Heroes, villains, or just a bit useless?

Fictional architects aren't all Roark or Silenus – there are plenty more characters out there. What do they say about authors' take on the profession?

Film poster for The Fountainhead.
Film poster for The Fountainhead.

Let’s quickly acknowledge and skip past Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel ‘The Fountainhead’, since that’s the one everyone always refers to. Howard Roark is the uncompromising modernist hero-architect, a man of titanic vision, as supposedly part-based on Frank Lloyd Wright and improbably played in the 1949 film by Gary Cooper. Some of us have even struggled right to the end of that turgid book, which is essentially a libertarian tract in praise of the self-centred individual, and to hell with the notion of society. Despite this, some architects see Roark as an ideal. No, sorry, if everyone went dynamiting their own buildings because others have mucked about with their designs, nothing would be left standing. And besides, there’s a health and safety issue.

Otto Silenus
Otto Silenus · Credit: drawn by Waugh.

In satirical vein (and almost equally often cited) we have Professor Otto Silenus, the modish, functionalist and of course humourless Gropius/Corbusier derivative in Evelyn Waugh’s 1928 ‘Decline and Fall’ who laments the fact that humans keep moving around, so necessitating such ugly contrivances as staircases (‘The only perfect building must be the factory, because that is built to house machines, not men.’) For all his colossal, whirring intellect Silenus does not enjoy the success of his mentors, however. True, he designs Lady Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s new ‘clean and square’ country house in ferro-concrete and aluminium (she demolishes her Tudor pile to make way for it). This is his first big break, since he had built nothing previously but an Expressionist film set (no human characters) and had only one design, for a bubble-gum factory, published in a fashionable Hungarian quarterly.

Silenus is more than just an incidental comic character, though: with his name borrowed from Dionysian classical mythology he’s perversely the very face of the rational versus the emotional, a commentator on the human division between active doers and passive observers, and one that Waugh also took the trouble to draw as an illustration as well as in words – nicely turned out in a double-breasted suit, clutching his rolls of drawings and setsquare. Important though he is as one of the earliest modernist architects to make it into fiction, we can do better than him. What other novels have architects as the main protagonist? 

It’s an interesting if motley collection. There is of course Peter Ackroyd’s psychogeographical 1985 novel ‘Hawksmoor’ . There the architect practises Satanic rites including human sacrifice. Ackroyd names his 18th century church-building architect Nicholas Dyer (assistant to Wren as the real Hawksmoor was). He gives the name Hawksmoor instead to a modern detective investigating mysterious murders taking place in the same churches. So very postmodern.

I’d say Ackroyd was influenced just a bit by William Golding’s 1964 novel ‘The Spire’, all about the remarkably dangerous construction of said spire on a medieval cathedral clearly based on Salisbury, where Golding worked as a teacher. Human sacrifice takes place there too, as the great church starts to groan and crack under the added weight and the pagan builders try to appease the affronted gods of structural integrity. No architects in those times, although one of the key characters in the novel is the rationalist master mason known usefully as Roger Mason. Instead, the main character is the spiritually tortured, sexually agonised client, Dean Jocelin. So once again we have a reason-versus-emotion setup. Spoiler alert: it all goes a bit wrong though – Golding being Golding – the final collapse is implied rather than stated and anyway, the spire of Salisbury’s still there, isn’t it?

From Penelope Lively’s 1991 ‘City of the Mind’ (divorced, emotionally raw London docklands architect broods on past and present) to Philip Kerr’s 1995 sci-fi ‘Gridiron’ (intelligent building turns on its human inhabitants, fertile territory differently explored in RIBA Journal columnist Will Wiles’ recent novel ‘The Way Inn) , the always-male architect protagonists are presented as intelligent, usually sympathetic if sometimes a bit useless and even repentant. Only Ackroyd’s goes to the dark side. 

To switch briefly from the novel to drama, playwright Brian Clark’s 1979 play ‘Can you hear me at the back?’, not very good though intermittently revived, is about a world-weary new town chief architect/planner who realises he got it all wrong with high-rise homes, and has edifice difficulties in his own marriage too. Self-knowledge comes too late, in both cases.

But to find the best novelistic fun with architects-as-hero, one must go back to Victorian and Edwardian times. Here are the two novels you MUST read, even though one of them – ‘A Laodicean’ of 1881, by Thomas Hardy – is a slight thing by his standards. The other is ‘The Roll Call’ by Arnold Bennett (1918, though its action starts at the turn of the century). Again, it’s not as good as other novels by Bennett, most notably his earlier Clayhanger trilogy. That series is itself permeated with architecture and an important supporting-role provincial architectural family, the Orgreaves. The Roll Call is a sequel with some of the same characters. The reason you must read these two novels is – if you are an architect or involved in architecture – simple recognition. They are good on the detail of practice, and demonstrate the possibly comforting fact that most of the difficulties facing architects today were being faced by architects back then.

The heroes in both novels are called George – George Somerset, representing modernity, in Hardy’s, and George Cannon, a still more progressive competition-winning prodigy, in Bennett’s. Both are young men starting out in their careers as architects. Competitions are involved in both, plus the business of London versus the provinces, and even RIBA assessors. Then as now, the business of architectural competitions is fraught with difficulty, dodgy outcomes, even – in Hardy’s case – outright plagiarism. And both novels recount the fraught business of earning enough fees to live on.

Hardy’s is a romance, as its alternative title, ‘The Castle of the de Stancys’ makes clear. (A Laodicean is someone indifferent or half-hearted). He wrote it while laid up ill in bed for five months, with a magazine-serialisation contract to honour. ‘The narrative had to be strenuously continued by dictation to a predetermined cheerful ending,’ Hardy later recalled, suggesting that it was perhaps more of a book for the young, optimistic, reader than his novels usually were. Unable to get out to do his usual research, he fell back on his own experience as a young architect, added a goodly dollop of fantasy (beautiful, rich client with part-ruined castle needing restoration) and a destructive, indeed cathartic climax worthy of Howard Roark. There are the recurrent Hardy themes of real, old aristocracy versus new money, and technical progress versus tradition. After all the usual misunderstandings, everything is neatly tied up at the end with Somerset coming off the fence regarding his aesthetics, determined to build a new house for the new age.

Bennett’s ‘The Roll Call’ is both a more subtle and more slapdash affair – the underrated Bennett certainly churned out his novels by the yard, never averse to leaving plot lines and characters unresolved. What starts out as another in the Clayhanger sequence of professional and personal life turns abruptly – but not absolutely – into a proto-war novel. George Cannon, blessed with wealth from his Potteries industrial family and doing his articles with the prosperous London firm of Lucas & Enwright, is determined – following a visionary sighting of the great, dying architect WF Bentley in his near-complete Westminster Cathedral – to be great at his vocation on his own account. 

Giles Gilbert Scott's Liverpool Cathedral. Bennett's George Cannon also wins a big competition aged 23.
Giles Gilbert Scott's Liverpool Cathedral. Bennett's George Cannon also wins a big competition aged 23. · Credit: Photo by Hugh Pearman

He succeeds. Like his real-life contemporary Giles Gilbert Scott, Cannon wins the most important competition of the time, in his case for a lavish unspecified northern city hall complex, aged only 23. The novel then leaps forward to reveal that he did indeed build his winning design, though it took over a decade of stop-start, and is at last landing follow-on commissions when the First World War breaks out. Cannon joins up, appropriately taking a commission in the Artillery, and the novel ends with him soaked to the skin in a bivouac on the South Downs, en route to the Western Front. His old firm takes over his outstanding projects – something that the RIBA Journal archives of the time confirm was commonplace when young architects volunteered in this way. This being near the start of the war, we don’t fancy his chances much. At the time the novel was published, the slaughter of the Great War was as well known to his readers as it is to us: then as now, we know the likely if unspoken outcome.

Bennett is not much read these days, but for all his compositional haste, he repays the effort: you can get all four of the Clayhanger novel sequence, including The Roll Call, in one volume. Hardy’s A Laodicean is also nowhere near the top of his oeuvre in popularity, but is there to be found and enjoyed. I can recommend all the books I’ve mentioned here with the exception of The Fountainhead, but the chances are that you’ve had a go at that already. If not, please don’t feel you have to bother. And to today’s novelists looking for source material: ever heard of Zaha?