Ayn Rand’s famed novel “The Fountainhead” is the amusingly overwrought tale of an egocentric architect named Howard Roarke. On finding that one of his brilliant designs has been tampered with, Roarke becomes so incensed that he blows up the finished building. The novel was eventually made into an even more preachy and melodramatic film—no small task, mind you—with the genius architect portrayed by a chronically pained-looking Gary Cooper.
The Roarke character, a thinly disguised version of Frank Lloyd Wright, was a mouthpiece for Rand’s belief that arrogance and egocentrism are integral components of genius. Given Rand’s fevered devotion to this unlikeable idea, it’s no wonder the pious Roark was so insufferable.
Alas, fiction isn’t the only place you’ll find architects like Howard Roarke. The arrogance of many real-life architects is just as legendary. It’s become sort of an endearing character flaw, to be taken with a wink and a nudge: Oh well—you know those architects.
Frank Lloyd Wright remains the undisputed mogul of architectural arrogance, a stature borne out by numberless anecdotes. My personal favorite involves an enraged client who called Wright to complain that the roof was leaking onto her dinner guest. Wright’s response: “Tell him to move his chair.”
Old age did not mellow Wright’s acerbic with, much less his high opinion of himself. In the 1940s, he gave a talk at a noted school of architecture and declared:
“There are two kinds of architects in the world. There is every other architect, and there is me.”
In his later years, Wright frequently engaged in sniping contests with a younger rival named Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, who styled himself Le Corbusier, and who was no slouch in the area of self-importance either. Le Corbusier espoused radical changes in architecture and planning, based on copious theorizing but only a smattering of actual buildings.
“I propose one single building for all nations and climates,” he proclaimed in 1937. Wright, with a half century of brilliant work already behind him, dismissed the young architect with the observation, “Well, now that he's finished one building, he'll go write four books about it.”
Geniuses can get away with saying such things--perhaps deservedly so. But unfortunately, arrogance isn’t confined to geniuses. It can be found in mediocre architects as well, and too often, the results have been less than humorous. For the better part of the Modernist era, it was this know-it-all attitude that gave us sterile public buildings, look-alike downtowns, and inhumane urban renewal projects.
These well-publicized failures have helped form the unfortunate modern-day image of the architect: equal parts prima donna and buffoon, fussing over minuscule points of aesthetics while bungling vast portions of the client’s program.
Reality, of course, lies somewhere in between. Yet, as we enter the 21st century, it’s clear that we architects are beginning to stagger under the mantle of “master builder”--the literal meaning of “architect”--because it’s now quite impossible for us to know everything there is to know about building in this ever-more complex world.
That’s a problem, because genius is tough to come by, and arrogance won’t get us where it used to.