Archive | January 29, 2014

Autobiography of a Randian Idea

Ayn Rand and Louis SullivanThat Ayn Rand was a fan of Louis Sullivan is no secret; the character of Henry Cameron in The Fountainhead is obviously based on him, and she speaks favourably of his Autobiography of an Idea in her introduction to We the Living.

What’s less seldom recognised is just how closely Rand was indebted to Sullivan’s autobiography – as well as to Claude Bragdon’s introduction to that work. In what follows, then, I’ve paired Rand’s descriptions of Cameron’s ideas and career in The Fountainhead with the corresponding passages from Sullivan and Bragdon:


He held the conviction that no architectural dictum, or tradition, or superstition, or habit, should stand in the way of realizing an honest architecture, based on well-defined needs and useful purposes: the function determining the form, the form expressing the function. …


He said only that the form of a building must follow its function; that the structure of a building is the key to its beauty; that new methods of construction demand new forms ….

Louis Sullivan has the distinction of having been, perhaps, the first squarely to face the expressional problem of the steel-framed skyscraper and to deal with it honestly and logically. … To him the tallness of the skyscraper was not an embarrassment, but an inspiration – the force of altitude must be in it; it must be a proud and soaring thing, without a dissenting line from bottom to top. Accordingly, flushed with a fine creative frenzy, he flung upward his tiers and disposed his windows as necessity, not tradition, demanded, making the masonry appear what it had in fact become – a shell, a casing merely, the steel skeleton being sensed, so to speak, like bones beneath their layer of flesh. Then, over it all, he wove a web of beautiful ornament – flowers and frost, delicate as lace and strong as steel. …

The explosion came with the birth of the skyscraper. …. Henry Cameron was among the first to understand this new miracle and to give it form. He was among the first and the few who accepted the truth that a tall building must look tall. While architects cursed, wondering how to make a twenty-story building look like an old brick mansion, while they used every horizontal device available in order to cheat it of its height, shrink it down to tradition, hide the shame of its steel, make it small, safe and ancient – Henry Cameron designed skyscrapers in straight, vertical lines, flaunting their steel and height. …


It was deemed fitting by all the people that the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America by one Christopher Columbus, should be celebrated by a great World Exposition …. Chicago was ripe and ready for such an undertaking. … It was to be called The White City by the Lake. … The landscape work, in its genial distribution of lagoons, wooded islands, lawns, shrubbery and plantings, did much to soften an otherwise mechanical display ….


The Columbian Exposition of Chicago opened in the year 1893.

The Rome of two thousand years ago rose on the shores of Lake Michigan, a Rome improved by pieces of France, Spain, Athens and every style that followed it. It was a “Dream City” of columns, triumphal arches, blue lagoons, crystal fountains and popcorn. Its architects competed on who could steal best, from the oldest source and from the most sources at once. It spread before the eyes of a new country every structural crime ever committed in all the old ones. …

The work completed, the gates thrown open 1 May, 1893, the crowds flowed in from every quarter …. These crowds were astonished. … They went away, spreading again over the land, returning to their homes, each one of them carrying in the soul the shadow of the white cloud, each of them permeated by the most subtle and slow-acting of poisons …. Thus they departed joyously, carriers of contagion …. There came a violent outbreak of the Classic and the Renaissance in the East, which slowly spread westward, contaminating all that it touched, both at its source and outward …. through a process of vaccination with the lymph of every known European style, period and accident …. We have Tudor for colleges and residences; Roman for banks, and railway stations and libraries, or Greek if you like – some customers prefer the Ionic to the Doric. … It was white as a plague, and it spread as such.

People came, looked, were astounded, and carried away with them, to the cities of America, the seeds of what they had seen. The seeds sprouted into weeds; into shingled post offices with Doric porticos, brick mansions with iron pediments, lofts made of twelve Parthenons piled on top of one another. The weeds grew and choked everything else. …

Nor is Sullivan’s influence confined to The Fountainhead. His remark later in the autobiography that the natural man “reverses the dictum ‘I think: Therefore I am.’ It becomes in him, I am: Therefore I inquire and do! It is this affirmative ‘I AM’ that is man’s reality” anticipates both Prometheus’s discovery in Anthem – “I am. I think. I will. … What must I say besides?” and John Galt’s advice in Atlas Shrugged, “reversing a costly historical error, to declare: I am, therefore I’ll think.”

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