A few years ago, I walked into a bookshop in a small town and found a paperback copy of "Atlas Shrugged”.  It was gathering dust on a high shelf – something which had been ordered but never collected, according to the lady bookseller.  That was the beginning of my curiosity about Ayn Rand, and why some architects secretly admire her.

Born to a wealthy family which fled the early days of Bolshevik Russia, Rand is best known for “The Fountainhead”, which is the single worst piece of publicity the architectural profession has received in decades…

The Fountainhead’s main character Howard Roark was reputedly based on Frank Lloyd Wright.  His egotism and will to power are only matched in American fiction by Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ film.  But Rand’s book is much less about the genius of design, more about how he forced buildings into existence through sheer force of will. 

Rand rejected the collectivism of the USSR and instead argued that history is forged by a small élite of so-called great men who she called the “motor of the world.”  Frank Lloyd Wright neatly fits that bill.  These man (and although Rand was a woman, her protagonists are men) are set apart by their ruthlessness and possess what she charmingly terms “the virtue of selfishness”.  According to Rand, they are the “most oppressed minority” because they have to negotiate with unions, follow labour and environmental laws, and pay income taxes.

Rand’s later novel “Atlas Shrugged” tells of a few more great men, led by John Galt, joining together and withholding their contribution to society to protest against having to pay income tax, follow anti-monopoly laws and respect the right of workers to form unions.  They even go so far as to withhold their greatness from an ungrateful society.

We’ve all met people who believe they are indispensable – but indispensability is a delusion.  You struggle to find any proof from history that a business won’t live on without a specific leader or ideology.  The USSR survived Lenin, John Pierpoint Morgan has been gone for 100 years, but the bank bearing his name is still with us.  Even Jaguar Cars carried on without William Lyons, although it’s been a close run thing on several occasions. 

What is capitalism, if not a perfect example of the world moving on from Adam Smith’s time but an idea surviving?

Anyhow, it was a strange decision of Rand’s, making Roark an architect.  He wasn’t fighting intransigence: he was actually fighting against the fundamentals of what architecture is.  Design is a collegiate activity.  Unless you somehow build a house for yourself by acting as your own client, funder, architect, engineer, buyer and labourer all rolled into one, you can’t operate in a vacuum.  Architecture isn’t an act of pure creation in the way that sculpture or novel-writing can be.

Maybe if Roark had been a poet-hero figure such as Ted Hughes, or perhaps like Captain Ahab locked in his duel with the giant whale, then we could accept that the moral purpose of his life was the pursuit of pure self-interest, as Rand claimed.  “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

From an enlightened modern point of view, it’s difficult to subscribe to that.  In the hands of Rand and her modern successors such as the people behind the Adam Smith Institute and the Battle of Ideas, libertarianism – the freedom to act in a free unconstrained way – actually offers licence to a select few to do as they will, to everyone else.  They believe the only path to achieve “liberty” is by supporting laissez-faire capitalism.

But with that, “libertarian” has lost its true original meaning, just as “National Socialism” has little to do with socialism, and Neo-Liberal represents nothing like liberality.  Aside from dreadful acts of misogyny in The Fountainhead, Rand’s so-called objectivism is morally ugly.  Her underlying message – the triumph of the individual over the mass – is actually about psychological mastery.  For her, life revolves around the egotism of winning, and the need to keep score.

Interestingly, I read a while ago that in the US, sales of Atlas Shrugged go up during an economic downturn.  Perhaps its message comforts casualties of the recession.  Instead, it should anger them, because their jobs may have been destroyed by the very laissez-faire capitalists who were inspired by the book in their hands.  I’m sure that Donald Trump, if he reads books, will have a copy of Atlas Shrugged at his bedside.

Another of Rand’s assertions, “Throughout the centuries there were men who took the first steps down new roads, armed with nothing but their own vision,” is an example of incomplete thinking and faulty logic.  She suggested that some men are genuinely "self made," and that they alone were the pavers of their own "new roads," but Isaac Newton’s famous non sequitur which is inscribed into the milled edge of the £2 coin, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” comes closer to the reality.

One of those giants is Jeremy Bentham.

Rightly or wrongly, many of us believe that architects need a theoretical base, just as academics should also build things.  You may still end up with compromised buildings – but at least you’re trying to resolve all the competing demands of cost, quality, ergonomics, aesthetics, longevity, and so on by adopting an *approach*.

Utilitarianism is an approach which everyone misquotes.  “Utilitarian” gets a universally bad press.  Too often it means a low spec, plainly-finished thing which is robust rather than stylish, but the term has its roots in what Bentham called "the greatest happiness principle" or "the principle of utility", a term he borrowed from David Hume.  At its crux is the notion that we should do that which produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Bentham wrote, “By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness.”

So, where does happiness reside?  Is there, as Alain de Botton’s book suggests, an Architecture of Happiness?  If so, can we use Bentham’s ideas to measure that happiness?   Well, his abiding concern was the total reform of British society and law based on the principle of utility.  In an effort to apply it to legal reform, Bentham developed the hedonistic, or as it is sometimes called, the felicific calculus.  If the end result of that reform is happiness, then that could be an index of his success.

So referring to a building as Utilitarian Architecture should actually be a back-handed compliment, although “utilitarian” means completely different things to a philosopher and a designer.  Nonetheless, the impact of Bentham's ideas is still powerful today: the words international, maximise, minimise and codification were all coined by Bentham.

Bentham’s other connection with architecture is less obvious.  When he joined his brother Samuel in Russia in 1785, he devised a plan for the Panopticon, a model prison where prisoners would be observable by guards at all times.   The planform ensured that prisoners could never see the “inspector” who surveilled them from the centre of a radial plan.  Because the prisoner never knew whether he was being watched, he was more likely to behave.

He hoped the concept would interest the Catherine the Great but after his return to Britain in 1788, Bentham spent the next 20 years fruitlessly pursuing the idea, spending the bulk of his inheritance in the process.

Bentham also had a great influence over British politics: the Reform Bill of 1832 and the secret ballot both reflected his concerns and his influence spread to some unexpected places.  George Kinloch, the reform candidate for the Dundee constituency, marked his friendship with Jeremy Bentham in a unique way.  The village of Ardler lies in the very heart of Strathmore, and there Bentham Street, one of the shortest streets in Scotland, is named after Kinloch’s friend, the political radical. 

Remember that whereas Rand thought that a person’s own happiness was the moral purpose of their life, Bentham felt that we should do that which produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  Which is the fundamentally moral approach?  Just as they dreamed that a rational architecture would bring about a rational society, perhaps a "moral" architecture could improve society's moral fibre.

Of course, just as the moral choices we make are never so clear-cut as Food Bank versus Puppy Slaughter, there are subjects we're wary about tackling.  Bentham had no qualms about addressing emotive issues such as penal reform, religious adherence and egalitarianism – perhaps today we could add sex, drugs, and euthanasia.  In the modern world, Nina Hartley promotes the idea of thinking “sex positive”; Calton Athletic FC championed the harm reduction model for drug addicts, Margo MacDonald supported tolerance zones for prostitution in Edinburgh and pursued a campaign to legislate for the right to assisted suicide. 

It would be easy to condemn some of the people affected, but that spirit of moral improvement has been largely consigned to the dustbin of history.  For that reason it’s worth reading Rand’s books, such as The Fountainhead, even if you find yourself flinging them across the room in disgust.  If nothing else, they demonstrate how some people have a vacuum where the soul would be in a moral human being.

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