'His body leaned back against the sky. It was a body of long straight lines and angles…. He stood, rigid, his hands hanging at his sides, palms out.' Sitting on an aeroplane reading Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, I realise why it is that it has taken me so long to read this damn book: it's badly written and tortuously long. Written in the style of a blockbuster novel with the political leanings of a Mussolini enthusiast, The Fountainhead is Jeffrey Archer trash for architects.
This is the story of one man's fight for purity in a world dominated by hypocrisy. Purity is represented in the form of modernism and hypocrisy in the form of neoclassicsm. My sympathy for Howard Roark, the right-angled protagonist, palled half way through the book; his obsessively puritanical approach to life and architecture got so tedious that I found myself willing him to fail (this seemed to suit him fine too - it did wonders for his sex life). When my patience with Roark, his ridiculous enemy Ellsworth Toohey and his ice-maiden lover Dominique Francon ran thin, I gave the book to my daughter who showed much literary appreciation by eating the cover and gobbing over the most offending sex scenes (The touch of his skin against hers was not a caress, but a wave of pain, it became pain by being wanted too much, by releasing in fulfilment all the past hours of desire and denial...). While the baby was busy at work I sat back in my knee crunching super-economy seat and gathered together in my mind's eye different images of architects, whose characteristics imitate the buildings they produce. There's the rotund Will Alsop with his biomorphic shapes, the sculptural forms mimicking Issay Mayake's clothes worn by Zaha Hadid, and Jacques Herzog whose face, like his buildings, don't leave much room for negotiation.
It was a quick flight, so my daydreams were cut short by the dulcet tones of a supremely competent Swedish pilot. This was just the thin edge of what became for me a very fat wedge of humble pie. Thus began a fairly comprehensive humiliation of the British organisation of society and economy - though, predictably, this was conducted in the most diplomatic and modest way imaginable. Just how efficient can a transport system be and how perfectly do the Swedes speak English? My short experience confirmed the idealised image we have of Nordic public services. Trains in Sweden are clean, reliable and uncrowded, and the Swedish welfare system is still the envy of the world. The clincher, however, was their very tasteful Christmas decorations. Not knowing anything about how the Swedes celebrate Christmas (in my all too parochial Britishness, I thought they were too Lutheran to get festive), I found myself oohing and ahing on our night-time drives: almost every house window was lit with a very simple triangular array of white electric candles. The decorations lining the streets were similarly elegant, with Christmas trees draped in simple, glistening white lights. Why do we Brits insist on littering the streets with revolting jumping Santa Clauses and gloopy bows, all in garish shades of pink, green, red and yellow?
Is purity here represented by welfarism and hypocrisy by unfettered neoliberal ideology? As he began to ponder this question, Roark sensed anguish and a desperate urge to flee. Instinctively, he rose abruptly and perpendicularly from his Ikea sofa and turned up the volume on his Bang & Olufsen. Almost immediately a zigzagged forehead left calm straight lines in its wake -- a moment in which he almost forgot his train of thought. 'Ah yes. It was such a good Christmas, wasn't it'… concluded Roark.