A Blueprint for Martyrdom
The following post was originally published in the January 2019 issue of Collected Magazine.
Howard Roark tasted a cruel reality for the first time when he was expelled from architecture school. The dean had brought Howard into his office and explained the reasons for Howard’s expulsion. He asked Howard why he had done the things he'd done. He even offered to let Howard back into the school if he could acknowledge his mistakes and try not to make them anymore.
Roark didn’t have disciplinary issues. He didn’t abuse drugs and alcohol or go wild at frat parties. Rather, Howard Roark’s issue is that he’s a different type of architect, and he makes that clear in his drawings. He doesn't make buildings that look like they’re from a certain era. He doesn’t add a column just for show—in fact, he never adds Greek or Roman columns to anything. If we’re not in Greek or Roman times, there is no reason to.
But here in architecture school, Howard is taught, over and over, about the history of architecture and how to properly repeat the patterns of the past. After all, when you're in the profession and someone asks you to create a timeless bank building, what else are you supposed to draw?
Some of Roark's teachers respect him despite his “stylistic” choices, recognizing that he is talented and could accomplish great things as an architect. He will, but not in the way they want him to. And not without plenty of suffering.
Luckily, Roark left school with a sufficient amount of drawings and projects to find a job as a draftsman. For a short period of time, he worked with one architect who he had admired, but soon they had to close down shop, which forced him to work for architects who he didn't admire at all. But it paid the bills, and soon enough, Roark got a commission that allowed him to open his own office.
There was no sales process to get this contract. He was working as a draftsman when a client walked in to look at one of his drawings, but noted that it wasn't quite what he wanted. Roark knew that: the drawing was only a cousin of Roark's original sketch. The firm he worked for took his drawings and dumbed them down by adding unnecessary decoration to give them whatever feel the client seemed to want.
As the client and the lead architect talked about the drawing, Roark snatched it and started recreating his original drawing on top of the one the client saw. They both knew this was exactly how it was supposed to look all along. Roark was fired immediately and hired by the client to do the commission on his own.
But it didn’t last long. After a few commissions dried up, Howard had to leave his new office space. He decided that if he couldn’t design the buildings that he wanted to design, he wouldn’t design anything. Instead, he ventured to a stone quarry to work as a manual laborer, having never been afraid of old-fashioned hard work.
Throughout Roark's life, he was vilified for his designs. They were not this enough, not that enough. But they are 100% Howard Roark. For this, he was made to suffer—through an expulsion, through being fired, through receiving no commissions, through leaving the profession, through slander in the media. Roark was supposed to be a fluke, no more and no less.
Peter Keating's life had always been on the up-and-up. While Roark was deciding on his future after being expelled, Keating was giving a speech at graduation and pondering which route he would take: accepting a role at the top architectural firm in New York City, or enrolling in a prestigious European university to continue his education?
Constantly aware of what others would think of his career path, Keating chose to work at that prestigious architectural firm, Francon & Heyer, and immediately became the golden boy of Guy Francon. Despite his youth, Keating amassed influence in the firm and was soon responsible for many of the finest buildings that the firm produced. There were no bumps in his road because he knew the right things to say and do in order to advance his career.
Keating made sure to make his name in high society, too. Using the firm’s connections, he became a fixture in the rich circles of New York City. He went to important parties and hosted rich clients at dinners to win contracts. Journalists wrote about his buildings as if they were the best in the world. To his clients, that was enough to say that they were the best in the world.
Though his buildings represented nothing of significance, he didn’t bring any negative attention to himself. There was no philosophy behind his design, except for one of compromise at all costs. If the client wants a style from a certain era, I'll give it to them, says Keating; and that he does. His career thrived because of it.
Asked recently about how to build a legacy, I answered that the trouble in building a legacy wasn't in building one, but understanding what a legacy is. Howard Roark and Peter Keating are fictional characters in Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel, The Fountainhead. Some people who read The Fountainhead might find themselves in awe of Peter Keating's success, even loathing him for the outward appearances of his life as the story develops. Others might adore Howard Roark, and wish to be more like him, even if it means suffering because of it.
An effective campaign for individualism, the story follows these two polar opposite characters with intertwined stories. Roark is the quintessential man of ideals, but these ideals and his uncompromising personality lead him to a lot of struggling.
Many of us would not be able to handle a complete rejection from the most influential people in our field of work. Normal people would take any old job to keep the lights on and keep the office open, but these people are not as uncompromising as Howard Roark.
I'd like to think that my readers have no interest in becoming a Peter Keating—outwardly successful, but at the cost of endless compromises and no real identity—and so the question of martyrdom is what we have to address.
Some definitions tend to give martyrdom a certain tinge of self-pity: “a person who displays or exaggerates their discomfort or distress in order to obtain sympathy.”
If this is your definition of a martyr, then Howard Roark doesn’t quite fit the description.
Throughout the book, he is offered money to aid him in his practice. He’s offered jobs. He has plenty of opportunity to improve his position, yes. But they all involve compromise. Taking money from someone puts him in debt. Signing a certain contract would mean erecting a home or a building that doesn’t fit his vision. All of the suffering he seems to inflict on himself makes sense when seen through his eyes. He never asks for pity from anyone. In fact, even in the face of positivity, the author describes him as indifferent.
Another definition may work better, though it may take some tweaking: “a person who is killed because of their religious or other beliefs” . The book mentions that Roark doesn't believe in God, but this belief in his brand of architecture can easily be viewed as a religious fervor. More than his occupation, architecture is his calling, which is why it has to be done right. Asking a saint to compromise on his or her values would be considered sacrilege and morally incorrect, the same way that Roark views adding a column to a home that doesn’t need one. For that, many in architecture want his career pronounced dead.
To be a martyr, therefore, is to be unyielding in how you operate—hopefully, in the right ways—and suffer because of it. Some try to achieve this by exaggerating their suffering in order to appear more noble because of it. A more deceptive version of Roark’s character might have made many compromises and cared about what other people thought of him, and for those reasons, pronounced his suffering and gone to work in a quarry, all to show that he was the oppressed underdog and that his architecture would triumph later. That sort of character would be unrighteous.
Martyrdom cannot be forced. Jesus, the most widely known example of someone who was killed for his beliefs, did not force the Romans to put him on a cross. Yes, he knew that would be his fate and did nothing to stop it, but he also did nothing to deliberately encourage it. You might say that his beliefs and proclamations encouraged his own death—and you would be right—but those actions were not taken with the sole purpose of dying on the cross for the pity of you and me. Christian doctrine assigns the significance of his death as a penalty for humanity’s sin, not a demonstration of sanctity so that he could have a great legacy.
Honesty solves many problems. As you live your life and stick to your ideals, is it because you have good reason to, or because you seek the pity of others? That’s a question only you can answer, and therefore, only you can avoid being a martyr for no good reason.
What if you do have a Howard Roark-esque belief in something like architecture? If you’re truly uncompromising, and you’re as talented and hardworking as Howard Roark is in The Fountainhead, but you refuse to compromise, there may be no avoiding your own downfall.
Whether or not his story ends well in the book is irrelevant: he goes through much suffering that he doesn’t need to. It’s notable that, to him, bending from his beliefs is a far greater suffering than manual labor or the disapproval of his peers.
He’s an extreme example, though, and following that model probably isn’t smart. Part of Roark’s problem is his inability to express himself or empathize with others. More than making a religion out of architecture, he also seems to lack social skills—or, if he has them, he has no will to use them. His going may have been alleviated if only he was a bit friendlier or appeared to care more about other people.
Being a martyr requires immense self-awareness. “Am I doing this for attention?” is a hard question to answer with complete honesty. (If you have to ask that, you probably are. I can’t imagine that Roark even noticed other people’s interest in him because of his odd, unbending personality.)
Being a martyr should never be a goal in itself. Jesus did not die on a cross for no reason, whether you believe in his reason or not. Howard Roark did not go through the rough patches that he went through specifically to make that a part of his story. Gandhi did not fast so that he could put the event on his resume. Any attempt to be a martyr without reason is unrighteous and should be avoided. If you’re going to suffer, suffer for what you truly believe in.
 Book quotes from The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, originally published 1943