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.
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.
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.
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.
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!