The House That Rand Built

by Peter Saint-Andre (2007)


Machines for Living

Howard Roark exemplifies the core tenets of modernist architecture. His houses are integrated machines for living, in which the entire structure is "made by one central idea, and the idea sets every detail" (Rand 1943, 24). Roark's architectural ideas sprang organically, as it were, from the American soil; for Rand borrowed them from Frank Lloyd Wright. Integration with the site, an open floor plan, new materials requiring new forms, no unwholesome basement, services (heating, plumbing, electrical, etc.) integrated into the plan, built-in furniture (and thus special-purpose rooms), the design of the home needing no further ornament or decoration inside or out, floor plans that break the old box of a rectangular house -- these ideas and more derive directly from Wright.

Yet the influence of modernist architecture on Rand was not limited to the buildings of Howard Roark. Her novels, too, represent a sustained effort to produce works that are made by one central idea and in which the idea sets every detail. And not only her novels, but her explicit philosophy of Objectivism as well. Time and again, she emphasized the integrated nature of her ideas, their systematic character, and the importance of viewing her philosophy as an organic whole. Indeed, Objectivism is something like a finely-designed modernistic house.

There's only one problem: modernistic houses didn't work very well. Inevitably, flat roofs leaked (Wright once said that if the roof doesn't leak, the architect hasn't been creative enough). Built-in furniture limited the uses to which rooms could be put, and a total design that included movable furniture militated against bringing your own furniture inside (when visiting the homes of his clients, Wright was known to move "his" furniture back where it belonged). Angles that were anything but ninety degrees made it difficult to add or expand rooms as desired in order to meet new needs (several of Wright's clients simply ordered a new house when they outgrew the old one). The use of new, untried materials complicated maintenance and improvement. As a result, many houses by Frank Lloyd Wright are no longer family homes but museums lovingly (and expensively) cared for by non-profit trusts and foundations. In short, these machines for living often turned out to be not so livable.

Could the same be said for Rand's "philosophy for living on earth"? What are the equivalents of leaky roofs, immovable furniture, single-purpose rooms, totalistic design, unaffordable maintenance, and inability to expand -- in a worldview?

Post-Occupancy Evaluation

One way that architects determine the livability of a house or office building is through post-occupancy evaluation (Brand 1994, 65-66). Once the new owners have moved in, representatives from the architect, builder, or developer ask a series of questions. Does the roof leak? Is there enough parking? Is the kitchen big enough? Are there enough electrical outlets? Is there room for expansion or reconfiguration to meet changing needs? What do those who live and work in the building like and not like about it? Which design features work well, and which don't? What could have been done better? Are the occupants happy or unhappy with the structure?

Such evaluations are rare enough in the building trade, since architectural artistes would rather move on to new challenges than learn from their past mistakes; but they are unknown when it comes to worldviews. What would a philosophical post-occupancy evaluation look like?

Presumably a philosophy for living on earth is intended to help you succeed in the tasks of living. Borrowing from formulations in Rand's works, we could categorize those tasks as thinking, choosing, acting, and feeling: understanding the world and yourself, appropriately directing your finite attention and energy, effectively and competently pursuing goals, and enjoying the fruits of your activities (Saint-Andre 1993). Most straightforwardly, this might involve keeping yourself and your companions safe, fed, warm, and sheltered; finding and keeping a mate; raising children; and maintaining equanimity in the face of life's stresses. In modern society we might add to these basics some more sophisticated goals: having a satisfying and productive career, pursuing individual fulfillment, understanding yourself, gaining scientific knowledge or humanistic understanding, travelling to interesting places, having unique experiences, creating works of art, improving the environment, changing the world for the better, and the like.

The task of formulating a philosophical post-occupancy evaluation is complicated by the fact that those who attempt to live in accordance with a philosophy or religion tend to become deeply attached to it (not dissimilar from those who fall in love with the buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright). If you identify with a worldview so strongly that you consider yourself fundamentally to be not an individual but an Objectivist or Epicurean or Buddhist or Catholic (or whatever), then your appraisal of how successful that worldview is at producing joy and reason and meaning tends to be biased in favor of your current worldview (if I'm happy, it's because I adhere to this worldview; if I'm not, it's because I'm not living up to it or the rest of the world does not accept it yet). And if you discard that worldview (usually in favor of a new one), your appraisal tends to be biased against your old worldview. Thus objectivity with regard to philosophies of life can be hard to achieve.

Objectivity Through History

Yet such objectivity can perhaps be achieved over the long haul through a process that historian Carroll Quigley called the gradual and communal attainment of truth, as exemplified by the cumulative advancement of theoretical knowledge and practical techniques. In the realm of worldviews, such advancement often takes the form of adjustment in the substance of philosophical or religious doctrines, as well as change in relative emphasis among the tenets held within a school of ideas or community of belief. The result is a kind of ideological renovation in which worn-out furniture is replaced, colors now out of fashion are painted over, outdated utilities are ripped out to make way for new technology, old rooms are put to new uses (perhaps tearing down a wall or two in the process), and even existing wings are abandoned and new ones built -- all driven by the changing needs of the occupants in response to familial, climatic, economic, technological, and societal circumstances. To paraphrase a fascinating book that looks at how buildings change through time (Brand 1994), we could say that this process is all about how philosophies learn.

As an example of particular interest to Objectivists, consider the long tradition of Aristotelianism. Echoing the lament of Karl Marx, we could say that Aristotle was not a consistent, systematic Aristotelian. True, Aristotle essentially initiated the sciences of logic and biology; he made contributions to ethics, literary criticism, rhetoric, and political science that are still relevant and debated today; and his speculations in physics, psychology, cosmology, and religion were no less influential at certain times. But as far as I can see, he did not really attempt to present a finished system that would universally and coherently explain all human, natural, and supernatural phenomena. It was left for later interpreters to refashion Aristotle's protean output into such a system.

It is not my task here even to adumbrate the history of Aristotelianism. The fact that Aristotle's insights have been used, re-used, and abused by adherents as diverse as the hellenistic Greeks, republican and imperial Romans, triumphant Islamists, medieval Christians, high church Thomists, Spanish Inquisitors, German idealists, modern neo-Thomists, analytical philosophers, humanistic psychologists, and recent virtue ethicists might dissuade one from thinking that Aristotelianism has one true and eternal essence.

Even novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand claimed the mantle of Aristotelianism. But she too wanted to make some extensive renovations to the magisterial palace that Aristotle had built. The wings devoted to physics and cosmology were to be torn down and carted away to the philosophical landfill (Aristotle "destroyed his metaphysics by his cosmology", Rand 1997, 699). The foundations undergirding the ethics wing were discovered to be fatally weakened and needed wholesale replacing (Aristotle "did not regard ethics as an exact science; he based his ethical system on observations of what the noble and wise men of his time chose to do, leaving unanswered the questions of: why they chose to do it and why he evaluated them as noble and wise", Rand 1964, 14). The politics wing was in poor taste from the beginning and required significant redesign (out with the "polis envy" of communitarianism, in with laissez-faire capitalism). Even the basement and first floor of the main structure (metaphysics and epistemology) were fundamentally sound but in need of significant shoring and simplification ("Aristotle regarded 'essence' as metaphysical; Objectivism regards it as epistemological", Rand 1990, 52).

In what sense, then, can we say that Rand was an Aristotelian? In the end there are significant similarilities (beyond the scope of this essay), which legitimate the claim. But we can see those similarities only because Aristotle's original edifice was flexible enough to accommodate change and adjustment over the centuries. In short, Aristotelianism is a philosophy that has learned well.

Teaching Objectivism to Learn

The constrast with Rand's Objectivism is instructive. Rand built a gem of a house, even if it is a bit of an oddball contraption, with a relatively small market of potential buyers. But it was explicitly designed as an organic whole. If you don't love the floor plan (all the wings are of a piece and closely integrated in style), the special-purpose rooms and built-in furniture (one office per person, but no nursery), the color scheme (lots of electric blues and angry reds), the lighting (sharp and focused, like standing naked in full sunlight), the size and location of the kitchen (small and in the back, since domestic pursuits are not central to the meaning of life), the paintings on the wall (Vermeer and Dali but no Rembrandt or Goya), the books on the shelves (Hugo and Rostand but no Shakespeare or Whitman), or the background music (Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff but no Bach or Beethoven, let alone jazz, blues, folk, or rock'n'roll) -- well, you don't belong in this house, do you?

Yet I continue to think that the Randian house has promise as a home for human flourishing. The question is: how can it be made to live up to its potential? Based on the six major factors involved in a building (Brand 1994, 13), here is some advice for those who build Objectivist houses (Rand called them "the intellectuals")...

  1. Site. I know you'd love to build a combination of castle, palace, cathedral, factory, and bank vault. Unfortunately, the size of your building sites are inherently limited by factors outside your control. Given that you live in a crowded neighborhood, you may need to temper your enthusiasm for unfettered liberty of individual action and put a bit more emphasis on personal responsibility, voluntary cooperation, and a balance of interests. (Example: yes, you have a right to keep and bear arms, but your neighbor has a right to the peaceful use and enjoyment of his property, so your interest in practicing gunnery may need to be balanced against his interest in a good night's sleep.)

  2. Structure. No one can fault the foundations of your buildings or the logic of their load-bearing elements. But most people respond to a number of factors in addition to logic, such as cost, reputation, and ease of use. Such concerns are not signs of gutless pragmatism, cringing collectivism, or unreasoning subjectivism. The good thing is that no one wants to build on a weak foundation if they can avoid it. It is better to strengthen the structure of your ideas with new materials (the evidence of the sciences) and simultaneously to align them with time-tested traditions (the facts of history) than to waste your energy railing against the evil of your rival builders.

  3. Skin. Your buildings come off looking weird. It's one thing to have a distinctively individual style. It's another thing to be flagrantly supercilious and deliberately obnoxious. Tone down the vitriol, pitch the high-flown rhetoric, and do away with the alarmism. Relax. If your approch has truth on its side, you have every reason to maintain a calm demeanor and a serene attitude. You might even want to dig up the concrete and plant a garden (dare we suggest that there might be value in building green?).

  4. Services. In a building, services are all those boring utilities like heating, air conditioning, ventilation, plumbing, electricity, and communications. The analogous "services" in a philosophy for living on earth might include similarly utilitarian functions like managing time, maintaining motivation, exercising regularly, and eating right. Here Randian intellectuals do not have a superlative track record. Howard Roark, for example, is described as being in consummate health, but most of the time we see him working too hard, smoking cigarettes, exercising not at all, and frittering away his time while waiting for commissions to roll in. Objectivism can do better by helping its adherents to value these utilitarian pursuits more highly.

  5. Space. The interior layout of rooms is where the real living happens. Roark said his buildings worked so well precisely because he didn't think about the occupants, only about their architectural needs. It's tempting to think that you know what all the legitimate human needs are (productive work, romantic love, personal self-esteem, etc.) and to give short shrift to mere wants, desires, and animal instincts (family, hobbies, play, and the like). But your philosophy will gain more power from flexibly responding to the perceived needs and natural lifecycle of its adherents. The philosophical equivalents of single-purpose rooms with built-in desks or beds limit the uses to which your ideas can be put, whereas a bit of generalization can enable a wider range of uses (e.g, convert the spare office into a nursery) and, ultimately, happier customers.

  6. Stuff. Stop fussing over whether the occupants move the furniture, modify the lighting, swap out the paintings, put unapproved books on the shelves, or listen to music you don't like. These elements of the living experience are appropriately called "mobilia" in Italian because they are forever on the move and subject to societal fashion or personal taste. Let the occupants have their own stuff and leave it at that.

When faced with change, it is better to bend before you break. The best buildings learn. So do the best philosophies. Although Objectivists have made progress in updating the house that Rand built, more work is needed to bring it up to date with modern living.

References

Brand, S. 1994. How Buildings Learn. New York: Viking.

Rand, A. 1943. The Fountainhead. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.
--. 1964. The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: New American Library.
--. 1990. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Expanded second edition. New York: Meridian.
--. 1997. Journals of Ayn Rand. Edited by David Harriman. New York: Dutton.

Saint-Andre, P. 1993. A Philosophy for Living on Earth. Objectivity 1:6.


Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Randian Reflections