Howard Roark, a stern-faced young man, stands naked at the edge of a granite cliff. The year is 1922 and Roark has just been expelled from architecture school at the Stanton Institute of Technology. Although Roark excels in engineering and mathematics, he is an individualist whose modern designs run contrary to everything his school teaches. After serenely contemplating his future, Roark returns to his room in a local boardinghouse to work on his drawings. His designs seem severe and simple, but the structures are actually complex. Roark forgets that he has a meeting with the Dean of the college until his landlady, Mrs. Keating, whose son Peter is also a student at the architecture school, reminds him. Roark goes to see the Dean.
The Dean says that Roark was expelled for turning in overly modern designs. The Dean assures Roark that he may be able to return to the school once he has matured. Roark refuses the offer. The Dean is offended and informs Roark that he will never become a real architect. Roark leaves the Dean’s office and thinks about how he does not understand men like the Dean.
At the Stanton commencement ceremonies, Peter Keating sits reflecting on his own greatness. After the ceremony, Guy Francon, a prominent architect who has given the commencement speech, offers Keating a position in his firm. Keating does not know whether to accept the position or take a prestigious scholarship. When Keating returns home, he asks for Roark’s opinion. Roark says that Peter should make his decisions without assistance. Peter’s mother manipulates her son into taking Francon’s offer. Roark agrees that the job will mean more actual building, and Keating is elated by his prospects.
In New York, Keating begins working for Francon & Heyer, Francon’s firm. He excels at office politics. Keating soon discovers that the brains behind the firm actually belong to a man named Claude Stengel, who acts as the chief draftsman and architect. Keating befriends Francon. Roark finds work with the architect Henry Cameron, a once-popular architect who has fallen from grace. Like Roark, Cameron loves his buildings more than his clients. Roark and Cameron work hard and talk little in their run-down and failing office.
Two years pass, and Keating scrambles further up the ladder at Francon & Heyer. He gets his best friend at the firm fired by absorbing so much of the man’s work that he becomes useless. Keating knows a girl in New York named Catherine Halsey, who is plain but has a beautiful smile, and who loves Keating. Keating enjoys his time with Catherine, who he calls Katie. During one of their talks, Katie mentions that her uncle is Ellsworth Toohey, a renowned architecture critic. The revelation shocks Keating, who suddenly has a premonition that his life will be dirty and impure. He asks Katie not to introduce him to Toohey.
Henry Cameron draws on his own experience to describe the future that awaits Roark. Because Roark has integrity, Cameron says, the world will crush him. Cameron predicts that Roark will design the most beautiful building anyone has ever seen, but that the world will refuse his design. Desperate to get the project made, Roark will beg and plead, but mediocre architects will always get the commissions. Roark will break and cry like an animal. Cameron asks if Roark wants such a future, and Roark replies that he does.