Architects make for some of the most intriguing protagonists in literature and cinema. Their depiction typically portrays them as outwardly ambitious, confident, and driven individuals, yet inwardly conflicted and troubled souls. Unlike authors creating character plots from their studies, these fictional architects lead compelling lives of their own.

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Architects as protogonists_© Joanna Kosinka

Observing an architect through an author’s lens is captivating; the story is never dull. This is primarily because architects are innately creative and visionary, allowing them to find themselves in situations that quickly intensify the drama and complexity of their narratives. For these protagonists, architecture transcends a mere profession – it becomes the very story that shapes the course of their lives.

Howard Roark In ‘The Fountainhead’

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The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand_ ©Wiki

Commencing with perhaps the most renowned fictional architect, Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark from “The Fountainhead” (1943). Roark is the young, individualistic college dropout who refuses to conform his architectural visions to traditional norms. He outright rejects established practices, instead working for a disgraced architect he admires.  

Throughout the novel, Roark is locked in constant conflict with orthodox architecture while desperately seeking to forge his own identity, contrasted by his antithesis Peter Keating – a commercially successful architect who prioritizes pleasing others. To establish himself and defeat Keating, Roark commits various transgressions. He also acquires many enemies and entangles himself in a troubled relationship with Dominique, who is ironically Keating’s wife.

Critics argue the book is less an authentic architect’s portrayal and more a vehicle for Rand’s “Objectivism” philosophy. Rather than an innovative, self-exploratory maverick, Roark comes across as pessimistic, indignant and self-absorbed.

Stourley Kracklite of ‘Belly of an Architect’

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The Belly of An Architect_© Amazon

Then there is the obsessive Stourley Kracklite from Peter Greenaway’s “The Belly of an Architect,” commissioned to curate a Rome exhibition honoring French architect Etienne-Louis Boullée. Kracklite becomes dangerously fixated on Boullée’s work, Caesar Augustus’ belly, and his own stomach issues. As this project consumes him, his marriage crumbles along with his health.

Inspired by Boullée’s creations yet tormented by worsening abdomen pains, Kracklite pens letters to the late architect expressing suspicions his wife is trying to poison him. Meanwhile, his spouse, vexed by her husband’s mounting paranoia, finds herself drawn to Caspasian – the young architect organizing the exhibition. Ultimately, Kracklite receives a stomach cancer diagnosis and perishes as the opening ceremony ribbon is cut.  

Kracklite exemplifies how an all-consuming artistic obsession can unravel one’s life. Though beautifully filmed with architecture’s role in the background, the narrative centers on his emotional dysregulation.

Halvard Solness, ‘The Master Builder’

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The Master Builder_ ©Amazon

Another tale ending in tragic demise is Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Builder” (1892) and its protagonist Halvard Solness. Solness’ fame arose from a fire at his wife’s ancestral home, which provided his first major commission. However, his success led to arrogance, refusing to allow any perceived competition – especially young architects – to overshadow his power.

Upon meeting Hilda, a woman claiming long acquaintance with Solness, he becomes infatuated. As they reconnect over architecture, Hilda encourages the acrophobic Solness to climb the tall spire of his newly opened project to impress onlookers below. In a fateful act of egotism, Solness falls to his death from the precipice.

Solness was a man consumed by fear of losing the renown and opportunity that fire unintentionally granted him. His reluctance to facilitate others’ success and fixation on preserving his standing drove him to sabotage the ambitions of talented employees.

Simon’s ‘Paradise’

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Paradise by Donald Barthelme_ ©Amazon

Contrasting these dramatic tales is Donald Barthelme’s short story “Paradise” about an understated, unambitious architect who escapes his mundane existence by inexplicably finding himself surrounded by three lingerie models. While seeming a fantasy scenario, it instead finds the architect cooking for the models while nostalgically yet regretfully reflecting on his mediocre architectural career.

Anthony Royal In ‘High-Rise’

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High Rise by JG Ballard_ ©Amazon

In J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel “High-Rise,” the architect and anti-protagonist Anthony Royal serves as a disturbing satire. Royal designs a brutalist apartment tower on the outskirts of London, outfitted with every amenity to ensure its well-heeled residents can remain detached from the exterior world. 

However, as tenants’ apathy and pettiness rise into violence, the building’s lower, middle, and upper floors are divided into battling tribal groups. From his penthouse shelter atop the magnificent tower he created, the white safari suit-clad Royal watches with sadistic glee as the occupants sink into depravities such as cannibalism, rape, and murder. 

Royal, like the carrion birds that eat at the collapsing structure’s bones alongside his white alsatian, eventually lacks the wisdom to avoid his own demise, with survivors succumbing to cannibalising his dog for a roast supper.

Ballard uses High Rise as a strong illustration to portray the dehumanising effects of class inequality when societal sicknesses spread within an isolated setting. 

In their multifaceted portrayals, fictional architects serve as secondary sources of narrative, providing miniature models for authors to examine the contradictions between ambition and conscience, visionary dreams and harsh realities. Their stories warn that architectural obsessions, when taken to extremes, might lead to self-destruction. Architecture profoundly affects and alters one’s course of life. Moreover, as architects, we set narratives not just for ourselves, but also for the people who inhabit the spaces we create. Architects end up writing stories through the structures they build.


Pearman, H. (2014) Heroes, villains, or just a bit useless?, RIBAJ. Available at: (Accessed: 21 April 2024). 

Beal, J. (2021) The architect as tragic hero, The MIT Press Reader. Available at: (Accessed: 21 April 2024). 

Finn, P. (2023) 4 novels about architecture that are better than ‘The fountainhead’ – architizer journal, Journal. Available at: (Accessed: 21 April 2024). 

Pinn, M. The belly of an architect: The whole history of My Life. Available at: (Accessed: 21 April 2024). 

Reardon, P.T. (2023) Book review: ‘paradise’ by Donald Barthelme, Patrick T. Reardon. Available at: (Accessed: 21 April 2024). 


An architect and writer based in Bangalore.