Thursday, January 19, 2006

So Why Did Howard Laugh?

Isn't it about time I explained the name of my architecture blog, Why Howard Laughed? Begin with the opening paragraphs [mercifully edited for brevity] from Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead:

Howard Roark laughed. He stood naked at the edge of a cliff. The lake lay far below him. A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight to the sky over motionless water. The water seemed immovable, the stone flowing. The stone had the stillness of one brief moment in battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause more dynamic than motion...[snip]
He laughed at the thing which had happened to him that morning and at the things which now lay ahead. He knew that the days ahead would be difficult. There were questions to be faced and a plan of action to be prepared. He knew that he should think about it. He knew also that he would not think, because everything was clear to him already, because the plan had been set long ago, and because he wanted to laugh. He tried to consider it. But he forgot. He was looking at the granite. He did not laugh as his eyes stopped in awareness of the earth around him...[snip]
He looked at the granite. To be cut, he thought, and made into walls. He looked at a tree. To be split and made into rafters. He looked at a streak of rust on the stone and thought of iron ore under the ground. To be melted and to emerge as girders against the sky. These rocks, he thought, are here for me; waiting for the drill, the dynamite and my voice; waiting to be split, ripped, pounded, reborn; waiting for the shape my hands will give them...

For most readers who have taken pleasure from modifying their natural surroundings to suit their will -- be it building a custom home, tilling soil and creating a garden, planting a line of trees, or even fiddling with the natural flow of a stream using boulders and rocks -- these words read like the opening chords of an heroic symphony. But to readers of naturalists Edward Abbey and Terry Tempest Williams, or readers of peak oil crank James Howard Kunstler, to Earthfirsters, Greenpeace followers, and to believers in the Gaia Hypothesis, these words are nothing but trouble.

Yet I am given to both schools of thought. I am a man torn by contradiction. Architect Robert Venturi was right: Modern Man will no longer be about either/or, but both/and.

While I once was a true believer in Rand's philosophy of Objectivism after reading The Fountainhead at the impressionable age of 17, I ultimately rejected much of it at the age of 25 once I came to understand,
1) That we're all in this together;
2) That nobody doesn't care what others think of him or her unless one is entirely devoid of compassion, as compassion is dependent upon deep awareness of and empathy towards the feelings and experiences of others;
3) That while society's achievements are built upon acts of courage and heroism of individuals, we each owe a tremendous debt to the collective achievements accreted generation by generation, as though a pearl, which is then given back to each individual according to ones curiosities and ambitions so we might stand on the shoulders of those who passed before; culminating in
4) from whom much has been given, much is expected.

But for Rand, payback was a bitch -- or at least how she saw society's expectation of payback.

Instead, I came to understand that one of the most mature realizations an ambitious and rugged individualist seeking wisdom can make is that duty to each other, to society, is an act of honor and respect towards our forebears.

As for me, I would love to make so much money that congress and the IRS would have to create a special tax bracket to garnish massive chunks of my wealth. And I would gladly pay. For no person works and creates and then benefits from that work and creation without first having a social foundation and culture built on others' past experiences and achievements on which one draws as an investment.

And as an aside, I would insert the personal concern that just as the Soviet Union's economy collapsed under rampant collectivism based strictly on society at the expense of the individual, so too is the danger that the American economy may very well collapse under rampant get-rich-quick individualism at the expense of societal concerns. Something to ponder...

But that's not really what I wanted to say with this particular post.

No, what I wanted to say is much briefer than all that:

Creating is a hoot.

Examining a problem from all sides and all facets, meditating on it, even pounding your head on the razor sharp edge of failure's abyss... and then feeling adrenaline excitement when a new and strangely attractive solution pops into your head -- that is what architects, artists, musicians, novelists, craftsmen, and all creative types live and work for. Nevermind that three quarters of all those new ideas may still be pure garbage.

The trick to creating comes in two steps:
first, conceiving new ideas;
then, evaluating those new ideas.

As it's said that every good writer needs a good editor, every architect needs equally good judgment. Some of the most creative architects I know can't begin to successfully evaluate their ideas. So everything goes in -- the good, the bad, and the ugly. The projects of these uber-creators succeed if there's more good than bad, and darned little ugly. But that doesn't always happen.

Me? My process is best described by Gene Fowler's famous words, when he wrote, "Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead." Architectural creation is truly 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. When designing, I conceive of and then ultimately reject hundreds of ideas each hour. I would like to think that I have rejected thousands of moderately interesting ideas that lesser architects might have still exploited for fame and fortune. But not me. 90% of the time I'm a hack just like they are. The difference is that those hack ideas all get tossed. However, 10% of the time... yes, 10% of the time...

When The Fountainhead's "Howard Roark laughed", he was reveling in his own creative urges and architectural ambitions in the midst of the tremendous personal and professional turmoils he would soon face from his architectural school and from the world. But he just knew that he could do it armed with total confidence in himself made possible by the complete lack of compassion that Ayn Rand endowed him with.

Yeah. Right. Only in fiction.

It's damned hard work creating and evaluating ones own creative efforts.
It's damned hard work believing in the delicate and necessary balance between the heroism of rugged individualism and the social compact.
And it's damned hard work trying to be compassionate and not caring what others think.

These are all efforts worthy of heroes, highly conflicted heroes!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought you were going to comment on the Howard Dean rage-laugh, but that was more of a scream, or perhaps just an expression of the exhultation felt after ripping the head off an opponent after grappling for many long hours in the mud the blood and the beer, and then feasting on his entrails.

So, though obviously this blog is architecture-oriented, I pose this question: Why did Howard (Dean) let loose an expression of his exhultation, and upon whose entrails did he feast?

9:43 AM, February 07, 2006  
Blogger HRlaughed said...

Nice comment. Hadn't occurred to me that multiple Howards laughed. And here I am a devotee of political blogs. Fool me once... shame on... you... you never get fooled again.

Howard (Dean) is clearly a highly-conflicted hero to have let loose such a primal yalp while surrounded by emotionally crushed fanatics immediately following his Presidential demise. He was feasting upon his own entrails, simply put. And I would gladly subsidize him again if he chose to re-run for President.

2:35 PM, February 07, 2006  
Blogger Richard said...

Once I discovered that Ayn Rand was a refugee from the newly Communist USSR right after the Civil wars of the early 20's, and then came to Hollywood where she became a screen-writer, I realized why I found no logic in her writing.

All she had to offer was a spew of unexplained and unevaluated emotion placed on paper.

2:47 PM, November 18, 2006  
Blogger HRlaughed said...

Wow, richard, that's one of the more unexpected and bizarre readings and interpretations of Ayn Rand that Howard has ever encountered. Bravo!

1:13 PM, November 20, 2006  
Blogger Ryan Johnson said...

The beauty of this is that Howard Roark does not care about your interpretations of him or his creator. Howard Roark achieves where you settle, creates where you consume, and finds happiness in individualism while you crave acceptance and praise. Roark envisions and develops the most modern architectural structure known thus far and then goes home & fucks the prom queen. I can see why so many people hate his ideals and philosophy, I hope you've read atlas shrugged you remind me of a few characters portrayed on that novel :).

4:28 PM, January 28, 2016  
Blogger Howard said...

I've read everything Ayn Rand ever wrote... and understood every word. My conclusion, after decades of growing up? She was a brilliant sociopath whose greatest talent, beyond some of her very best writing (and yes, there was some) was also humanity's greatest talent -- rationalizing desired beliefs and outcomes.

1:04 AM, July 28, 2016  

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