Alison Lurie decodes the messages that buildings send in The Language of Houses

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Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alison Lurie proves once again that her view of the world is sharper than most with her latest book, The Language of Houses ( Delphinium Books, September).

The book comes 30 years after its predecessor, The Language of Clothes, applying that book’s method of thought to houses in Lurie’s trademark crisp, smart prose style. But it’s not just houses that Houses examines. The Language of Houses thoughtfully considers the messages sent by all of the types of buildings, structures, and abodes that humans occupy—including schools, malls, office buildings, prisons, restaurants, and hotels.

Lurie sees each of these “houses” as an accumulation of information meant to suggest particular moods and expectations and to elicit certain types of behaviors or responses in people who visit them. For example, she says, “You go to someone’s house, and the minute you walk in, you get an impression. You may not articulate it, but you’re making observations, you’re getting an idea of who this person might be. Your house is full of things that will tell people that you’ve been to Japan or that you love sports or that you have three cats.” In this way, Lurie examines the messages we purposely send to people visiting our home. In The Language of Houses, however, she goes further in her analysis, citing the way that presentation and choices in decor or style can reveal even more.

Alison Lurie
Alison Lurie

Lurie notes what might be thought of as “personality compartmentalization” through individuals’ homes, as well. People can control the image of themselves they project through their home, but Lurie notes that there’s often subtext that the careful observer can pick up on. A person who has a vacation home, for example, might have two distinct styles that send two distinct messages: a clean, contemporary condo with sleek decor as a primary residence might reflect a person’s professional life and goals, while their cabin in the woods might be created in stark contrast to that image—serving as a refuge, or a place where the individual can leave professional responsibilities behind in order to relax or pursue hobbies or indulge a part of themselves that might be restricted in their day to day lives.

“What I’ve noticed,” Lurie says, “is that people’s principle residence is either very like or is unlike their beach house or their cabin in the woods . . . when you’re invited to go stay with them in the summer, you might suddenly see a side of them that you never suspected. On the other hand, sometimes the houses will look just alike, so it depends on the person.” Lurie says the difference lies in how much of the indivdual is being suppressed in the original home that needs to come out.

Buildings, too, send messages that might be missed on first glance. Down to their lobbies, their layout, and even their finishing materials, buildings have something to say to those who enter them. Lurie cites the choice of grocery stores available near her as an example. Each one is arranged to tell her something and each one’s message is different. “There’s one that’s arranged to tell me that I’ll save lots of money. And then there’s one arranged to tell me that I’ll be good to the environment. Another tells me that [their produce is] organic and natural and made locally.” If you know something about business and marketing, Lurie says, you’ll also pick up on another message grocery stores aren’t advertising as explicitly: “The can of soup that you want is hard to find is because it isn’t very profitable.”

A prison’s design will send another type of message, Lurie says. Visiting her husband, who taught in a prison through a Cornell University program, she notes what the building had to say to her. “I was really scared the whole time because the whole atmosphere is of being shut in and closed and dark and so they’re not going to waste their money on 100-watt bulbs,” she says. Lurie notes that these choices cast a pervasive gloom. “Everything is painted a dreary color,” she says. The surfaces are comprised of hard materials, such as metal. “I think this is on purpose,” Lurie says.

In contrast, Lurie notes, “if you go to the beauty shop to have your hair done, they’re going to do their best to make it feel warm and friendly and comfortable.” The same thinking applies to schools, hospitals, and churches. Schools promote learning, and their design and decor supports an organized student body that is ready to absorb information. Hospitals prioritize comfort, cleanliness, and security and their design and decor will encourage patients to feel comfortable, clean, and secure. Churches, too, have something to say to their faithful, suggesting through structure and design their patrons’ relationship to God.

The Language of Houses offers readers plenty about the way we create meaning and send messages, as well as the way that we receive messages through design. “There is much more going on than we’re consciously aware of,” Lurie says. “Buildings offer us a tremendous amount of information.” According to Lurie, that information allows us to be in control of our own lives when we trust our intuition and our responses to what we’re seeing. Readers of The Language of Houses will come away with more control over the messages they send and receive, as well as a great new way to impress their friends by decoding the messages their homes send.

Angela Palm's forthcoming essay collection, Riverine, is the recipient of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. The book will be published by Graywolf Press in spring 2016. Her first book, an anthology of literature called Please Do Not Remove, was published by Wind Ridge Books (2014). Angela's work also appears in apt, Hippocampus, Paper Darts, Midwestern Gothic, Sundog Lit, Prick of the Spindle, Tampa Review, and elsewhere. Angela's essay, “The Devolution of Cake,” and her short story, “Mrs. Greenwood’s Jelly,” were both nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

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