The first book of Ayn Rand, the writer more famous for her epic trilogy “Atlas Shrugged” takes place in the United States roughly in late 1920s and at the beginning of 1930s. The main location is New York, though the characters sometimes travel to other places. It is the story of the young, creative and ambitious architect named Howard Roark, who tries to build his career not in a convenient way.
At the beginning of the book, Roark is twenty-one and the things aren’t going well for him: he has been just expelled from the Stanton Institute of Technology. He is a brilliant student, but the reason of expelling wasn’t his bad marks or insufficient knowledge, it was “insubordination” e.g. refusal to blindly follow the ideas of his teachers and administration and arguing with them. Also Howard’s study projects weren’t designed in classical and traditional styles the teachers preferred: he had his own vision of architecture. What insults him even worse is that his classmate, the son of the Howard’s landlady, a young man named Peter Keating, graduated with high honors. He absolutely lacked Roark’s creativity, intelligence and innovative vision, but he was exceptionally good in lip service and doing exactly what the professors expected.
Roark doesn’t know what to do after leaving his university, but luckily he finds a similar outstanding mind to work for. Henry Cameron is already an elderly man, but with still young, vivid imagination that is supported by his genius. His ideas are too revolutionary for his time, so often Cameron is seen as a typical “mad scientist” by the society. Cameron was a rising star in architecture during 1880s. The pinnacle of his revolutionary approach was building a skyscraper. He wasn’t shy about it and didn’t even try to blend his building with the rest of the landscape, stating that a tall building should look tall. But that was way too much for the conservative society that preferred Classical styles and even made Neoclassical architecture style an American trademark in the Columbian Exposition of 1892. Cameron was a pure modernist, so he became an exile in the architectural world. The architect refused to yield and remake his project for his building to appear shorter, but it only worsened the situation for him. Roark learns Cameron’s story during the three years he spends working on him. Then, unfortunately, Cameron’s health fails and Howard has to move on, yet forever taking with him the infinite gratitude to his genius mentor and the great knowledge in modernist architecture.
Keating’s fate is much easier and more predictable. With his diploma with honors he goes from Stanton directly to Guy Francon’s bureau, working for the most famous and successful architect in all the United States. But Francon is a perfect employer for such a man as Keating: he also just copies the past designs, using his more-than-mediocre talent to change them slightly, so that they won’t be instantly recognized. He mastered the skill of giving his clients exactly what they wanted to see and this granted him the great prestige, fame and reputation. He is also a socialite who attends every grand dinner and make acquaintances with every even slightly famous person, acquiring famous clients through these actions. The main skill he teaches Keating is charming people and manipulating them into making orders, not the actual knowledge of architecture.
But if Keating is similar to Francon as his own son, Francon’s daughter by blood, beautiful, young and no-nonsense Dominique is as unlike his father as possible. She is brilliant, sarcastic and painfully honest, openly and brutally criticizing his father’s works and later the works of his apprentice. Dominique is an interior designer and decorator and even writes her own column in the New York Banner - the respected newspaper owned by the rich and powerful publisher named Gail Wynand. The idealism of Dominique annoys her father, but soon it fades after too many hits from cruel reality. Now Dominique is a jaded knight in sour armor, who believes in doing what is right deep inside, but also in the fact that the vulgarity and mediocrity will inevitably triumph and her desire to open the human potential of everyone is the hopeless fight with windmills. Despite her open hostility, Keating, who is enchanted with her fierce spirit and, of course, social status and the way her beauty and eloquence impress the others, makes a proposal to her. Though Francon fully approves the marriage, Dominique sarcastically replies that she didn’t commit such a grave crime to be punished so severely.
Dominique’s refusal is the only failure Keating has at the moment. The fame of his mentor helps him to achieve success by himself. Manipulating his colleagues and employers, Keating makes his career to rocket up to the position of the chief designer - actually the second person in the company after Francon. But this position adds responsibility: the chief designer has to design, to do something new - the thing Keating isn’t very good at. Still, he knows how to deal with situation: he finds Howard and offers him the job. Roark is repulsed by the methods Keating uses, but his desire to create new buildings and make them innovative and beautiful winds. Howard accepts the job offer and starts helping Keating with design. Keating’s (actually Roark’s) designs are stunning and he, forgetting who he owes his success, decides to replace Francon’s current partner: a man named Lucius Heyer. Soon he has a chance to achieve his goal: Francon receives the invitation to the Cosmo-Slotnick Building competition held by Hollywood company. The goal of the competition is to design the “world’s most beautiful building”. Francon believes that Keating is capable to win the competition and is ready to give him the position of his partner if he does. But Keating himself knows he isn’t skilled enough for such a high standard, so he orders Roark to design a building for him. Roark does a very simple, effective and elegant project and Keating just adds to it his ornaments he uses on every “his” project. Keating feels that Roark’s design is too eclectic and simple and has no chances to win, but he doesn’t have other options. But he decides to become Francon’s partner before the competition that, as he thinks, will be inevitably lost. Using the old age and fragile health of Heyer, he constantly berates, teases him and screams on him while no one can see it. Finally Heyer has a heart attack because of constant stress and dies, leaving his position vacant for Keating to take it. Surprisingly for Keating, Roark’s design wins the competition and he returns from it as a wealthy, famous and respected partner of Francon in his enormous architectural firm.
Now Keating doesn’t need Roark anymore and Francon immediately tries to put the rebellious young architect in line demanding Howard to design like everyone else. Roark refuses and is immediately fired. He desperately tries to find a job, but for a long time no one is ready to accept his innovative ideas. Finally Howard finds a new employer: a man named John Erik Snyte, an eclectic architect that constantly shifts from one style to another and mixes them as he pleases. To achieve the effect he wants, Snyte gathers in his firm the best architects in various styles - Classical, Gothic, Renaissance and others. Howard is his newly found Modernist treasure. Snyte gives his architects complete freedom, taking only the role of combining their ideas in one integral project. So, Roark can do whatever his fantasy allows him, but he will never be able to see a complete building made according to his design - only some elements integrated into the common project. Suddenly, his first personal client, the newspaperman named Austen Heller, notices him and commissions him a project of his private home. Roark, encouraged by his first success, goes to open a private architect office, but his designs are still too outstanding for the commoners, so he either gets no orders or refuses to change them according to the client’s ideas. The final stroke for him is the case with Manhattan Bank Building - a very costly project he prefers to refuse than violate his design according to the customer’s whims. Frustrated, Roark closes his office and goes to Connecticut to work as a common worker in a granite quarry.
By a strange coincidence the quarry is also owned by Guy Francon and is situated to his countryside family manor. Dominique attends the manor right when Roark comes to work and decides to see how the work is doing in the quarry. She immediately sees Howard and notices that there is something in his eyes that distinguish him from the whole bunch of former criminals working there. His manner to hold himself and move and his composure charm Dominique so much that she begins to stalk him constantly. One of their pursuits ends in them making love passionately, even without knowing each other. Despite Dominique considers this sex the best in her life, she still doesn’t dare to admit that she is in love with anonymous quarry worker and fears to open up to him emotionally, because the woman feels her beliefs and ideals can be shattered again - something that would be almost impossible to survive. But her hesitations are finished when Roger Enright, a rich and open-minded businessman, finds Roark and blows his cover, asking him to design an apartment building for him. Roark leaves his work and returns to New York to start working - but for him Dominique isn’t a temporary affection either: he can’t stop thinking of her.
The design of Enright House is accepted without changes and the building is made exactly like Roark envisioned it. This becomes his rising. Very soon, another influential businessman from Wall Street commissions a new design: an office building with fifty floors, right in the centre of Manhattan. Then comes Kent Lansing with his idea of a five-star hotel on Central Park South. The clients start to fight for Roark’s time, he becomes more and more popular and earns prestige with every new project. Lansing wins the “battle” and Roark starts designing the Aquitania hotel. Though the construction is delayed due to some legal issues, Lansing gives Roark the highest credits and best recommendations.
But Roark’s fame brings him not only powerful friends and rich clients. He attracts the attention of the man named Ellsworth Toohey, the architectural critic and the nemesis of the new and promising architects. Toohey considers himself a god of architecture, thought he haven’t designed any buildings, he seeks the individuals who think differently and make designs he doesn’t like and crushes them in his reviews. He orders his wealthy but dim-witted minion named Hopton Stoddard to commission Roark a design of a temple. Toohey knows that Roark is an atheist and his designs are always revolutionary new. So he hopes to announce that Howard is an enemy of religion and his inconvenient design is a blasphemy and violation of religion principles. Toohey studies Howard’s personality and finds the words to persuade him. Hopton, taught by Toohey, says that Roark has a religion of his own, the religion of human spirit that can achieve everything, which one can see in his designs. Flattered, Roark accepts the order and begins to compose a design of a temple to the heroic human spirit.
At the moment Roark is a superstar of architecture. His design of the temple is beautiful and magnificent. To make the sculptures for the temple, Howard finds the equally talented young sculptor named Steven Mallory. His using of Classical Greek style shall perfectly balance the Modernist motifs of Howard, bringing the equilibrium of styles to all the temple. Dominique receives an offer to pose nude for the main statue in the temple and Mallory, with all his talent, manages to capture both her stunning beauty and inner flame of her free spirit. This work for Mallory is very important: though sculpting in a very conservative style he was already rejected several times for innovative poses and ideas he brought to his works. But seeing that Roark, who had the same problems, managed to rise and now is one of the most popular architects in the country, inspires him greatly. Mallory hopes that collaboration with Howard will also get him some new commissions and make the society to recognise his style. But despite the fact that both temple and sculptures are outstanding, Stoddard plays the second part, proclaiming that the temple is heresy and blasphemy and raising the crowd to boycott the building. The temple is torn down and the career of both Roark and Mallory plummets, leaving them almost in poverty with a few small commissions.
Dominique, devastated by the destruction of the temple, decides that she has to burn out of her soul her ideals, passion and love to Roark, just not to experience more pain. She finally accepts Keating’s proposal, hoping that the dull life and marriage to a disgusting man will break her, leaving her numb and indifferent to any failure of the noble human spirit in the world. For twenty month she lives with him, thoroughly and purposefully killing her potential, her belief and - as she thought - her very soul. But Toohey wants her to suffer more: he introduces her to Gail Wynand, who was her former employer. He was an idealist equal to Dominique once, but now he turns Banner into the yellow-pages magazine, publishing scandals and gossips to earn more money and to win the audience. Wynand, seeing the sparks of the spirit still left in Dominique, proposes her to marry him instead. Dominique agrees, thinking that this man is even more disgusting for her now, because she remembers who he was before. She hopes that seeing the crush of the ideals every day will break her faster than living with the man who lacked the idealism from the very beginning. Keating without any extra questions just sells his wife for a decent check and another great commission, allowing Dominique to divorce and marry again.
Dominique goes to Reno to get divorced, but on her way she suddenly meets Roark in the small town of Clayton. Howard now works in province, building the department store - that looks as outstanding as his great projects in New York. Dominique tries to stay calm, but Roark clearly sees that she still loves him - and never stopped to love him ever. The woman says that she is ready to quit her suroundings, marry Roark and live with him in the rural town of Clayton. But all that she can offer him is washing dishes and ironing clothes for him. Dominique, thinking that Roark is equally broken, offers him also to quit being an architect and find a job in the store. This suggestion amuses Howard to no end, but out of respect to who Dominique was before, he tries not to laugh and rejects firmly, saying that it is too cruel and he could agree to such a marriage just to see who would be the first to plead the other to return to their real self. Dominique understands, but she still is afraid to believe that their idealism can survive. She returns to the train and, as she planned before, divorces Keating and immediately marries Wynand.
Despite Wynand, as Dominique thinks, has sold his soul for wealth and fame, he still has the former admiration of the feats of human spirit. He gathers them and Dominique is one of his possessions. Considering her his property, Wynand becomes extremely jealous, willing to hide Dominique under home arrest so that no one would see her in the city. He searches for the isolated house in the countryside to buy it for them and store his living property there. He chooses between some of the variants, but when he learns that all of the houses he likes are designed by single architect, he decides to hire this architect to make a project of his own house, protected as a fortress. Of course the architect he wants to hire is Howard Roark. Wynand feels that his house will be another valuable possession and praises Roark’s genius very high. Admiring Howard’s talent, he even helps him to get more clients from New York again, helping him to gain popularity again.
The biggest commission Wynand helps him to get is the project of the Monadnock Valley Resort. But the order is tricky: the clients want the project to fail and already are playing some financial schemes based on that failure. They see that Howard proposes to use separate small houses instead of hotel-type clustered buildings and decide that it will repel people who go for a vacation to socialize. But as always, Roark’s idea immediately makes the resort one of the most popular, and his spectacular design allows the resort to enter the list of the best places to go for a vacation in all the country. The owners are arrested for fraud, but Roark receives his money and can return to New York and start his career anew. Soon he receives a letter from his old client, Kent Lansing, who has finally settled down the legal issues with his Aquitania Hotel and asks Roark to come and finish the job.
In the meantime, Keating’s career is not as brilliant as he thought it to be. His borrowed designs are replaced by the newer Modernist trend, started by Roark and his first mentor. Trying to stay afloat he comes to Roark again, pleading him to design his last commission for him - the complex of apartments called Cortland Homes. Keating is ready to pay any money, but demands that he takes all the credit for the design. Surprisingly, Roark agrees, demanding only one “payment” - that the building will be constructed exactly according to design. Keating, not believing his luck, agrees immediately and Howard starts working. From their point of view it is a win-win situation: Howard wants to build another great structure without being chased and destroyed again by Toohey, so he uses Keating (who seems to get along well with Toohey) as a proxy. Keating, which is obvious, gets his design for free.
Roark completes the design and goes on a cruise with Wynand. But Toohey demands the design to be altered and Keating, who fears the critic greatly, can’t refuse. When Roark returns and see that Keating broke his promise, he blows the building up, even not hiding from the authorities and clearly stating that he did it, saying that he haven’t got his payment for the job - the design was altered and that was the only condition. Moreover, he states that Dominique actively helped in blowing up the building, knowing that she is recovering. She was afraid to believe in her ideals before, but now, when she enlisted into the “terrorist” crew, Roark knows that she is again the same Dominique he loved once.
Wynand uses The Banner to save Roark’s reputation, because he doesn’t want to lose such a brilliant architect he considers almost as valuable for him as Dominique. He still believes that his magazine can revert the public opinion and orders some fiery articles about the wronged genius. But suddenly he discovers that the public he fed the scandals for years is no more interested in noble ideals. They want more yellow stories. Moreover, Toohey was rooting under Wynand for a long time. He bought the majority of the editor positions and they announced a strike, demanding Wynand to change his opinion. Even Dominique’s help is futile, Wynand has to fire each of the traitorous editors but all the rest of the team goes on strike too. Finally, defeated Wynand has to write an official apology and revert his public opinion about Roark.
Meanwhile, Roark is taken on trial. He openly confesses that he dynamited the Cortland Homes and once more states that it was he who designed the building. His only payment should be not altering the design and he wasn’t paid. Roark proclaims that a creator has the basic right to work on their own terms, the society can accept these terms or not, but it has no right to meddle with his creation. Howard turns to history, saying that lots of great inventors of the past moved the culture and technology forward despite the rejection of their societies. He claims that design of Cortland Homes is his intellectual property and if the city needs it built, he demands his payment - the unchanged project. His speech is so passionate that jury fully agree with his positions and votes to release him. Roger Enright buys what is left from Cortland Homes and hires Howard to rebuild it. Later, Wynand offers Roark the great commission of his own business building - the Wynand Building. He wants it to be the tallest building in the city and is ready to pay enormous sum of money for it. Roark accepts the offer and finally achieves the financial and social success.
The ending of the story shows the fates of all the major characters. Howard finally achieves what he desired and his triumph isn’t a compromise with his own ideals and principles. He finishes what Cameron started and proved that his style and methods are revolutionary new and incredibly useful. Dominique finally regained her former self, seeing that the idealists aren’t destined to fail. Free from her terrors and sorrows, she finally marries Howard. Wynland, whose wife and best architect fled from his arms is crushed. He understands that all his wealth and fame were built on a lie and he lost the most important part of his personality - his ideals. He has nothing to pass to the next generation and he will not be remembered for his deeds. But there are some debts that he will gladly pay: when Toohey tries to take over The Banner again, using his power over the editors, Wynand just closes the magazine, not caring about his own income anymore, but content to break all the Toohey’s schemes that took years to be prepared. Now Toohey is a loser twice: neither he managed to stop Roark nor he took away Wynland’s paper. Toohey can start all over again of course, but now, devastated, he lacks both drive and physical health to do so. Keating gets what he deserved. Now, when Roark publicly announced that he did the design for him, giving him all the credits, Keating is exposed as a man who committed fraud. He will never get any major commissions and his career comes to an end forever.