The Fountainhead is the story of Howard Roark, an architect who refuses to compromise his vision or his principles for anything. Roark is opposed by populist guru Ellsworth Toohey and newspaper magnate Gail Wynand, men who epitomize compromise and dishonesty in industry. He becomes romantically involved with Dominique Francon, later Wynand, a woman of mercurial temperaments. The novel deals with the philosophy of Objectivism, the lionization of Capitalism, and the importance of individual freedoms and vision.
Rand indicated that the primary theme of The Fountainhead was "individualism versus collectivism, not in politics but within a man's soul." Apart from scenes such as Roark's courtroom defense of the American concept of individual rights, she avoided direct discussion of political issues. As historian James Baker described it, " The Fountainhead hardly mentions politics or economics, despite the fact that it was born in the 1930s. Nor does it deal with world affairs, although it was written during World War II. It is about one man against the system, and it does not permit other matters to intrude."
Rand dedicated The Fountainhead to her husband, Frank O'Connor, and to architecture. She chose architecture for the analogy it offered to her ideas, especially in the context of the ascent of modern architecture. It provided an appropriate vehicle to solidify her beliefs that the individual is of supreme value, the "fountainhead" of creativity, and that selfishness, properly understood as ethical egoism, is a virtue.
Roark's modernist approach to architecture is contrasted with most of the other architects in the novel, starting with the dean of his architecture school, who tells Roark that the best architecture must copy the past, rather than innovate or improve. Roark repeatedly loses jobs with architectural firms and commissions from clients because of his unwillingness to copy conventional architectural styles. In contrast, Keating's mimicry of convention brings him top honors in school and an immediate job offer. The same conflict between innovation and tradition is reflected in the career of Roark's mentor, Henry Cameron.
The Fountainhead has been cited by numerous architects as an inspiration for their work. Architect Fred Stitt, founder of the San Francisco Institute of Architecture, dedicated a book to his "first architectural mentor, Howard Roark". According to architectural photographer Julius Shulman, it was Rand's work that "brought architecture into the public's focus for the first time", and he believes that The Fountainhead was not only influential among 20th century architects, it "was one, first, front and center in the life of every architect who was a modern architect."