Roark is a driven personality, Type A, energetic, talented, and a real pain to be around for most people. Architects like that are called arrogant. Frank Lloyd Wright is a great example.

Elwood is laid back, friend to man and beast, and hangs out with a 6’-3-1/2” tall pooka named Harvey. And yet, Elwood is, in his own way, just as effective as Howard Roark. Because Elwood has just as strong an effect on people.

You can be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant. Pick one.

Elwood marched to a different drummer, a different beat from the one Howard was hearing. Yet both had the capacity to touch our souls and make the world a little better place.

Intellectually, to make the jump from The Fountainhead to Harvey, you may find you need to stop by Walden Pond for a bit. Somewhere along that journey you will hear a drummer. Somewhere, the road will diverge.

Take the one less traveled by?