Hiding Behind Psychobabble

There was a very curious letter to the editor in the latest edition of the English monthly magazine The Critic. It was from a correspondent who defended the type of architecture known as brutalist, that is to say of buildings constructed of and faced with large blocks of raw concrete. The letter concluded as follows:

I love Brutalism, and believe every example of it should be preserved, but I would never call it beautiful, any more than I would call it ugly. I just happen to find it unique and interesting, and I find it condescending to be told otherwise.

The writer seems to imply that aesthetic considerations played no part in his estimate of the worth of a building, only its uniqueness and interest. His ideal of a city, then, would be one composed of freaks, since freakishness is the royal—which is to say easiest—road to uniqueness, and freaks are, whatever else they may be, invariably interesting. As every writer knows, it is easier to depict a bad man interestingly than a good one. But this is not an argument in favor of bad men.

The correspondent is not, oddly enough, unique in his uninterest in the aesthetics of architecture. Writing in a journal by architects for architects, an architect began his article with the following words: “Many of us [architects] are worried about the focus on beauty….”

Indeed they are; but from this one might have supposed that the principal problem facing modern cities was an effete aestheticism that somehow prevented things from being built, and that beauty were to buildings what satin ribbons were to Pekinese dogs, that is to say neither essential nor important.

But indifference to beauty is not the attitude of most of humanity, at least once its very basic needs are met, either in the present or in the past. The true, the beautiful, and the good have long been considered the prime desiderata of life, but, as Sganarelle said when posing as a physician and being told by his patient Géronte that he thought that the heart was on the left and the liver was on the right side, “Nous avons changé tout cela”—we have changed all that. Beauty is no longer an important concern of architects, and they want to persuade us that it should not be to us, either. We should henceforth satisfy ourselves with uniqueness and interest.

I hesitate to coin a neologism, but it seems to me that architects, though not architects alone (they are but the canaries in the coal mine), suffer from pulchriphobia, that is to say a fear of beauty. To be more exact, it is not beauty that they fear so much as the revelation to others of what it is that they consider beautiful, or the revelation of their incapacity to produce anything of beauty. Taste is very revelatory of character, and though we live in an age in which we delight to talk of ourselves, in fact we do so while carefully protecting ourselves from true self-revelation or true self-examination. That is the secret of the success of psychobabble, that strange form of language that permits people to talk endlessly about themselves while revealing nothing specific, let alone discreditable, and that the originator of the term, R.D. Rosen, defined as follows:

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