Dialects by Design

Alison Lurie talks about "what people might see in buildings, and what they were saying to us."

By Alizah SalarioNovember 20, 2014

AFTER READING Alison Lurie’s The Language of Houses, it will be difficult to look at buildings the same way ever again. Under Lurie’s gaze, schools, houses of worship, government offices, and even prisons are transformed from lifeless structures into active communicators. “In many ways it [architecture] is a more universal language than words,” Lurie writes, “since it uses three-dimensional shapes, colors, and textures […]. [A]lmost every building conveys information, though we may not understand all of it.” In her rundown of the social and personal significance of various types of structures, Lurie makes a convincing argument that buildings are not just backdrops against which we play out our lives. Rather, they are active participants in our narratives, informing how we think and act.

The Language of Houses, as is true of Lurie’s novels, makes the world appear crisper and more vivid. She brings to buildings the same skill she has used to create the characters in her novels — including Foreign Affairs, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1985. The prose in this book, her 19th, is both intellectually astute and delightfully provocative, as when, for instance, she describes phony luxury in modern houses: “Many people feel a deep suspicion and dislike of plastic flooring and furniture that imitates wood […]. Some of us might even say, or at least think, that to be brought up among imitation marble counters and Oriental rugs made of vinyl could warp a child’s moral sense.”

Lurie writes about home as a “three-dimensional text” — houses, she asserts, can speak louder than words; furniture, decor, clutter, or lack thereof communicate their owner’s tastes, personal history, and beliefs. So no wonder she seemed perfectly at ease — making me tea and scouring the kitchen for sugar — in the apartment of one of her close friends, where she was staying when we met in New York to talk about her new book, the dialects of buildings, and the importance of writing for oneself.


ALIZAH SALARIO: An online description of The Language of Houses refers to it as a "companion book" to The Language of Clothes, published in 1981. Was that your intention?

ALISON LURIE: I didn’t intend to write a sequel. People suggested it, but I didn’t pay all that much attention because I was involved in other projects.

But would you say the books are connected in any way?

Well, the idea of a sequel made me begin to look at houses in a way I hadn’t looked at them before. Gradually, I began to think, yes, I could write about this. The problem was that when I started, I was also looking at all other kinds of buildings. Schools, and offices, and stores, and museums, libraries, colleges — it was just too much, so I set it aside. But I kept on thinking and making notes. Though I couldn’t cover any one kind of building in the detail that I’d covered clothes, I thought it would be fun to write about what people might see in buildings, and what they were saying to us. My first discovery was that our houses speak for us, but that other buildings, of all sorts, speak to us. They tell us what to think, how to act, and how to react.

How do you mean?

We behave the way buildings tell us to behave, and we know to do this long before we grow up. When I was a child, there were lots of classrooms that had seats arranged in rows; they were actually glued or nailed to the floor. You had a desk, but you couldn’t move it — and the teacher had a much bigger desk up on a platform. The message of this kind of room is that we’re going to sit and listen, and a teacher is going to tell us things.

Had you always paid attention to those kinds of messages?

Nowhere near as much as I did once I started working on the book.

So, as a professor, which setup did you prefer? Lecture halls or seminar style?

It depends. I used to teach children’s literature. Lots of people wanted to take the course. They didn’t know anything about the history of children’s literature, but I did, so it was reasonable that I should stand up and tell them things. Then I taught a course in contemporary folklore, and my students knew as much as I did. They knew jump-rope rhymes and children’s jokes — they knew the ghost stories that are told at summer camp. They had as much to contribute as I did, so it was appropriate that we were sitting around the table, exchanging information.

In the book you talk about how there are different ways a building can say "come in" or "keep out." How exactly can a house have a "dialect"?

In terms of dialect, I was thinking about language and accents. If you drive down the street in Los Angeles, you might see a house that’s made of stucco with a red-tiled roof. There might be several such houses on the block, and you’ll think nothing of it. But if you saw such a house in Chicago, you’d have a different response. You’d think either it belongs to people who come from the Southwest, or love that culture, or that it must be a Mexican restaurant — like a dialect or an accent that doesn’t mean anything in one context, but might mean something in another. A New England Colonial house means very little in New England. It doesn’t differentiate itself from the others. But if you see it in Los Angeles or in San Antonio, it tells you something.

Right. The house becomes a way of communicating information about the owner’s identity or history. Tell me a little bit about the research process for the book. How did you go about piecing it together?

The research took two forms: I read as much as I could, and I also hired graduate students to do interviews for me. They’d survey their families — show them pictures, and ask questions. For example, I found a picture of a standard contemporary Colonial house, like you’d see in Westchester or New Jersey. It was white with green shutters, but I had a student change the image so that one house was yellow, one was pink, and then, just for fun, one was purple. She showed the pictures to about 40 people, and asked which of the houses they’d most or least like to live in, and what type of people they thought lived in each house. (They said that the people who lived in the purple house were artistic and show-offs.) I sent them to do these kinds of interviews, and once we had the answers, we figured out the numbers.

Was there anything you discovered in your research that surprised you?

So few students wanted to live in a very modern house. They wanted to live in Colonials — and farmhouses with big front porches. They liked the old-fashioned houses, rather than contemporary glass and steel ones. It was encouraging, because I think there are disadvantages to modern homes that only become apparent once you’ve moved in.

I wonder if it’s because people want something that feels real; or maybe young adults who grew up in modern or cookie-cutter homes are looking for something that has a bit of character and history.

Yes, it may be a rejection of the world they grew up in, I just don’t know.

Tell me about this idea of conspicuous consumption in buildings, and the notion that extra space conveys wealth and power.

You see it in homes with high ceilings. Or if you go into a very fancy store like Tiffany’s, you’ll find there are vast areas of empty space and, in the middle, a case with a spotlight on it. The waste of space tells us that this is a very important object. Important objects and public buildings tend to have buffers around them, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the US Capitol. They all have vast lawns.

It really says a lot about what we value. That chapter made me think about the way the Apple Store is laid out: how the space surrounding a single computer or iPhone makes it seem very precious.

Yes — contrast that with a store like Best Buy, where there are rows of computers jammed one after the other. If you want to charge a lot of money for something, you surround it with space and light.

We’re not at your home today, but if we were, what would we learn about you?

Since my house is more than 100 years old, you’d know that I hadn’t chosen modern architecture. You’d know that it was important for me to have a garden because we have about an acre of land, and part of it is devoted to vegetables, and flowers, and trees, and so on. I would never buy a McMansion with just a little strip of land around a huge house.

It could make you feel squeezed in or claustrophobic, couldn’t it?

And it means you can’t make use of the land.

What about gated communities?

I would never live in one, and I don’t know why people do. Partly I think they do it for safety. With a gate, they feel safe, and they’re willing to conform in exchange for that. Or maybe they even like being conformist. There’s no logical reason why a gated community should be full of identical houses, but for some reason it very often is.

I guess it sets a standard for behavior.

I suppose the message is that we’re all nice, ordinary, rich citizens. What sort of a neighborhood did you grow up in?

I lived just outside the Loop in Chicago, and then we moved to the suburbs. We did live in a generic apartment and townhome complex at one point, and I think the motivation was that it involved less upkeep.

Yes, that is another motivation. As you get older, it’s nice not to have to mow your own lawn or shovel your own snow.

But those things aside — moving and shoveling — you’ve been writing for over 60 years now. Can you tell me a little about your process, and if it’s changed over the years?

It’s not terribly interesting. Surely, as a writer yourself, you know that it doesn’t really matter what time of day you write, or what kind of paper you write on. I’m always being asked do I write by hand, do I use a computer, do I write on a yellow legal pad — these are irrelevant questions. Whatever works is fine. If it works for you to write on scrap paper in the bathtub, that’s fine, too.

What about in terms of your approach. Has it gotten any easier?

It isn’t so different than it was in the beginning. You don’t want to repeat yourself — I don’t want to write the same novel over and over again. So if I try something new, naturally I don’t know whether or not it’s going to work out. You have to take the attitude that you’re writing for the fun of it, and not for some imaginary editor or judge. Otherwise you’ll be handicapped by the opinions of this imaginary person, who will say, for instance, nobody wants to hear anymore about what it’s like to be a little girl in Chicago. But you have to write what you’re interested in, even if other people aren’t. If you decide that since dystopian novels are very successful these days, you’ll write one, it isn’t necessarily going to be very good. And it’s not going to be yours. It’s not going to come from inside you, and it’s not going to relate to what you’ve seen and felt about the world.


Alizah Salario is a freelance journalist and fiction writer living in Brooklyn.

LARB Contributor

Alizah Salario is a journalist and essayist. Her work has appeared in Slate, The New York Times, The Washington Post, at the Poetry Foundation, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn.


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