The Fountainhead and the Heads of the Brooklyn Bridge

Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead introduces us to the life of Howard Roark, a young architect and stark individualist fighting against a traditionalist society. One of the critical points of the novel is Roark’s defense of individualism, and the defense of his bombing of the house built using his modified plans. One has to wonder, how does this individualism and belief hold up in the face of engineering and public projects? Using David McCullough’s The Great Bridge as an account of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge as a case study, we can see that such a philosophy cannot be wholly maintained through the construction of larger creative works.

Prior to delving into this analysis, some context on the Brooklyn Bridge would help to understand the application of The Fountainhead. The Brooklyn Bridge was started as a private construction job in 1867, and John A. Roebling starts design work and creates the initial plans and layout for the entire project. This layout is revolutionary, and, in theory, ends up as the largest and most expensive bridge in the world. The design came under fire initially, but eventually was accepted by several significant authorities within a year. After the death of John Roebling in 1869, his son Washington Roebling takes over as the Chief Engineer, and guides the project to completion in 1883 with his wife, Emily Roebling. In reality, these three Roeblings brought the project to life from drawings and designs.

It is expressed in The Fountainhead that “Every creative job is achieved under the guidance of a single individual thought” (Rand, 21). The Brooklyn Bridge is no exception to this; the designs of the elder Roebling lasted and lived on through his son, but in execution, this did not hold true. While John was alive, “his Brooklyn clients had seen very little of him. Their ordinary day-to-day dealings had been with his son. […] [His son] had been the one on hand to answer their questions and keep things moving.” (McCullough 37). While the broad strokes of the plan had been laid in place by John, his son actually was the one to provide creative authority to those who were building the bridge, and the design changed as a result of this division. Additionally, once construction started around early in 1869, Washington was called “Assistant Engineer”, however, “he had been in complete charge of the work” (McCullough 70). Doubtless, the process of building such a large bridge commands many modifications and manipulations of the original plans as the real conditions and materials begin to significantly differ from the theoretical ones. These unavoidable modifications were made by Washington, not John, and were not just of a minor nature; Washington ended up creating the large caissons that allow the bridge to even exist in the first place with methods radically different from the original plan. Is this the corruption of a plan from another mind, then? Rand, through Roark, states that “The creator originates. The parasite borrows” (Rand 20). Although Washington undoubtedly had to create his own solutions and create his own adaptations to the original plan, he still ended up borrowing for the whole bridge itself. Thus, he cannot be decisively creator or parasite, yet the work he ended up completing was undoubtedly creative, and through his singular guidance for 12 out of 14 years of the construction of the bridge.

The creative Roeblings behind the Brooklyn Bridge even hold radically different opinions from Rand (expressed through Roark), they believe their work was for others, and meant to be completed for others, rather than for themselves. In a statement made by John Roebling upon accepting the contract to build the bridge, he stated that “The completed work, when constructed in accordance with my designs, will not only be the greatest bridge in existence, but it will be the greatest engineering work of the continent, and of the age”, for the purpose of “forever [testifying] to the energy, enterprise, and wealth of that community which shall secure its erection” (McCullough 27). Although there is a present egotism and self-reliance in the confidence of the statement “in accordance with my designs”, it is for the express purpose of being a lasting monument of the age, and of the community that brought it forth. Rand, in opposition, believes that such an argument of “The ‘common good’ of a collective […] was the claim and justification of every tyranny ever established over man” (Rand, 22). Although there was undoubtedly fame involved in erecting such a monument along with the added monetary gain from building a bridge of such a magnitude, John believed in the public good of the project in harmony with his own creative design. Washington had a similarly opposing view; in response to how he kept working on the bridge for such an expansive period of time, he responded with the following, “It’s my job to carry the responsibility and you can’t desert your job. You can’t slink out of life or out of the work life lays on you” (McCullough 561). He did not believe in his work or his creative modifications to the plan as an individual effort; rather, it was laid upon him and he accepted the duty. He was a person who used his creativity not to become an individual to produce a creative work in opposition to society, but a person who used his creativity to rise to the expectations of society, and benefit society with this project that defined his life.

Although the Brooklyn Bridge changed from the passage of John to Washington, the towers and massive suspension lines that define the bridge are largely unchanged. Most of the other details required modification due to changing conditions, but we cannot call it a corruption of John’s creative individualism, or just simply “borrowing” on Washington’s part. For complex public projects such as the Brooklyn Bridge, we can see the conditions of reality differ significantly from what Roark proposes in The Fountainhead.

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3 Responses to The Fountainhead and the Heads of the Brooklyn Bridge

  1. Chloe Lopez says:

    The quote “We can see the conditions of reality” encompasses the entirety of your argument and calls into question the standards and values we hold for what reality constitutes. The comparison between the Roeblings and Rand perfectly depict the relation between standards of reality. I believe that when considering various paradigms/perceptions it is imminent that the conditions be made clear in order to understand the qualifications for reality and in turn illusions.

  2. offthewals says:

    “Every creative job is achieved under the guidance of a single individual thought”. While this statement is not completely infallible, in contrast to your opinion, I believe it does hold true in your Brooklyn bridge example. The concept of the bridge was originally developed by John A. Roebling, not his son. His son simply continued the construction of his father’s project. In engineering, it is expected to have to revise original plans especially in the face of incorrect calculations due to unexpected variables. The revisions made by John Roebling’s son did not take away from the novelty of his designs, they simply made the bridge safer. If John Roebling had worked with a group of engineers, this would have hindered his creative process and rather than developing a novel idea (the Brooklyn bridge). They, as a collective, would have simply designed a standard bridge because collective thinking leads to monotony. Rand does not believe that individuals produce creative works in opposition to society, rather, she believes that individuals must oppose society in order to think as individuals and in the end this produces creative works that contribute to the progress of society; which is exactly what Roebling did with the Brooklyn bridge.

  3. Rebecca Smith says:

    Your take on Rand’s fundamental idea in relation to the Brooklyn Bridge poses a strong argument. I agree with your point that many of the world’s greatest discoveries and innovations have been the brainchild of more than a single person. For example, where would traditional medicine be if we forced each doctor to start at the beginning of time? By learning about what has already been done, we are capable, as a society, of building off of one another to make complex, revolutionary discoveries. However, I find that Rand’s argument is less about not being able to build off of another man’s ideas, and more about letting the individual work on their own. A committee of architects and engineers would never have been able to create the same bridge that the Roeblings did due to the implied limitations that a group may have, according to Rand. But, in the same sense, I agree Washington may not have been able to complete the bridge in the way he did if it were not for his father’s original plans. Second, you state that when the Roebling family created the bridge “they believe[d] their work was for others, and meant to be completed for others, rather than for themselves”, which is directly contrary to Rand’s stand that “No creator was prompted by a desire to serve his brother” (Reader: The Fountainhead, 407). However, I find it to be shortsighted to think that the Roeblings were not paid handsomely for their work. Due to that, regardless of what John and Washington Roebling said about their working being for the benefit of other and not for themselves, I would be hard pressed to believe that the family would have even considered completing the project if not for the hefty compensation, making Rand’s claim not so far-fetched after all.

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