Peter Keating Designed Rockefeller Center?

It's no secret Ayn Rand modeled the character of Howard Roark, in many respects, after architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Could it be that she had a real life model for Peter Keating, as well?
Frank-heynick

It doesn’t take much historical detective work to figure out that the revolutionary architect Frank Lloyd Wright was Ayn Rand’s inspiration for Howard Roark. Plenty of readers already assumed the connection when The Fountainhead was published in 1943. And Rand’s idolization of Wright is seen on page after page of her posthumously published journals and correspondence.

But what about Peter Keating? On whom might this character have been based? Now there’s a question which really calls for some historical sleuthing.

Having the pleasure of teaching the course “The Fountainhead in New York City” at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies this fall, and also writing a book on the subject, I’ve spent much time delving into the matter.

A self-satisfied Raymond Hood, c.1930
My surprising conclusion: Peter Keating was based on Raymond Hood, the architect who designed Rockefeller Center.

You may be as surprised as I was at this. After all, the sculpture of Atlas in Rockefeller Center has become an iconic Randian symbol.

So let me lay the evidence before you.

The fictional Peter Keating, you recall, first achieved public fame as winner of the highly publicized “Most Beautiful Building in the World” contest for Cosmo-Slotnick Pictures in the mid-Twenties. His 40-story skyscraper was in the historicist style of the Renaissance, including graceful pilasters bursting into Corinthian capitals.

The real Raymond Hood exploded upon the public scene in 1922 as winner of the highly publicized Chicago Tribune Building contest (for “the most beautiful and eye-catching building in the world”), beating out 260 other entries, some quite radical, from around the world. Hood’s style was likewise historicist, in his case a 36-story skyscraper in the Gothic mode, complete with flying buttresses.

Winner of the "Most Beautiful Building in the World Contest," Hood’s historicist Chicago Tribune skyscraper, 1922
Peter Keating was only too glad to adopt his style to changing trends. As he declared to his fellow architects at a luncheon later in the novel: “I do not apologize for those of my buildings which were designed in the Classical tradition. They were an answer to the need of their era. Neither do I apologize for the buildings which I designed in the modern style. They represent the coming better world.” And so Keating builds the modernistic Mowry Building and Palmer House.

Raymond Hood soon went on to design, in 1924, the American Radiator Building in midtown Manhattan (made famous by an iconic painting of it by Georgia O’Keeffe), in a mixed Gothic and — a coming trend — art-deco style. (Architectural historians see structural features of this building as ‘borrowed’ from a runner-up entry to the Chicago Tribune contest by the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen.)

The next major step in Hood’s evolving with the times was his adaptation of the modernist streamlined art-deco style in his Daily News Building on East 42nd Street. In this 37-story skyscraper, built in 1929, there is no historicist reference at all. It’s a polychrome asymmetrical cascading monolith, whose verticality is emphasized by scores of white stripes rising unbroken from the base to the top.

Rendering of Hood’s modernistic Daily News Building, 1929, on which his RCA Building in Rockefeller Center’s was later based. (Is it really so ‘ugly, flat, conventional, meaningless, unimaginative, and uninspiring’ as Rand said?)
Four years later, in 1933, Raymond Hood was appointed chief architect for the revolutionary new complex of coordinated buildings arising in upper midtown, called Rockefeller Center. Hood’s Daily News Building would serve as the model for the Center’s pride, the even taller (70-story) RCA Building.

In the novel, Keating was surreptitiously helped by Roark. Was there an analogous situation with Raymond Hood and Frank Lloyd Wright? Well, maybe, although Rand might not have known about it.

An iconic feature of both the Daily News Building and the RCA Building is their lack of any crown, a revolutionary innovation at the time. Wright himself told a gathering of architects of his visit to Hood's office when he was working on the Daily News Building, “I studied the elevation,” Wright is quoted as saying, “and I told Ray, ‘Ray, you just stop the whole thing right here,’ and I drew a line across the elevation with the tip of my cane. And that's why the Daily News Building looks the way it does.”

And there’s more. In The Fountainhead, you remember, a “western city” makes plans in 1936 for their World’s Fair called “March of the Centuries.” The distinguished civic leaders on the Fair committee want the country’s top architects to design it, with Peter Keating as de facto leader of the group.

But Roark, too, was invited to participate. Keating, resentful of the fact that he had purloined so many of Roark’s innovative concepts to further his own career, lays down an ultimatum to the Fair committee: “I won't work with Howard Roark. You'll have to choose. It's he or I.”

Keating needn't have worried. For when Roark appears before the Fair committee he makes a condition of his own — that he design the Fair alone, a condition the committee cannot comprehend and refuses to accept.

In actual history, there was a World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933–4, called “A Century of Progress.” The Fair’s managers selected Raymond Hood as architectural head to recruit a group of other architects from around the country to collaborate. Wright was not among them. As Wright said in retrospect: “Were I to come in they would go out because I could not work with them and would not work against them.” Instead, Wright designed and displayed to the public three radical proposals of what the Fair should look like, if he were allowed to design it — alone.

Need any more convincing? Well, check out the various notes on Raymond Hood in the “Architectural research” section in The Journals of Ayn Rand. While she refrains from calling him “Keating,” she says of Hood: “I may be wrong, but there's something sinister about the man.” Rand made notes on Hood and the Chicago Tribune contest and his leading role in the World’s Fair. She describes his Daily News Building as among the “ugliest, flattest, most conventional, meaningless, unimaginative and uninspiring buildings.” As for Rockefeller Center, it’s “a mess, compared to what it might have been.”

Poor Raymond Hood. Was Rand perhaps being unfair to him?

I believe so.

To write a novel like The Fountainhead required strong dichotomization in the mind of the novelist: The heroic, uncompromising, innovative genius, in the image of Wright, versus the adaptive, trendy second-hander, exemplified by Hood. Thus Rand was more than ready to overlook Wright’s quite un-Roarkian aspects — his antagonism to skyscrapers, his anti-city and anti-New York views, not to mention his flamboyant publicity-seeking and eccentric anti-capitalist pronouncements. And Rand was happy to ignore the fact that Hood didn’t merely follow new styles in architecture; he was also a force in creating them.

Hood redeemed? Rand apparently much admired his art-deco McGraw-Hill Building of 1931
Well, it turns out that even Ayn Rand could have second thoughts on some matters.

In an interview with the New York World in 1943, soon after the success of The Fountainhead, she is quoted (correctly, let’s assume) as naming the McGraw-Hill Building as the most beautiful in New York. Built in 1931, it is indeed a stunning structure. Rising 33 stories on West 42nd Street, it features blue and green ceramic cladding, large horizontal window bands, setbacks front and rear, and an intricate illuminated art-deco crown, itself several stories high.

The architect who designed it? Raymond Hood!

Dr. Frank Heynick is a New York writer, university lecturer, and builder of model skyscrapers. His NYU course “The Fountainhead in New York City” begins on October 1, 2009.

17 comments from readers  

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Small
Interesting, but doesn't turn Hood into a Keating, does it?
Small
Thanks for the architectural research. I'll be looking forward to attending your course. Perhaps you remeber meeting me when we spoke with Doug Rasmussen after the Junto meeting this week.

As to Ayn Rand being unfair to Raymond Hood, I'd have to respectfully disagree. Her extemely exact distinctions regarding choices are a direct expression of the absolute nature of philosophical priciples at work in reality. One thing her thinking wasn't was dichotomized. Integrated is more like it.

Hood's morphing styles and second handed approach are the perfect model for Peter Keating's compromises. I've looked at the opressive Rockefeller Center with it's Altas sculpture and used it as an example several times of bad design and sculpture. Rand specifically chose the sculpture as the perfect metaphor for Atlas Shrugged. Rand's criticism of Hood only helped to him to achieve better. Rand was also being fair to Hood when he finally created the McGraw Hill building by recognizing his achievemnet. Your own description of Wright's hidden guidance gives more proof. At the same time time Rand was also critical of Wright's politics while not lossing sight of his creative genius.

Rand was an epistemological genius and a brilliant artist. The critical aspect of this is the inescapable power of philosophical choices to effect the man made world. As Roark says, every part of the building works together as a whole. Ayn Rand once distinguished herslf from Nietzche by describing him as a bulldozer while she was an architecht. The key to Rand's philosophy is to see it it from her point of view as a complete whole. Not to become trapped in specific concretes, but to retain the perspective of its fundamental axioms.
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As an architect who recently read the fountainhead for the first, I found this little column very interesting. I also did not know much about Ray Hood and now want to know more about it. Great work.
Small
A nice refreshing piece, interesting and thought provoking. Takes me back to the good old days, when Ayn herself was putting in her two cents worth about a lot of things.
Marlize V
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Thanks for the very interesting read.

I recently watched the PBS documentary on Frank Lloyd Wright, and couldn't help but make distinctions and comparisons between him and the character of Howard Roark the whole time I was watching. I didn't know that there was a possible real-life inspiration for Peter Keating's character as well, though.

And, I have to say, the Chicago Tribune skyscraper is beyond ugly.
David R
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A very nice journey in to history and speculation on it's possible effects on Ayn Rand's philosophy and fiction writing. Facinating and well done! Thank You!
Small
Ayn Rand's characters are mixes of characteristics gained from real-life models and, also, from the characteristics she devised herself. The composites of selected characteristics that served the purposes of the work result in the integrated realizable characters that we see. Her characters meld the apparent characteristics of several models. For Howard Roark, the important models were likely herself, Architect Louis Sullivan, Architect Andrew Rebori, her husband Frank and possibly others. Rand's character portrayals were not imitations of models, rather they were integrations, or recreations, according to the artist's knowledge and purposes for the work.

Regarding The Rockefeller Center complex and its splendid open air Center and tower, I would say that it was not a lowly ecclectic imitation or amalgam of what previously existed. Rather, for the years during which it was being designed, of 1927 and 1928, I believe, it was a towering advancement of design that was furthered by the proportional harmony principles that were at the core of the Art Deco style. It is not a Peter Keating job that was a result of Platonic social adaptation. It was more likely done by the designers who held the philosophy that engendered Howard Roark.

Regarding the Rockefeller Center Complex:

Con: The ceiling murals at the ground floor lobbies have brown painted figures of what appear to be portrayals of morons in heaven, although one cannot be sure.

Pro: The lifting spirit of the tower with its planes set at higher and higher levels is truly great. The modern lighting of the tower is also great.

Pro: The Radio City Music Hall theater and lobby designed by Industrial Designer, Walter Dorwin Teague, are awe inspiring. The arches, stair cases, furniture and the Art Deco styling are great.

Pro: The overall complex is just as great in style and coordination as any ever made.
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I am under the impression that Louis Sullivan was the Model for Roarks Mentor.
Small
Very Interesting - Could Rand's 1943 quote have some kind of deeper, double meaning?
Small
My main objection is that he wants to nit-pick at the accuracy of comparison between the real and fictional characters. Real characters serve only as inspiration, not as exact models. Rand praised that which she found praiseworthy and vice-versa. Her characters were her characters, even though they might have been (probably were) based on, or inspired by real people.

After reading this, I have little doubt, however, that Hood DID serve as the inspiration for her Keating, so I accept that part of his assertion.

It is crucial to remember that Ayn's creations were just that: creations! She had no intent whatever to mimic "real" life; quite the opposite. I refer you to "The Romantic Manifesto". ~dB
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This essay is dealing with a straw man. Ayn Rand explicitly did NOT model Roark's character or personna after FLW - only his architectural principles. There was no 'idolization' of Wright anywhere in her journals. She didn't 'overlook Wright's non-Roarkian aspects' -- Ayn Rand explicitly disagreed with everything FLW espoused on pretty much every subject except architecture.
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Mr. Heynick's assumption that Peter Keating was based on one person and surprize that Ayn Rand would admire a building done by the person he hypothesizes shows a lack of understanding of Ayn Rand's process of characterization. She is a romantic realist, meaning the whole point is that she is not writing about people who already exist. For more details, I would suggest Michael Berliner's article, Howard Roark and Frank Lloyd Right, printed in Essays on Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead edited by Robert Mayhew. This article shows that even the assumption stated in the first sentence of this article is not true. Ayn Rand projected the character of Howard Roark based on her philosoophy, rather than observing him in the world around her.
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What about the living or dead disclamer? The closest similarity I saw in the book was Henry Cameron to Louis Sullivan in both being men of modern ideas and both had carears that tailed off badly after an 1893 fair.
Small
As several letter writers pointed out, Rand was a romantic realist who presented re-creations and/or amalgams of people she knew. No good fiction writer portrays every aspect of anyone he/she knows. That is realism -- not romantic realism, in which certain characteristics are magnified or diminished to convey what the artist wishes to say.

Also, Mr. Heynick doesn't understand the definition of "dichotomy." Nobody worth their salt in understanding Rand would ever use that term in the same sentence with that brilliant lady.
Small
Having known that The Chicago Tribune Tower monstrosity was a result of an architecture contest, we always wondered if Rand had it in mind. Thanks for the architectural sleuthing and history lesson. We've seen pictures from a party where the architects dressed up as their buildings - was Raymond Hood at that?
Small
Thanks to Lemuel Bernard Linder for his factual mention on TAS of Louis Sullivan as the model for Roark's mentor.

Thanks also to the article in Encyclopedia Britannica regarding Donald Deskey. He, and not Walter Dorwin Teague, was the designer of the Radio City Music Hall interiors.

". . . . . in 1932 awarded him a large contract for the interior decoration and furnishings for Radio City Music Hall. The extraordinary results of this project helped the designer launch Donald Deskey Associates as a major consulting firm"

No false architecture, news, facts, or philosophy of science here.
Small
I got a thoughtful personal email from Mr. Heynick on the two issues I raised in a previous letter on his article, and I think I jumped the gun on evaluating his intent.

He does think that characters should be idealized, and he was not suggesting some dichotomy in Ayn's mental apparatus when she was writing.

My apologies to Mr. Heynick. His article was quite instructive and enjoyable.
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.