When The Fountainhead was released in 1943, Rand's publishers did not expect much from it. To their surprise, the work quickly became a word-of-mouth bestseller. While most people consider Atlas Shrugged her most important work, The Fountainhead was responsible for Ayn Rand's sudden leap into public life.
Rand took extensive preliminary notes for all of her books. In her notes on The Fountainhead she writes about the book as a whole:
A new set of values is need to combat this modern dreariness, whether it be communism . . . or the sterile, hopeless cynicism of the modern age. That new faith is Individualism in all its deepest meaning and implications, such as has never been preached before: individualism of the spirit, of ethics, of philosophy. (The Diaries of Ayn Rand, 81.)
The Fountainhead contains an undeveloped form of Rand's philosophical beliefs. She wanted the novel to be imbued with a spirit of individualism and to convey the idea that "man's ego is the fountainhead of human progress" (The Fountainhead, front matter).
Rand did extensive research while writing the novel. In 1937 she worked in the office of architect Ely Jacques Kahn in order to ensure that the architectural details and terminology were accurate. At the same time, she was careful to subordinate the passages about architecture to the greater purposes of the novel. Rand did not choose architecture because she felt it was the most superior art, but merely because she thought that it served the symbolic purposes of the novel. Rand was also inspired by the works of real architects. It is widely accepted that Henry Cameron was based on Louis Sullivan, considered by many to be the father of modern architecture. Howard Roark's philosophy of design has much in common with Frank Lloyd Wright's principles of organic architecture.
Many criticize the novel's lack of subtlety, yet Rand stressed that this was a novel not about the world as it was (or is) but rather as the world might be. Consequently, Rand's weak characters would be weaker than ordinary people, and her strong characters would be stronger. Rand writes that men like Peter Keating and Guy Francon "have lost the ability to choose, value and pronounce judgment," that they "have reversed the process of 'end' and 'means,'" and that they "actually live for others, not for themselves" (82). In some ways one can view The Fountainhead as an exercise that allowed Rand to more clearly delineate her philosophical beliefs, which were then laid out in Atlas Shrugged.
Ultimately, Rand believed that "The book is the story of Howard Roark's triumph. It has to show what the man is, what he wants and how he gets it. It has to be a triumphant epic of man's spirit, a hymn glorifying a man's 'I.' It has to show every conceivable hardship and obstacle on his way--and how he triumphs over them, why he has to triumph" (The Diaries of Ayn Rand, 96). Howard Roark is Rand's vision of the ideal man. Howard Roark's character may have many flaws, but as the protagonist of The Fountainhead, Roark is eminently consistent with Rand's beliefs about the heroic in man.