Back in the 1970s, when semiotics was the new darling of literature departments, novelist Alison Lurie undertook a delightful study that she eventually published as “The Language of Clothes,” a survey of the history and many subplots of the sartorial world. Thirty years later, she has resurrected this approach to tackle the topic of dwellings in ”The Language of Houses.”
House, in the sense that Lurie uses it here, gathers everything from private domiciles to museums under its capacious roof. She considers schools, prisons, hospitals, and hotels. The way we build, decorate, and organize these reveals more than we think about what we hold dear, what we try to control, and what we prefer to ignore. Architecture, writes Lurie, is a more universal language than words. As monuments to our fantasies, ambitions, and pretensions, buildings “speak” with greater immediacy (and, she would argue, honesty) than what we say about them.
Lurie serves as able guide on an opening overview of basic architectural themes: style, scale, materials. Concepts such as formal and informal, open and shut, darkness and light, as well as the influences of foreign and regional idioms, become the building blocks on which she proceeds into her discussion of dwellings. We learn that the simple, unadorned, home intended to convey “green” values, often uses “old bricks and boards that in fact cost more than new ones,” while a suburban McMansion’s pricey entrance is coupled with cheap siding and exposed ductwork out back. She chronicles the evolution of the Colonial meeting house into Gothic worship sites that are mini-theaters with their raised altars, lavish pipe organs, and stage lighting. Gender differences abound: In homes and offices, men prefer what she calls “prospects”; women, “refuge.”
Lurie’s most interesting material limns trends and their policy implications. “The average new home size in the United States was 2,673 square feet in 2011, up from 1,400 square feet in 1970 and a mere 983 square feet in 1950,” she writes. “Meanwhile, though the average size of the American family has been shrinking, the size of individuals has increased.” Has modern architecture contributed to obesity with its elevators and elevated temperatures, she asks? Or this: Second homes often depart in style, décor, and locale from first homes, suggesting an inner void in our everyday lives for which we seek restitution on the weekends.
“[U]nattractive, cheap, badly designed buildings appear to have a negative effect on both mood and morals,” Lurie writes. Rundown and crowded dwellings communicate danger and neglect. Despite these seemingly obvious truths, Lurie informs us, many public buildings are designed intentionally to resist what one sociologist calls “human imprint.” These — prisons, public housing projects, factories and some offices — have few windows or doors, uniform design, and high security. To the list one might add: big-box stores, public schools, fast-food chain restaurants, airports, and low-budget subway stations. As a category, these instances of “hard architecture” occasion “anxiety, irritation and the (sometimes unconscious) wish to leave. Eventually, those who cannot get out will become restless and angry, or passive, withdrawn, and numb.”
Lurie maintains a light touch with such damning observations. But if we take them seriously, it would seem that the funding and design awards for spaces where large percentages of the population spend most of their waking hours demand greater vigilance on the part of urban planners.
One of the book’s best chapters treats public high schools. Obsessed as Americans are with quality education, we tolerate factory-like structures that house large groups regulated by loud bells. The young tramp through voluminous hallways, eat in yawning cafeterias, and increasingly commit acts of violence against one another. High schools seem to be the “pass-throughs” to the new country-club-like college campuses. If one survives the former, there awaits at the other end the Higher Ed Epcot of state-of-the-art health clubs, food courts, and plush multiroom residential suites.
Finally, Lurie examines institutional life, which presents serious challenges to inhabitants and caregivers. Confinement, whether of inmates, the mentally ill, or the elderly — one could add, the chronically homeless — has devastating effects on the brain. Even if our senior-life centers are bucolic, studies show that after a period of disorientation and loss, new residents adjust to worldviews that are circumscribed and self-limiting, to the point where change, or re-entry into the mainstream, becomes unthinkably threatening.
Perhaps because suburban split levels and New England farmhouses don’t have the same grab as flappers and Gibson girls, “The Language of Houses” is less incandescent than its predecessor, “Clothes.” While her recent effort feels more a fly-over than documentary revelation, its insights into our vanity, and capacity for almost negligent public construction, are ripe for the gleaning.
Kathleen Hirsch is the author of “A Sabbath Life: One Woman’s Search for Wholeness.’’