Alison Lurie’s meditations on architecture fall flat in ‘The Language of Houses’

Alison Lurie’s new book is a wonderful incentive to doze off, preferably in a softly lit room with comfortable but not out-of-proportion furniture.

In The Language of Houses, Lurie, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Foreign Affairs, writes with a quiet, sometimes meditative style on what our buildings — our houses, churches, museums, libraries and even prisons — say to us with their architecture and interior decorating. Yet she finds little to write about this architectural language that is surprising or even interesting.

“Architecture can make us happy, but like a vulgar, dishonest speech, it can also make us miserable,” she writes. “Ugly, badly constructed buildings are unpleasant to live or work in, and dirt, disorder and failures of décor can also be deeply depressing.” The sentiment is hard to argue with, because it’s essentially predictable, as is much of the book.

Lurie sets out to examine what a variety of architectural styles, across time and across types of buildings, say about those buildings and the people who built them. But The Language of Houses is not a history of architecture, nor is it truly cultural criticism. Just the well-organized but often banal thoughts of Lurie and the experts she has read and quotes liberally.

“It is possible to lie in the language of buildings, though not as easily as in speech or writing,” she writes. “There are many reasons for a verbal lie, including most of the seven deadly sins, as well as common unpleasant emotions like fear and embarrassment. Architectural falsity, however, usually has one of two motives: ambition or greed.”

She points to 19th century office and apartment buildings faced in stone on the first floor in an attempt to look more important and to today’s suburban three-bedrooms with two-story entrance halls and great rooms with cathedral ceilings.

“The result, depending on your taste, will be either impressive or pretentious,” she writes — and then she reveals where she stands: “Because the high ceilings of the foyer and great room have preempted much of the second-floor area, these houses tend to be short on closet space and have only one decent-sized bedroom.”

The book is peppered with such generalizations, some mildly cutting, others simply mild.

“To a child, buildings may seem to have faces, with the window as eyes and the door as a mouth, and even today a house with symmetrical windows on either side of the front door sometimes looks to me — and, I have discovered, to others — like a mask, if not a face,” she writes before launching into a short section on places that may be haunted.

That section seems to be based on Wikipedia, which she credits with the tidbit that at least six hospitals and insane asylums are thought to be haunted. Much of The Language of Houses, however, collates research and writing done by noted writers and scholars of architecture and design, most of it much more reliable, if no more interesting, than Wikipedia.

Shortly after the digression into haunted buildings, Lurie quotes Alain de Botton, the Swiss-born, British-educated author who writes about architecture and art to some acclaim (though, as Wikipedia points out, he is sometimes criticized for writing that is “obvious”). De Botton informs us that attractive architecture has been seen as morally uplifting. Then Lurie expands on the idea with another meditation on the obvious.

“High-rise public housing projects would not only bring light and air into dark, crowded slum neighborhoods; they would reduce crime and promote community,” she writes. “This turned out not to be the case; instead such projects became crumbling centers of violence and fear and despair. . . . In many cases not only were they designed to be as cheap as possible, but political corruption made them even cheaper.”

The book is organized around types of buildings, with the chapter on churches arguably the most interesting, if still pretty unoriginal. On the megachurch she writes: “A visitor from outer space might well conclude that the God who lives in a megachurch is a politician, public official, or rock star, who loves loud music and big crowds. Also perhaps, considering the fortresslike exterior of many of these churches, he may have dangerous enemies.”

On big buildings in general we get: “A very large building, like a loud voice or hefty physique, is the architectural equivalent of a shout. It takes up space, and has obviously been expensive and time-consuming to erect. Next to it other buildings look small, and so do we.”

On marble, there is: “Polished white marble is the equivalent of, and somewhat resembles, a shiny gift box; it announces to the world that what is inside is expensive and valuable.” Then Lurie notes the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University is sometimes known on campus as “the Wedding Present.”

And then there are the truly mysterious passages, like this one about the potential psychiatric problems of people who have bedrooms decorated in colors that are neutral or considered masculine: “This may be because someone else, possibly a professional interior decorator, has imposed his or her own taste. In a few cases it may suggest that the inhabitant has more than one personality, and we should do well to prepare for this.”

Someone might want to tell West Elm and Pottery Barn that they are marketing bedroom sets that suggest the “inhabitant” suffers from a severe, and controversial, neurological disorder.

The Language of Houses is worth picking up, if only to put it down as the reader drifts off into sleep undisturbed by ideas worth contemplating.

Susannah Nesmith is a writer in Miami.