Roark is a brilliant young architect of the modern school, whose bold and innovative designs are rejected by large segments of society. Although Ayn Rand does not base Roark's life on the specific events of Frank Lloyd Wright's life, Roark does possess many of the qualities and face many of the obstacles that the great, real-life, American modernist did.
Like Wright (1869-1959), Roark is fiercely independent. He believes in the merit of his revolutionary designs and has the courage to stand for them in the face of an antagonistic society. He is presented as the author's version of an ideal man — one who embodies the virtues of Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy. Roark is the antithesis of contemporary belief that an individual is molded by social forces. He is not the product of his upbringing, his economic class, his family, his religious training, or his social background. He is a product of the choices he has made. Roark is an example of free will — the theory that an individual has the power, by virtue of the choices he makes, to control the outcome of his own life. A man's thinking and values are not controlled by God or the fates or society or any external factor — but solely by his own choice. Others (like Keating) may choose to submit, but Roark will not. He is his own man.
Because Roark is his own man from the beginning, there is no change in the essence of Roark's character. He learns a significant amount over the course of the story — about architecture, the "principle behind the Dean," and other matters — but his fundamental convictions remain untouched. The essence of his character is an unswerving devotion to his own thinking and judgment. Roark is like this from the first moment of the story to the last — and, most likely, he has been this way since early childhood. An independent man like Roark learns a great deal of content in his life — indeed, because of his commitment to the fullest use of his own mind, he is the only type of person who can. But his method of functioning, his devotion to autonomous thinking, does not change. Because Roark's method of functioning doesn't change, he is able to create and successfully fight for revolutionary designs.
His first-handed method is also the principle that explains Roark's integrity. Integrity, according to Ayn Rand, is commitment in action to one's own best thinking, to one's own mind. Integrity is the "practice what you preach" virtue — the principle that you must put into practical action the ideas you hold. But first, of course, you must hold ideas. Integrity requires a man to be a thinker. Howard Roark meets both of these requirements. He is a brilliant thinker and he acts on his thinking. He is not a hypocrite.
Further, Roark is a selfish man, in the positive sense that Ayn Rand means this. He is true to his values, to his convictions, to his thinking, to his mind, to his self. When the board of the Manhattan Bank Building wants to alter his design, Roark rejects the proposal for the new design, calling his behavior "the most selfish thing you've ever seen a man do." Despite being destitute, he gives up a lucrative, publicity-generating commission in order to stand by the integrity of his design — and he calls this "selfish." To be true to his self, a man must first have a self. He must think independently, he must judge, he must form values and he must act in pursuit of those values. He must never sacrifice them. This is exactly what Roark does: The integrity of his design is far more important to him than the money or recognition that will accrue from the commission. In remaining true to his values and judgment, Roark is true to the deepest core of his self. This is selfishness in its highest and best sense.
An important moral question that Ayn Rand seeks to answer in Roark's character concerns the relationship between the moral and the practical. Many people in real life — as well as Gail Wynand and Dominique Francon in the novel — believe that practical success requires a betrayal of an individual's moral principles. It is often said that to succeed one must "play the game," or conform to the practices of one's company or profession even if one finds them unethical. To hold to one's scruples, according to this way of thinking, results only in loss of job or income, in a failure of some form. But in The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand builds a convincing argument that this cynical view is false. Howard Roark, she shows, is both a moral man and a practical man. His strength of character is demonstrated throughout the story. He is fully committed to the artistic integrity of every one of his designs, and he takes a laborer's job in a granite quarry rather than compromise on the smallest detail of his building. Integrity means conscientious commitment, in action, to the principles held by your own mind — and Roark exemplifies this virtue consistently, including when faced with destitution. Further, he is also a practical man. Roark, above all other characters in the novel, is a can-do giant of supreme competence. He excels at every aspect of building — from design to construction — and by the novel's end, he has achieved a significant commercial success. He is now established, on his own terms, in the field of architecture. That Roark is both a moral and a practical individual should be clear. But the most original aspect of Ayn Rand's presentation of Roark is that he is practical because he is moral, that these two qualities exist in a causal relationship.
Roark's moral stature is based on his commitment to his own mind regarding all issues of his life. He recognizes that human beings must rely on their minds for survival — that where animals employ such characteristics as speed of foot, size, strength, claws and fangs, wings, and/or fur in order to survive, man cannot rely on these physical attributes. He must be a thinker to grow food, build houses, manufacture clothes, and perform the other creative actions necessary to prosper on earth. But the mind is an attribute of the individual; just as there is no group stomach to digest for men collectively, so there is no group mind to perform collective thinking. Each man must accept responsibility for his own thinking and his own survival; each must be sovereign in living by his own most conscientious judgment. If a man sincerely — in his most scrupulously honest judgment — believes a claim to be true, then he must hold to this belief even though all of society opposes him. To be a thinker means to go by the factual evidence of a case, not by the judgment of others. To be a thinker means that if a man recognizes the perfection of an architectural design, he must not compromise it merely because others oppose him. Such willingness to live by his own thinking is independence and integrity — this is virtue. When Roark stands by the integrity of his designs, he stands by his mind. This is what makes him a moral and a practical man. For it is by means of his mind — not by conformity to others — that Roark builds. It is only by the fullest use of his mind that he — or any individual who does productive work — succeeds. A human being learns from others, as Roark does from Cameron, but he can neither think for others nor permit others to think for him. Any productive activity — including the construction work performed by Roark's friend, Mike Donnigan — requires understanding. Constructive work of any kind is not achieved by blindly mimicking the actions of others. The activities of building and growing — creating food, houses, automobiles, medical cures, airplanes, and computers — are intellectual in nature. All successful living for human beings require commitment to the mind. Roark's buildings, his ultimate commercial success, and his happiness are a result of living by his own thinking. Successful living forbids man to betray his mind. To surrender one's judgment is to exist like Peter Keating, a form in which no success or happiness is possible. Moral virtue is a requirement of practical success, not a hindrance to it.