Rotterdam – The City of Howard Roark

Rand Ann

See photos of Rotterdam on Serious Travel Images


I have lived in Rotterdam on and off for many years, using it a base for travels in Europe and Northern Africa.

One thing I cannot say about it is that I’ve ever found it to be an attractive city.

The point is: I don’t like modern architecture.

However lots of people do – something I realized, to my great surprise, when Rotterdam began appearing in international tourism surveys as a must-see destination (Lonely Planet placed it in its top five ‘European cities to see’).

And why?

Because of its ‘cutting-edge’ architecture.

I really couldn’t believe it.


It seemed as if there were an awful lot of people around who had no taste. Give me one of Europe’s old historic cities any day!

Then a time came when my attitude to Rotterdam changed.

This happened after I read a novel called ‘The Fountainhead’. It was written by the American writer and philosopher, Ayn Rand.


The hero of ‘The Fountainhead’ is a man named Howard Roark.

The novel was published in 1943 and it is set in the early years of the 20th century. To all extents and purposes, Roark is an unlikely figure for a writer to turn into a hero.

He is an architect. However he is not just any old architect.

Roark has a vision of building America which puts him at odds with his profession – and powerful forces in American society. He is totally committed to modern architecture; a vision of cutting-edge designs using the latest materials and technology to create new forms and new structures. At a time when mainstream architects are striving to incorporate classical elements, borrowed by ancient Greece and Rome, into their designs, Roark is an iconoclast. He wants nothing to do with classical ideals of beauty borrowed from the past. He is striking out on a completely new path and he is not prepared to make any compromises.  

‘The Fountainhead’ appeared at the height of the Second World War. A book of 700 pages about an architect would not seem to have been a recipe for literary success, especially at a time when America had far more pressing concerns: it was fighting a war on two fronts, the Japanese in Asia and the Germans in Europe. But Roark was a part of an epic story about Good and Evil, about a war of values going in the soul of America. At the time of its publication, it was very relevant to the destiny of a country which was about to become a pre-eminent super power, one which would decide the destiny of Japan and Western Europe – and also become embroiled in a Cold War against international communism.

Roark symbolises the quintessential American individualist. He is the spirit of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Roark’s ideas about architecture are bitterly opposed by powerful interests which regard him as a threat to their vision of America. Leading the way in the campaign against Roark is the Machiavellian figure of Ellsworth Toohey, a brilliant intellectual, architectural critic and popular celebrity, who also writes a widely read column in a mass tabloid. Toohey, loosely based on the doctrinaire British socialist Harold Laski, is Rand’s personification of pure evil. He styles himself as the representative of the will of the masses. His vision is of an egalitarian paradise where the capitalists are no longer free to exploit the masses and manipulate the government.

What really drives him however is the desire for power.

He seeks personal power over those around him and he seeks broader power over the ideological architecture of America. He promotes the ideals of altruism and humanity but behind these seemingly laudable ideals is a sterile egalitarianism based on eradicating competition, personal ambition and individual genius. His aim is to reduce everyone to the same level whilst installing himself and other like-minded people in positions of authority. Toohey detests Roark because he recognises what Roark symbolises – even though Roark himself doesn’t. In Toohey’s idea of America there should be no place for free wheeling individualists. Along with his powerful allies in the worlds of big business and the media, Toohey strives to destroy Roark. 

 For much of The Fountainhead, Rand’s hero, her great man, is a loser. He is not prepared to strike any kind of compromise with mainstream architects and as a result, Roark finds himself leading a marginal, hand-to-mouth existence. Ellsworth Toohey and his cohorts are supremely successful in stifling Roark and all that he represents. Whilst others, such colleague Peter Keating, become fabulously rich by following the accepted trends, Roark sinks into poverty and at one point has to give up being an architect and go and work in a slate mine. No matter how hard life becomes, no matter how much he is ridiculed by others, he refuses to compromise his vision. Rand’s individualist then, is not a free-wheeling capitalist entrepreneur (like in her later novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’); he is a man of  integrity and hence, one condemned to ridicule and obscurity.


Reading ‘The Fountainhead’ I found myself identifying with the underdog – the author’s intention of course – which was perverse given that I’ve never really had any time for modern architecture.

I was glad near the end of the novel when Roark triumphs against his enemies and wins a contract to design the biggest skyscraper in New York.

Good finally won over Evil.

Good being that ultimate temple of modern architecture: the skyscraper.

Somehow I’d become a Roarkist.


 At a certain point, I wondered about how Rand had come up with the idea for her novel. This led me to hunting down a few biographical details about her life. What I discovered was this: that the skyscrapers in New York had played a pivotal role in her life – and in the development of her philosophy and her creative imagination.

Rand was a Russian Jew who grew up during the most tumultuous years in that nation’s history: the ousting of the Tsar, the establishing of a liberal democracy, the overthrown of democracy by the communists, the civil war between the communists and the monarchists, – and most ominously, the rise of Stalin. As a young woman of enormous intellect, Rand identified with liberal democracy and was dismayed when it was so brutally swept aside by Lenin and his Bolshevik Party. In the wake of the civil war and the ascension of Stalin came the single most defining event in Rand’s life. Her father was a pharmacist – a so-called ‘petit bourgeois’ – a man who had studied and set himself up as a small businessman. He was forced to hand his business over to the state. Rand grew up under the long shadow of being a Jew, the daughter of a bourgeois – and an enemy of ‘The People’. Being an enemy of The People was a dangerous thing to be. By this time Stalin’s secret police had begun their job torturing and exterminating such enemies, whose ranks included millions of peasants who were opposed to collectivized agriculture. In the future, being an ‘enemy of The People’ would become a badge of honor for Rand.

There is no doubt that it was the sheer brutality of Stalin, personally experienced with the dispossession of her father’s business, which turned Rand into an implacable foe of communism – and not only that, but also all forms of collectivism; of ideologies and religions which embraced lofty ideals of serving humanity and condemning Man’s natural tendency towards selfishness and egotism. For Rand, an atheist, it was the other way around: it was in Man’s egotism and selfishness which lay the only path towards freedom, prosperity, technological advance – and an economic and political system which functioned without murdering people. 

In the following years, fascism reared its ugly head in Europe – not just Germany, Spain and Italy, but also in Britain and France. As a Jew, Rand understood only too well what lay at the heart of European Fascism. She saw strong parallels between communism and fascism – between Hitler’s ‘National Socialism’and Stalin’s ‘Socialism in One Nation’. Both systems were based upon the total control of the economy, society and the individual by the state. Underpinning this total state control was a brain washing system of propaganda which extolled the virtues of serving the collectivity, in one case the working class and the other, the race. Both systems were based upon an altruistic morality which condemned western democracy and the spirit of individualism (the similarities which Rand saw between communism and fascism later found dramatic resonance in the great post war novel ‘Life and Fate’, written by the Russian Jewish writer Vasily Grossman).

Ayn Rand’s only belief was in the power of reason and the reasoning mind. For Rand, any system or social arrangement based on the group – and the idea of altruism – she regarded as a stepping stone to tyranny.

In 1925 Rand left for America. Like millions of other immigrants – and especially the universally hated Jews – Rand’s arrival in New York was a cathartic experience. It wasn’t the statue of liberty which moved her most – it was the skyscrapers. The sight of those colossal buildings, the likes of which could be seen nowhere else in the world, which were unique to America, led to her ‘crying tears of splendor’. In the towering skyscrapers on New York, Rand saw the ultimate refuge from the tyranny of communism and fascism.

What was it that made America so different – and so much better – than the rest of the world? Rand asked herself.

Why was this country free, stable and devoid of the brutal collectivist ideologies of the Old World?

Her answer was simple: individualism. In America, the individual was free to pursue his or her ambitions without being hindered by the state, by those who embraced ‘The Common Good’, ‘The People’.

For her nothing could symbolize American entrepreneurship more than the skyscrapers of New York.


 With ‘The Fountainhead’ in mind, I embarked upon a photographic journey around the centre of Rotterdam, the city I love to hate.

Strange how it works: in the course of looking at Rotterdam’s skyline through a viewfinder (I always use a viewfinder and never a screen), I have to admit that I began to see why there were people who admired it.

Everywhere I looked, eye squinted behind a sophisticated piece of Japanese technology, I saw Howard Roark. His spirit, released from the lines of print on a page, loomed large in the innovative forms and angles of concrete, steel and glass.

 Rotterdam was the city of Howard Roark.

Ayn Rand would have approved of it. 

On second thoughts: would she have approved of her famous creation, Howard Roark being enshrined, immortalized, in the skyline of Europe’s cutting edge city?.

The Netherlands was hardly the kind of society which she advocated in her novels and non-fiction books. It was one of the world’s most extensive welfare states.

Howard Roark in a welfare state?

A country which engineered a balance between Roark and Toohey?

Not possible she would have said.

‘The welfare state is the first step towards tyranny’ she once famously quipped.

She was wrong. She was wrong about a lot of things.

Yet no doubt about it: Howard Roark was a memorable creation.


In Rand’s era, the world was very different.

The choice was between free- wheeling capitalism in the US – or the stalking monsters of fascism, militarism and communism.

 Good writing, great novels, tend to thrive on extremes. From the chaos and the complexities of normal life, certain themes or situations are selected and dramatized. Conflict provides the narrative force. In Rand’s two great novels, the conflict between the spirit of individualism and collectivism, of egotism and altruism, the free market and state socialism, is dramatized to create a complexity of people, emotions and events – and some intense, unforgettable writing.

 The philosophical issues she raised are still very much with us today. In fact, they occupy a central place in our politics and debates in the western world. The Fountainhead’ is a timeless novel which raises questions which go to the very heart of modern society and which perhaps explains why 70 years after it was first published, it is still being read.  

 How much innovation, how much modernity, does a nation want? Are there limits?

The excesses of free market capitalism, all too evident in the wake of the collapse of the Lehman Brothers in 2008 and the ensuing global financial crisis, underscored the need for government controls – how many and what kind?

If technological progress comes at the expense of increasing inequality and unemployment, of converting people into mindless consumers – if technological innovation does not make human existence happier or better, then aren’t there good reasons to question where it is taking us?

If we conclude that there is much wrong with capitalism, then what kinds of alternatives do we have in mind?

Ayn Rand was never able to see that unbridled capitalism had a shadow side to it, that no society which regards itself as civilized can be based upon Roark. For Rand, the alternative to Roark was a society like the one she had experienced first-hand and hated: communist collectivism, where the state ran the economy and ran the lives of the people and exterminated anyone suspected of harboring doubts. For her, there was no middle way.

Yet there is a middle way. 

In no other part of the world has egalitarianism been so systematically embraced as in The Netherlands and the nations of Scandinavia. Today, the future of these welfare states is under a cloud but not because of any deep-seated inclination for dictatorship. On the contrary: the problem with these welfare states is that they’ve been so successful that as a result, there are millions of people who want to live there. 

But that is quite another story.


Some links:  

Ayn Rand

What America’s immigrants looked like when they arrived on Ellis Island


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