I recently introduced the classic movie, the Fountainhead which was being screened as part of the London Festival of Architecture in the strangely appropriate setting of Canary Wharf.
The Fountainhead is the best Hollywood movie about architecture, but that’s not saying much. Unlike lawyers and doctors, architects don’t get much screen time. And if they do, it’s just an incidental element to the plot or a quirk of characterisation rather than the narrative engine of the movie. There’s the dad out of the Brady Bunch, Woody Harrelson in Indecent Proposal, the guy in Spike Lees She’s Gotta Have It. We’ve never had an architectural version of Dr Kildare, Columbo, or a Quincy RIBA. Architecture and architects seem to be almost invisible in movieland. The Fountainhead shows that its not because architecture is inherently un-fictionalisable and that it can be used to dramatise universal human concerns.
It’s very much of its time – 1940s America, where idealistic pre-war European Modernism (concerned with making the world a better place) intersected with corporate, business-minded American modernism. It’s a dramatic moment where Modernism became denuded of its radial politics. Though ‘radicalness’ is part of the Fountainheads plot mechanism, it’s a commodified form of radical-ness concerned with aesthetics and personal expression rather than utopian politics.
The movie is populated by a series of characters which – while extreme – seem as though they could be with us today. Sixty odd years later we still see the same characters – the vacuously successful, the wild idealist, the washed up hero of a previous generation, the scheming power crazed journalist, the client whose got a few ideas about how to improve the design. The main protagonists are variously described as: ‘the man who couldn’t be, and doesn’t know it’; ‘the man who couldn’t be, and knows it’; ‘the man who could have been,’ and ‘man as man should be’ – It’s like a cross section of any London Festival of Architecture event.
The dramas between these personalities are played out at the hubristic scale of architecture. The Fountainhead uses architecture to discuss ideas of integrity, beauty, love, and truth. It’s a Hollywood spin on Modernisms morality, where the qualities of honesty to materials are replayed as romantic assets, construction sites become landscapes where individual integrity is played out.
The film is full of brilliant quotes that resonate with any architect and superb situations that seem like they happen daily – certainly in our office – only not quite as sharply styled. You’ll hear the same polarized arguments replayed in the architectural and popular press about contemporary architecture: “A building has integrity, just as a man and just as seldom! It must be true to its own idea, have its own form, and serve its own purpose!” Or “You can’t hope to survive unless you learn how to compromise. Now, watch me! In just a few short years I’ll shoot to the top of the architectural profession because I’m going to give the public what it wants.”
And, some superb career advice too: That telling your clients they are wrong is the best way to get ahead. That blowing up your projects that have gone wrong is the best thing to do. But perhaps, most of all, that all architecture is tragedy.
The heart of the narratives conflict is the conflict between heroic singular genius and collective taste. And strangely, though the movie offers these as opposing polarities, it is this territory that was explored by the next generation of American architects and urbanists: from Robert Venturi & Denise Scott Brown to Peter Eisenmann. These are architects which deal with an idea of doubt, who struggle against both the heroic modern position the commercial. And finding in compromise – or at least the space in-between certainties – between ideas, between selling out, between building and disgust, between morality and money a new ground for making architecture. One might speculate that the Fountainhead was responsible for crystallising the drama of modernism and market led architecture and laid the ground for American avant guard responses.
The last ten years have seen an unprecedented global building boom and we really need a Fountainhead sequel to dramatise 21st century positions. Perhaps we could transpose contemporary architectural characters into the film as you watch it. Or imagine the Fountainhead franchise played out over the cities from zero on the Gulf Coast with Anthony Hopkins playing Richard Rodgers, or Danny Devito as Danny Libeskind , Angelina Jolie as Zaha, or even budding architect Brad Pitt as himself.