The Language of Houses: How Buildings Speak to Us
by Alison Lurie, with drawings by Karen Sung, Delphinium Books, 304 pages
Alison Lurie does what we all do when entering the home of a friend or acquaintance. She sizes up the occupants. “As soon as we see the interior of any house, we immediately take in information about the people who live there,” she writes in The Language of Houses: How Buildings Speak to
Us . She considers a room’s size and contents, noting that large, expensively furnished rooms suggest the “elaborate public life” of those who live there, people who “want or need to impress others.” She theorizes that those with lavish bedrooms as well as those with small, uninteresting living spaces “may have a rich, full private life.” Examination of an individual’s personal space, such as their bedroom, can “give a fairly accurate indication of both their actual and subconscious age.” Kitchens can be especially telling. “A very small, minimally equipped kitchen . . . is a sign of people who either eat out a lot or are not very interested in food.” Or maybe they’re just superefficient.
Lurie believes that houses of all kinds speak, including those of worship, knowledge, hospitality, or confinement. Any interior designer will tell you that rooms make “a statement.” Lurie examines such assertions in detail, pondering what’s behind them. “Buildings tell us what to think and how to act, though we may not register their messages consciously.” A Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, she attached the same communicative qualities to how one dresses in a 1981 book, The Language of Clothes . While there’s not much that’s original about the notion that our homes and clothing say things about us, Lurie’s books take what’s communicated by our private and public spaces and turns it into literature. Like a translator, she deciphers the babble from a cluttered room or a spotless kitchen and relays those interpretations to her audience. She elucidates, connecting the dots as she explains the social and psychological implications of a bedroom’s ruffled pillows or a fluffy knit cover on a toilet paper roll. She supplies history to support the idea that function takes precedence over form (though both are important).
The author’s frankness is best displayed when she discusses public spaces. She says that grade schools, no matter how fancy, are factories. She explains how American houses of worship turned from fortresses to theaters at the end of the Civil War. In a chapter on prisons, hospitals, asylums, and nursing homes entitled “Houses of Confinement,” she suggests that their function, which is to incarcerate, can be “deeply disguised.” She occasionally wastes time with the obvious. The “houses of hospitality,” hotels and restaurants — not to mention bars and cocktail lounges — are designed to have us “leave poorer than when we arrived.” As well, the explicit message of the shopping mall and other houses of commerce is “Spend!”
Lurie only touches on the economic realities expressed through one’s living space. Money, as politics teaches, allows for fuller expression, even if what you’re saying can make you look tasteless. Lurie’s entertaining book might have been even better if it had spoken to the kinds of design that, in this age of inequality, look pound-foolish.