The Lan­guage of Houses: How Build­ings Speak to Us

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - — Bill Kohlhaase

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.

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