Howard Roark was never a man to conform to “mainstream” attitudes. At the Stanton Institute of Technology, Roark refuses to design Tudor chapels and French opera houses, instead exercising his individual reasoning in the creation of aesthetic features that fortify the individual integrity of his buildings. Upon entering the professional field, Roark signs building contracts on one crucial condition; that he be permitted to erect his structures exactly as he had devised them. At first, it seems that Roark is treading a path destined to ruin his career and prospects for success, for his acts counter the conventional “wisdom” that man can either be practical or moral, “flexible” or principled, fulfilled in body or in spirit, but not both. He is expelled from Stanton, and attracts few clients to his office. However, in Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead, Roark’s ultimate triumph demonstrates a staunch rejection of the practical-moral dichotomy and the possibilities that liberation therefrom can bring the individual creator.
Roark’s success is rooted in a proper identification of practicality and morality. Roark refuses to superfluously ornament his buildings at the expense of structural efficacy. He recognizes unique qualities to every building material and refuses to make “copies in steel and concrete of copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood,” not wishing to blindly follow the obsolete techniques of the past like sacred doctrine (24). When Roark develops the Heller House, he endows the building with elements that blend together its function and appearance, including no false pillars or deceptive facades. Roark thinks that “a house can have integrity, just like a person, and just as seldom” and Heller agrees that every slightest routine performed in such a consistent dwelling is filled with “dignity and honesty.” (136) Roark’s notion of practicality is one of strict purpose and reason. He crafts his buildings giving objective consideration to all the facts and tools at his disposal. His Monadnock Valley Resort, for example, seems a natural extension of its landscape. Roark employs his brilliant skills in mathematics and structural engineering to bring forth sensible structures that captivate their residents. Though the Monadnock Valley Resort had been intended to fail by the firm that contracted Roark, from its very opening, it is filled for a year in advance. Despite initial difficulties, Roark’s perseverance enables him to find clients who appreciate his love of coherence and principle. Jimmy Gowan and John Fargo request that Roark create a gas station and store, buildings which would attract consumers as a result of their originality and convenience. Roger Enright, a self-made businessman, offers Roark to construct his home, and is immensely pleased with the results. Eventually, even the great newspaper magnate, Gail Wynand, selects Roark to build those structures that represent Wynand’s actual values and individual character, his home, which is meant as a tribute to Wynand’s wife Dominique, and the Wynand Building, “a monument to [his] life” (593).
Roark’s architectural career is ultimately a grand triumph due the fortitude of Roark’s moral principles and approach toward work. Roark is a staunch egoist and individualist. He summarizes his philosophy: “I’m never concerned with my clients, only with their architectural requirements.” (578) He builds not for the sake of appeasing the public, or gathering prestige, or riding the accomplishments of others as does the second-hander, but rather due to his ardent devotion to the creation itself. He recognizes that “to get things done, you must love the doing, not the secondary consequences. The work, not the people. Your own action, not any possible object of your charity.” (578) In his moral quest, Roark pursues the fulfillment of his ego’s designs; everything else is a means to this end. Thus, Roark refuses to modify his designs for the sake of pandering to others’ petty whims and blind tradition-worship. When the government initiates a low-rent housing project for the poor, Roark sees no inherent nobility in sacrificing public funds for such an endeavor. However, he is interested in the problem of cost-efficient homes and yearns to see his solution materialized. He therefore strikes an agreement with his ex-competitor, the second-hander architect Peter Keating, in which he allows Keating to turn in Roark’s work as Keating’s own, if Roark is promised that Cortlandt Homes will be designed exactly as planned. Despite Keating’s best efforts, however, the arch-collectivist Ellsworth Toohey, who informally controls the project, transforms it into a “cooperative job,” allowing two more architects to meddle with Roark’s design and rob it of much of its efficacy by adding costly, useless ornamentation. This is a colossal moral infraction that Roark cannot sanction. He responds to the desecration of his work by detonating the entire building complex.
Justifying his action at his trial, Roark states that “the form was mutilated by two second-handers who assumed the right to improve upon that which they had not made and could not equal.” (683) He is outraged at those who would sacrifice a creator’s autonomy for any “greater purpose,” who would turn a mutually profitable exchange into the enslavement of one for the sake of others. His entire prior career, his selective approach toward clients preserved his freedom to build intact, but when the pseudo-morality of altruism attempts to turn him into a vehicle for the whims of collectives, Roark responds with a forthright affirmation of his right to exist for his own sake and no one else’s. He is exonerated and, because of his unequivocal, firm approach to both practicality and morality, able to win in both matter and spirit. Enright purchases the Cortlandt site for Roark so that Roark’s design can indeed come into existence. The book ends with Roark atop the Wynand Building, at the highest point in New York, symbolic of his triumph over all obstacles and his attainment of the most exalted success and happiness possible, standing upon the work of his own mind.
For Roark, practicality is reason and morality is egoism; the two are compatible and mutually reinforcing. This unity does not exist in the minds of most of the other characters in the book. Peter Keating believes that practicality is conformity. He surrenders his personal aspiration to become an artist to his mother’s urgings that he enter architecture. His entire career rides on borrowing others’ borrowed elements for his buildings or borrowing Roark’s originality. Keating’s greatest “accomplishment”, the Cosmo-Slotnick Building, is built in the Renaissance style (to please Ralston Holcombe, one of the judges, who appreciates only Renaissance buildings) and employs Roark’s structural features. Keating is autonomous neither in his engineering nor in his aesthetics. While with Roark, these disciplines are an inseparable alloy drawn from his mind, with Keating, they are a haphazard mix of something from everything and nothing in particular. At the twilight of his architectural career, the defeated Keating confesses that he has never built anything original in his entire life. Whereas for Roark, morality is forthright pride, for Keating, it is guilty appeasement. Whereas Roark knows his own worth, Keating must constantly find it in the reassurance of others, especially his confidant, Ellsworth Toohey. He is glad to hear that he as an individual is unimportant and that his true purpose is servitude to others and a sacrifice of everything, including his own happiness. For Keating has, through his endless pandering and borrowing, surrendered his ego for absolutely nothing, to be brushed aside by the collectives to whom he paid tribute as soon as “modern architecture” replaces his classical eclecticism. When Toohey finally bares the monstrous essence of altruism before Keating and reveals his true intent to rule the world and crush the human spirit, Keating is horrified, but can do nothing to oppose Toohey or resist his manipulations. While Keating, the “practical” man in the conventional sense of the term, has given up his convictions for fleeting prestige, he left the field of the moral to the sadists of the soul.
In the beginning of the novel, Dominique Francon does not believe that the moral and the practical can be reconciled. She tells of a time when she destroyed a beautiful statue because she thought it incompatible with the essential nature of existence-pain, distortion, and suffering. She appreciates genuine talent in Roark’s buildings, but deems them “too perfect” to exist in a world where every tainted member of the multitudes would desecrate them with his presence. Therefore, she prefers to side with Roark’s persecutors, as she views ultimate power to be in the hands of the immoral. She attempts to sacrifice herself to Peter Keating, the man she would love least, by intentionally marrying him and performing physical favors for others in order to get him commissions. Then she surrenders herself to Gail Wynand, a man who is a moral egoist in his private life but a vehicle for mob sentiments in his public. Though she does not love Wynand, she finds in him an appreciation for her as a woman who recognizes true beauty and morality, even if she views it to be doomed to defeat. Dominique’s outlook changes as she witnesses Roark’s perseverance in the face of societal pressures. Though Wynand loves to break men of integrity for sport, Roark eventually wins Wynand’s devotion, his quest for the right to use his mind, and Dominique’s hand in marriage.
Just as Dominique recognizes that both the moral and practical can triumph in a man of firm convictions, so does The Fountainhead demonstrate the insight that Rand would later express as a groundbreaking discovery in Objectivist ethics: “The practical is the moral.”