Book Review: ‘The Language of Houses’

“The Language of Houses: How Buildings Speak to Us” by Alison Lurie, c.2014, Delphinium Books, $24.95, 311 pages.

The building must be nearly done.

Every day for months, you’ve seen it on your way to work. You’ve watched it go from a hole in the ground, to a steel skeleton, to a behemoth structure that you’re glad you’ll never have to enter. The whole place seems unwelcoming.

But why? Why get the heebie-jeebies over a building? In the new book “The Language of Houses” by Alison Lurie, you’ll see how that place and your home both have a lot to say.

Ask any preschooler to draw a house and, if she’s happy and secure, you’ll probably get “Happy House” with peaked roof, a door in the lower middle and symmetrical windows, surrounded by trees and a smiling sun. Yes, even at that age, we tend to instinctively link a simple home with good feelings.

We also instinctively know what a building is for, just by looking at it. There’s no mistaking a hospital, for instance, with a night club. A public building constructed of wood “is slightly suspect unless it’s a church.” Huge stone columns generally indicate that we’re entering somewhere formal (real or imagined), just as a porch swing and flowers (even artificial ones) say “welcome.”

A building’s color says a lot, too: like business clothes, public buildings are usually neutrally-toned. Colors can indicate an intended décor or the kind of merchandise you’ll find in a store. Even lack of color speaks volumes about the people inside.

As for that interior, we expect it to match the exterior. In our minds, therefore, Victorian charmers shouldn’t contain post-modern furniture. Ranch homes, once the most popular builds, should be cozy and relaxed. It feels wrong to find otherwise.

On that note, consider this: many newly-built houses contain rooms that are rarely, if ever, used. Or this: when you were a kid, you were likely familiar with your friends’ bedrooms. That’s probably not the case now.

Houses speak of gender, status, and age of their occupants. They can speak with local dialect or foreign accents. And despite that they’re inanimate objects, we fondly remember some and mourn others – and that’s natural.

“After all,” says Lurie, “we are a territorial species.”

When you think about it, what’s in “The Language of Houses” is quite commonsensical. And maybe that’s the point: author Alison Lurie makes you think about your home, your workplace, and what the outside world knows from them.

Indeed, after reading this book, it’s really very difficult not to look at buildings in a different way – and that includes churches, prisons, hospitals, and schools, all of which Lurie touches upon here. You’ll also learn about the things inside our buildings, why we place furniture as we do, what specific rooms say about who we think we are, and a basic history of housing and fads.

If you enjoy decorating, this book will build on your knowledge. Architecture fans will demolish it, as will historians. Readers in the mood for something different will also love “The Language of Houses.” Don’t you have room for it, too?