Saturday, September 16


An Aside on Alice Rosenbaum

In my old high school--or at least, in the classes I frequented, the girls went through an Ayn Rand phase, just like in more normal circumstances they might have gone through a Justin Timberlake phase, or a lipgloss phase, or (in grade school) a rainbow pony three-ring binder phase. Or whatever it is young ladies are into these days. I'm honestly not sure. I don't think I had phases in high school, but in grade school I had the typical boy phases of trains, pirates, dinosaurs, the Civil War, weight designations for 16th century artillery, Legos, and several years where I was fascinated by the the sunken Swedish warship Vasa... Um...never mind. Partly because of this, I associate Alissa Rosenbaum--alias Ayn Rand with the insufferable smugness of teenage suburban angst, and could never quite take her seriously as a consequence. That, and she was mad as a march hare.

Still, as the exemplar of rampant western selfishness, the kind John Paul II presciently warned us about once we didn't have the communists to keep us on our toes, she has some role as a negative moral example. I did slog my way through Anthem once; I think it was a case of someone shoving it in my face and saying, "read this and tell me how wonderful you think it is." I skimmed, and I made some tactful small-talk afterwards. Yawn.

If you don't know it, don't bother. It's a tediously cautionary tale about the dangers of collectivism that puts the absurdum in reductio ad, and exemplifies the danger of trying to philosophize up a response to Marx without Mother Church's guiding hand. I read it, and even without knowing Ayn Rand's background, which I later found out, I couldn't help feeling something was somehow off in her argument, even if I wasn't sure what it was. I thought it subtly wrong, though I was moved by the plight of the characters--though I mistook the whole thing as an indictment of scientific dogmatism, which says more about me than Rand, I suppose. I think it probably made a better story that way.

What I find interesting is everyone brings up The Fountainhead whenever they hear I'm an architect, as if Howard Roark (not to be confused with Ricardo Montalban) could last five minutes at a Notre Dame Career Fair without going postal. No wonder the man in the street thinks we architects are egomaniacs. The funny thing is, speaking from experience, we're mostly a pretty mild-mannered and quiet lot, even if we do like fancy hors-d'oeuvres at parties.

I somehow doubt Ayn would like classicism, preferring glass and steel behemoths to the elegant ballet of precedent and compromise, of working within the rules, of bending them or breaking them with reason, as the unusual and the unique needs a background of normalcy to stand out against; invention can only be admired moving against the background of stars that is the canon of proportion or the examples of history; and while one may shine brighter than the other, they are all stars, and worthy of our respect.

Look at Roark: the man blows up a building at the end because of some balconies. We architects have to live every day with compromise, and as a consequence we learn to make the best of a situation--not in a suck-it-up sort of way, but in a way of making something beautiful out of the materials we've been dealt, whether it be by way of Michelangelo or MacGyver. (Though I'd avoid trying to make David out of two wads of chewing gum and a plastic shopping bag.) Occasionally clients make inconvenient requests (Mad Ludwig once drove a craftsman mad trying to find the right shade of blue for a lamp), but rather than resorting to dynamite, there's always the much less dangerous tool of people skills.

And that can mean anything. Sometimes it does mean backing down. More often than not, it results in a situation where both the client and the architect win--either quietly showing them they're mistaken, with careful examples and a lot of tact, or actually doing as you're told, however strange they may seem, and, much to your own surprise, coming up with something quite wonderful because of it. Challenges have to have boundaries and handicaps to make them really worth the trouble. Pity Roark didn't have the patience.

(You do know I'm trying very hard not to shout out, Da Plane, da Plane, right?)

So, they're going to slap balconies on your building? Pre-empt them, and design a building with balconies that looks like it doesn't have 'em! I mean, if the builder of Munich Cathedral could come up with what looks like at one trick spot like a church nave with no windows--the result of a bet with the Devil, which is not so different than working, like Roark did, with government agencies--surely a few measly patios are hardly worth breaking a sweat over!

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?