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In architectural folklore, the master builder, faultless in all things, fit with a snappy wit, towering intellect, and the ability to spawn new worlds, has long been the archetypal hero of choice. The task of this hero has been to bestow upon the earth great gifts of architecture that would propel civilization into a new era, to be the great author of humanity’s revolutionized metropolis. This archetype has become so embedded into the mythopoetic identity of architectural practice and academia that it has become the (often unconscious) standard to strive for, a historical ideal that culminated in 20th-century Modernism with the rise of figures like Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.

Howard Roark, the hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, captures the prototypical qualities of the megalomaniacal Modernist in a way unique to his status as a fictional personality. He has a mythical nature that positions him beyond flesh and bone. He is an abstraction made human—more of a concept than an actual person. Roark is the embodiment of almost every Modernist architectural cliche: building for artistic self-expression, indifference toward “common” people, the belief that the greatest ethic is the self-determined one—which, for him, is always expressed architecturally—and, finally, the conviction that the architect is a transcendent arbiter of reality, and everyone must bend to his will.

The funny thing is that Roark’s worst qualities are also his best. He does design prodigious buildings, he is ahead of his time, and his powers of design are undeniably superior to those around him. He is a damn good architect. But Rand makes Roark into a god-man. In the novel, when he finds that his design for a housing project has been altered during construction, Roark decides that the only way to maintain his creative integrity is to blow the building to smithereens. No one, Roark posits, shall transgress the aesthetic boundaries he has placed on his creation. It does not matter that he is only one voice in a larger enterprise or that the project would have provided shelter for those in need of it.

A Historical Rootedness

This Roarkian paradigm—that ideal that to be a successful architect is to be inherently stoic, mysterious, misunderstood, and all the other attributes of that archetypal folk hero—existed well before Roark. Roark is merely a manifestation of a metaphysical construct we have inherited through the ages around humanity’s relationship with and use of architecture. As I see it, the paradigm is responsible for the romanticized egoism that permeates much of the architectural profession.

Social ethics are playing a more significant role in the profession than what we’ve traditionally seen in Modernist purism and formalism. And Roark is inherently someone who transcends any larger sense of ethics. He creates his own. In some ways, we can call that noble, but there’s no denying the identarian effects figures like him, fictional and otherwise, have had on architects’ sense of self. It was famed historian and writer David McCullough who said, “History is who we are and why we are the way we are.” With that in mind, it is worth considering how a historical study into the relationship between architecture and an individual “god-man” might help us understand where some of these ideas about architectural identity came from.

The Tower of Babel and the Lust to be Seen as Great

In the Book of Genesis, we are told that the descendants of Noah settled in the land of Shinar, where they decided to build a new city and a tower “that reaches to the heavens.” The people, the text tells us, set out to build the tower to make a name for themselves and centralize their community so they would not be “scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

Upon observing the people’s progress in constructing the tower and determining that they must be stopped, God scrambles their language “so that they [did] not understand each other.” And, as the text reads, “the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.”

A depiction of the Tower of Babel
Georgios Kollidas/Adobe Stock A depiction of the Tower of Babel

I’m most interested in the people’s declaration of why they want to build the city and the tower. “Let us make a name for ourselves,” they say. They want to broadcast their greatness and power, which, in this context, is a display of arrogance, self-sufficiency, and even spite toward God. The first-century Jewish Roman historian and military leader Titus Flavius Josephus writes about the story in his Antiquities of the Jews, suggesting that it was Nimrod, the great-grandson of Noah, who convinced the people to build the tower. Nimrod, Josephus says, “excited [the people] to such an affront and contempt of God.” He wanted to turn the people away from God and moved to do so by gradually setting himself up as a tyrant, conditioning the masses to be solely and constantly dependent on his power.

In this light, the Genesis narrative might not just be about hubris but rather a warning of the potential outcomes of it, what Josephus suggests are the beginnings of what could later become a centralized tyranny. That means God’s act of scattering the people was not only an act of rebuke but also one of salvation.

And though Josephus’s text doesn’t plainly say this, it implies that Nimrod facilitates and administers his power through the very metropolis he coerces his people to build. He uses architecture as a means by which to solidify his power, to establish himself as a god among mortals.

Julius Caesar and the Power of Architecture

As early as 54 B.C., Julius Caesar had begun planning several building projects across Rome. One of his first projects was the Basilica Julia, which would eventually sit on the southwest side of the Roman Forum near the Temple of Saturn. It was more than 300 feet long, paved with marble, and adorned with artwork. “As was Caesar’s intention,” writes Phillip Freeman in Julius Caesar, his 2008 biography on the Roman statesman, “it came to dominate the Forum as a center of activity and constant reminder of his benevolence (emphasis mine).” Caesar also planned a new forum bearing his name near the Capitoline Hill, further embedding himself in the stone of Roman life and society.

Caesar loved Rome and wanted it and its people to prosper, but he wanted absolute power in realizing his vision. He eventually attained the power he wanted, solidifying—like Nimrod—much of his dominion over the populace through the commissioning of great works of architecture throughout the city.

Soon, Caesar, to the repulsion of several Roman senators, began to entertain the suggestion that he was a kind of demi-god, something not uncommon for monarchs in the ancient world but thought blasphemous by the Romans. After his rise to power, several honors were bestowed upon the dictator, including the inscription Deo Victo (“to the unconquered god”) in the temple of Quirinus.

As Freeman writes: “Caesar surely knew that hubris, the arrogance of the king who thinks himself equal to the gods, was a favorite subject of Greek drama. But as a supposed descendant of the goddess Venus through her son Aeneas, Caesar may have genuinely come to believe he deserved divine honors.”

In the end, Caesar had so much power and was seen as such a danger to the future of Rome that he was stabbed to death by his own Senate. His assassination sent Rome into a series of civil wars, ultimately resulting in the end of the Republic and marking the beginning of the Roman Empire.

There is no denying that Caesar did immeasurable good for Rome and its people, especially those in the middle and lower classes, who were heartbroken and angered by his demise. But he had been accountable to no one, and his contemporaries were simply lucky that he was not a Nero or a Caligula.

Caesar, Nimrod, and Architecture’s Utility

Caesar and Nimrod illustrate the way in which architecture can be used to display and justify one’s self-perceived divine nature. While they are only two examples among countless throughout world history, both show us how architecture, because of its scale, sense of permanence, and the resources it commands, is in a uniquely intimate relationship with power. As such, the notion of an architect with a god complex, convinced of their superiority as a direct result of their ability to create architecture, seems a plausible and perhaps even inevitable phenomenon.

The ambitious statesman, while not a designer, employs design as a means to restructure the world we all live in. The Roarkian types in architecture, while not monarchs (or statesmen), are complicit in that same restructuring—and with figures like Le Corbusier—can sometimes allow themselves to act as monarchs. That top-down mentality is the default position in much of architectural discourse, and since we all share this world, one mind simply cannot be the sole decider for how the rest of humanity will live.

How to Become a God

The charge is not that all modern and contemporary architects suffer from a god complex but that those who adopt this divine posture are not at odds with the Roarkian aspirational ideal that exists in our architectural folklore. Adopting a god complex is consistent with the archetypal master builder ideal.

Roarkian philosophy depends on an individual being able to set themselves up above others with the sincere and delusional belief that their siloed thinking and creative ability will somehow benefit all of humanity. And while that may very well be the case in some instances—Caesar, for example, was a genius who arguably and singlehandedly revolutionized Roman society—the dangers of such a belief, acted out, can be disastrous (as with Hitler, Mao, or Stalin).

Architects today have no choice but to work within a thicket of red tape, bureaucracies, and personalities to get anything built. When some believe it is their birthright to adopt this Roarkian persona, they may try to assert it among peers and colleagues. If the architect does not get the expected level of reverence directly from their professional equals, it seems the only alternative is to establish themselves as gods among those who are much easier to gain authority over—subordinate workers and students.

The Real-life Roarks

There is a popular story of when an angered client called Frank Lloyd Wright to complain about an incessant leaking skylight that was raining down on his desk. In response, Wright dryly suggested the client move the desk. Such stories are common in modern architecture. Richard Meier, FAIA, was awarded the 1984 Pritzker Prize for “his single-minded pursuit of the essence of modern architecture.” The Roarkian paradigm always celebrates single-mindedness. The architect is always presented as the sole genius who bestows creative gifts upon the world.

I like many of Meier’s buildings. His single-mindedness has produced, in my opinion, some significant architecture, even if it has become subservient to the profile of a personal brand. But, we also cannot ignore the many allegations of sexual misconduct against the man, as reported in The New York Times—egregious offenses that force us to wonder if Meier, too, saw himself as a god, free to bend reality to his will, no matter the cost to those around him.

Wright and Meier each committed transgressions on vastly different scales. I am not equating the accusations against Meier with Wright refusing to admit he made a mistake. I am pointing out the psychological and philosophical seeds that produce these behaviors, which can create toxic workplaces or unethical academic environments.

Getting Beyond Roark

The antidote to the Roarkian paradigm is not for us all to become parroting architectural collectivists. Variation and diversity (in every sense of the word) are what make this world beautiful. History has shown us that we can’t simply pummel through life, demanding everyone abide by the reality we deem appropriate. Roark’s positive attributes seem clear to me: The architect should strive to practice their craft with the utmost excellence and pursue individual growth and development in that endeavor. But the architect is also a member of a society, neither superior nor inferior to the rest of us, but embedded and interdependent.

Xylem in Fishtail, Mont.
Image courtesy of Tippet Rise/Iwan Baan, Photo by Iwan Baan The Xylem in Fishtail, Mont., by Kéré Architecture

To transcend the age-old doctrines that got us here, it seems to me that the architect must acknowledge the most obvious of existential truths—our shared humanity. We might look to Burkinabé-German architect and 2022 Pritzker Prize laureate Francis Kéré, Hon. FAIA, as the anti-Roark, and a potential model for this more humanitarian approach.

Kéré’s first project was the Gando Primary School, completed in 2001 in Gando, Burkino Faso. Before Kéré's project, the village of Gando had no school, which limited the ability of the villagers to capitalize on the benefits of having a physical school building. But when Kéré returned to his village from Europe, he didn't just import the "best" materials, tell the villagers how things were going to be, and have them sit by and watch him erect the new building. He used local labor and materials, and had the villagers contribute to the construction by molding clay and using other resources from the surrounding area to construct the school.

Integrating the Architectural Self

The 2022 Pritzker jury noted how Kéré “has developed a sensitive, bottom-up approach in its embrace of community participation. At the same time, he has no problem incorporating the best possible type of top-down process in his devotion to advanced architectural solutions.” The lesson from Kéré is that the architect, in essence, cannot avoid some degree of “top-downess.” A vision must be cast. It should not be undermined that the architect does maintain a level of knowledge and expertise that the non-architect does not possess and needs in order to cultivate a developing world through architecture. Like Roark, Kéré devises “advanced architectural solutions,” and from the excellence displayed in his work, evidently holds himself and his team to a high standard.

Kéré has integrated this “best possible top-down process” with a bottom-up approach that acknowledges and embraces his shared kinship with the people he is designing for. He gives us a picture of how the architect can be ingenious and genuine, contrarian and collaborative, masterful and meek. The architect, it seems to me, must be a formidable professional, but also, an even more exceptional human.

Visual artist and Macarthur fellow Teresita Fernandez summarized this idea perfectly in her 2013 commencement speech to the graduating class of her alma mater, Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts. Closing the speech, she reminded the graduates that it is their character, in the end, the matters above everything else:

“Being an artist is not just about what happens when you are in the studio. The way you live, the people you choose to love and the way you love them, the way you vote, the words that come out of your mouth, the size of the world you make for yourselves, your ability to influence the things you believe in, your obsessions, your failures — all of these components will also become the raw material for the art you make.”

In the same way, being an architect is not just about what happens in the studio, and that, ultimately, is about who the architect is as a person. How they behave and position themselves toward society, can, in fact, become the raw material for the architecture they make, for both themselves and the people they are in service of.

This post has been updated.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.