“I offer my profound gratitude to the great profession of architecture and its heroes who have given us some of the highest expressions of man’s genius, yet have remained unknown, undiscovered by the majority of men. And to the architects who gave me their generous assistance in the technical matters of this book.”
So reads Ayn Rand’s dedication in The Fountainhead.
Altruism is not a virtue in the Objectivist scheme of things, certainly not if it involves self-sacrifice. But generosity and benevolence are a different matter. And so it was that novelist Rand gladly accepted the generosity of architect Ely Jacques Kahn.
I am — as a professor at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies who has the great pleasure of teaching the course “The Fountainhead in New York City” — not among the “majority of men” to whom Ely Jacques Kahn is “unknown, undiscovered.” But literally millions of New Yorkers pass by his dozens of buildings every single day with no inkling of who he was, let alone his role in helping Ayn Rand write her breakout novel.
Rand was enthralled by the works of Frank Lloyd Wright when she was preparing The Fountainhead. (If this wasn’t already obvious enough back then, we see it over and over in her posthumously published notebooks and correspondence.) But there were problems with Wright. The mid-westerner had a distinctly anti-urban and, especially anti-New York bias. And, protégé though he was of Louis Sullivan (the “Father of the Skyscraper,” and real-life counterpart of Henry Cameron), Wright was never keen on reaching for the heavens.
Worse still, Frank Lloyd Wright was stand-offish towards the then-unknown novelist Ayn Rand.
Ely Jacques Kahn (1884-1972) was different. When apprised of Rand’s project, he welcomed her to his office as unsalaried assistant for a half year in 1937 and served as her mentor on the architectural profession.
Rand would later say of Kahn: “As a type, he was Guy Francon. He was so much the socially acceptable architect. He was abler than Francon, and he was modern — within careful limits. But his career was strictly dominated by Francon methods. And he had that manner — very elegant and charming.”
Kahn and Francon did indeed have elements in common. The real-life and the fictional architects were both trained at the Beaux-Arts School in Paris. Neither had the genius nor daring of a Wright or a Roark. Both were professionally and financially quite successful. By the early 1930s, Kahn and his partners had already built two dozen skyscrapers in New York, some soaring to over 40 stories. At his height in the late Twenties — this was before the Great Depression, which affected all architects, real and fictional — Kahn’s office employed a staff of over 120.
But much, if not all, of the similarity between Ely Jacques Kahn and Guy Francon ends there.
Already when The Fountainhead opens in 1922, Guy Francon, at age 51, “ha[d]n’t designed a dog house in eight years.” He was now a debonair socializer, attracting clients to his firm, and on his way to a comfortable retirement.
Kahn, by contrast was very much a hands-on architect. True, he was quite willing to delegate various design aspects of his buildings to his talented protégés — many from abroad, including refugees from Nazi Germany — and he socialized as necessary with the garment industry real estate developers who were his potential clients. But Kahn was actively involved in creating all the buildings of his firm, and would be especially prolific again in the postwar boom, up to his retirement at age 81.
More importantly, Kahn was an architect of integrity and an innovator in skyscraper design.
Guy Francon’s reputation, we recall, had been made by the Frink National Bank Building (the fictional counterpart, more or less, of the “wedding-cake” Municipal Building in lower Manhattan), which “displayed the entire history of Roman art in well-chosen specimens ... columns, pediments, friezes, tripods, gladiators, urns and volutes.”
Kahn had other ideas about skyscraper ornamentation.
In the ancient world, Kahn wrote, “men were designing, not copying; problems were solved.” For the skyscrapers of the Twentieth Century, he declared, “copying ... is complete failure.” Kahn advocated instead “freedom of expression, independence of thought, emancipation from the fetters of the past ... with little artificial aid from either European novelties or traditional recollection.”
There was, however, one European “novelty” which did inspire Kahn: art deco. Already in his early work Kahn showed his preference for the geometric patterns of Persian and Moorish motifs. At the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925, Kahn was impressed by the “curious lighthearted daring” of the “bolder spirits” of the new trend.
Abstract geometric art-deco forms would henceforth be a Kahn hallmark in the ornamentation of the exteriors and lobbies of his skyscrapers: multi-colored cubist or jazzy zigzag motifs of terra-cotta or contrasting brick hues, often in bold three-dimensional relief.
But what of the skyscraper’s overall form, not just its ornamentation?
Most early Twentieth Century New York high-rises were characterized by their massive box shapes. The simple fact was that real-estate developers wanted maximum rentable floor space. Form followed function ... and function followed finance.
That was before the New York zoning laws of 1916, which mandated that the upper sections of tall buildings be progressively set back to ensure sufficient sunlight at street level and less obstructed views for neighboring buildings. While developers chafed at the restrictions, Kahn welcomed them and made a virtue of necessity.
“A new style of architecture is being created that is so characteristic of New York that it would be more logical, by far, to call it a New York style, although it is also something essentially American,” he wrote. “The fact that the zoning law performed its artistic feat without premeditation is merely one of the curious tricks of fate that makes the new style doubly fascinating.”
He sometimes incorporated dormers to emphasize the vertical thrusting
of the massing. Alternatively, he added vertical piers and contrasting
spandrels as a “means of enriching the surface with a play of light and shade,
voids and solids.”
Kahn experimented with horizontal ribbon band windows. He chamfered or rounded a building’s corners to enhance a streamline effect. He designed skyscrapers with parallelogram bases or asymmetrical forms. He even attached soaring white fins to the upper sections of towers as a aerodynamic touch.
To be sure, Kahn never built a real-life counterpart to Roark’s Enright House, Cord Building, or Wynand Building. But neither did Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright did design a few such structures; and although these inspired Rand, precious little would ever see the light of day — not because they were too daring, but because of their exorbitant price tags, even before one factors in Wright’s notorious cost overruns. The practical Ely Kahn innovated within the limits of the feasible.
When Rand completed her manuscript, Kahn proofread it for architectural accuracy. To her gratification he was able to find only one or two very minor details needing correction. Rand then quite appropriately suggested that she preface the book with an acknowledgment of Kahn’s help. But whether out of genuine modesty or out of concern about the controversial nature of the novel, Kahn suggested instead a general tribute to the architectural profession.
And so — knowing now the story of the Rand-Kahn connection — we read the dedication of The Fountainhead in a fuller light: We find gratitude to a talented and innovative though not-quite-genius of an architect, a man of integrity and good will who aided a brilliant but still unknown novelist.
Dr. Frank Heynick teaches the course “The Fountainhead in New York City,” at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. The course begins June 3, 2010. He also authored the related Atlasphere columns "Peter Keating Designed Rockefeller Center?" (2009) and "Roark, Libeskind, and the Freedom Tower" (2005).