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The Language of Houses
How Buildings Speak to Us
By Alison Lurie, Karen Sung
DELPHINIUM BOOKSCopyright © 2014 Alison Lurie
All rights reserved.
What Buildings Say
A building is an inanimate object, but it is not an inarticulate one. Even the simplest house always makes a statement, one expressed in brick and stone and plaster, in wood and metal and glass, rather than in words—but no less loud and obvious. When we see a rusting trailer surrounded by weeds and derelict cars, or a brand-new mini-mansion with a high, spike-topped wall, we instantly get a message. In both of these cases, though in different accents, it is "Stay Out of Here."
It is not only houses, of course, that communicate with us. All kinds of buildings—churches, museums, schools, hospitals, restaurants, hotels, stores, and offices—speak to us silently. Sometimes the statement is deliberate. A store or restaurant can be designed so that it welcomes mostly low-income or high-income customers; a church or temple can announce that God is a friendly neighbor, a stern judge, or a remote and inaccessible spirit. Buildings tell us what to think and how to act, though we may not register their messages consciously.
In this sense, architecture is a kind of language, one that most designers, builders, and decorators speak, sometimes fluently and sometimes clumsily, and that all of us hear. In many ways it is a more universal language than words, since it uses three-dimensional shapes, colors, and textures rather than words. We may be at a loss to understand what is said in most foreign languages, but almost every building conveys information, though we may not understand all of it. And, like spoken and written languages, architecture may be formal or casual, simple or complex.
FORMAL AND INFORMAL
Formal speech is weighty, balanced, without hesitations, interruptions, or incomplete sentences: we hear it in a written and rehearsed political oration or public lecture. Formal public buildings, from an early Greek temple to the latest state capitol, have been carefully planned. They tend to be bilaterally symmetrical from a front or rear view: one side is a mirror image of the other. Any internal asymmetry (the placement of bathrooms and closets, for instance) is invisible from outside. Many grand private homes, including most great European and American mansions of the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, were bilaterally symmetrical. The formal regularity of their façades, both front and rear, suggested that what went on within them was equally formal and well regulated.
Buildings that look symmetrical only from in front are more common. The town hall and the library, as well as the classic Southern mansion, Cape Cod cottage, or Colonial Revival house, with their central doorways flanked by identical windows, all suggest formality, especially when there is a front walk with matching trees or flower beds on either side. Seeing such a building, we assume (not always correctly) that life inside it will be well ordered and perhaps rather conventional. Often, however, in the back of these structures there will be uneven additions—as well as sheds, garages, porches, and decks—that suggest a more complex private life.
Informal speech is colloquial, often impetuous, and fragmentary. Informal architecture also usually seems casual and unplanned—as if it just grew, which is often the case. Most people who buy a house eventually make alterations if they can afford it. As a result, over the years the original structure of a building may have been altered many times. Wings may have been extended, a bay window pushed out, a porch added or removed. Most buildings don't stand still over time: they grow and shrink; different tenants move in, and as they do, meanings change. When my grown son and I went to look at my parents' former summer house on the ocean in Maine, we were sad and even rather angry to see that the big screened porch where we all used to sit had been enclosed and turned into just another room. The house was larger and more impressive now, but less open and welcoming.
SIMPLE AND COMPLEX
Like speech, architecture can be simple or complex. Simple speech favors short words and sentences, with few adjectives and adverbs and similes. Simple architecture, too, is largely unadorned. The basic nineteenth-century American farmhouse, shotgun cabin, or little country church recalls the simple songs and ballads of an earlier time and the traditionally laconic speech of the frontier. Their minimalism may have been unplanned, the result of a shortage of money and time, or it may have been consciously chosen, like Shaker architecture. Today, the deliberate choice of simple construction is common among people who favor a back-to-the-land or green lifestyle; occasionally, however, their apparently basic buildings have in fact been expensive to build and heat and light, though the hope is always that they will save money over time as well as reducing the strain on our natural resources. Some owners may also try to create the look of a supposedly simpler and more "authentic" past in their brand-new houses. They use old bricks and boards that in fact cost more than new ones, and may even have fresh paint scratched and scraped to create a "distressed" look.
In most of Europe and America there seems to have always been an instinctive propensity toward constructing simple rectangular buildings with sloping roofs that shed rain and snow easily. This basic pattern even appears in children's drawings. The French architectural historian Gaston Bachelard speaks of the picture so often drawn by children, and known to psychologists as the "Happy House." It is usually a square one- or two-story home with a peaked roof, a central door, and two or more symmetrically placed windows. There is often a chimney from which smoke rises, implying that the building is warm and inhabited. Frequently the Happy House is surrounded by simple lollipop-shaped trees and/or outsize flowers, and a big round yellow sun shines in the sky, which is indicated by a strip of bright blue at the top of the drawing.
Unhappy or disturbed children will sometimes produce a version of this picture in which the strip of sky is black, and there is no sun. Their houses often have no windows, or only black squares, implying that nobody can see in or out; bad things presumably go on in such a building. In extreme cases, the Happy House may collapse entirely. The New York Times, in an article about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, reported that many children who had lived through the storm drew not an entire house but simply a triangle representing its roof and attic, possibly the only part that remained above water: windows and stick figures sometimes appeared inside this triangle.
Simple buildings, whether large or small, are reassuring because we readily understand them. Their shapes are uncomplicated, and they have few and regularly placed doors and windows, so that it is easy to visualize their interiors. The houses of our primitive ancestors were often simply round or rectangular, partly because such basic shapes are easier to construct and heat and defend: for one thing, they have proportionately less exterior wall space. An irregularly shaped building is not only harder to build and protect against enemies; if it is also irregular inside it can lead to trouble. Blurry boundaries within a house can cause clashes between family members; in a public building they are often the source of confusion and annoyance, as when library patrons become lost in oddly arranged stacks or customers blunder into staff washrooms. The same thing is true on a larger historical and geographical scale, where ill-defined boundaries between countries and states traditionally lead to conflict.
Though primitive houses were often round, in contemporary America circular buildings are rare, like unusual or eccentric speech. If small and private, like the yurts built by hippies in the 1960s and 1970s, they recall the teepees and domed houses of Native Americans. If large and formal, they may remind us of the public buildings of classical Rome and Washington, D.C., and (like the Parthenon and the Jefferson Memorial) have an aura of moral uplift and commemoration. Less formal circular and oval buildings may also make us think of circus tents or football stadiums, and thus of entertainment and sports.
Rectangular buildings sometimes disguise circular spaces: the interior of many traditional theatres, churches, and lecture halls often takes the shape of a half circle or two-thirds circle. While there is no suggestion of athletic competition, the associations of both entertainment and moral or cultural value remain. There is also a sense of formal order, since the space is open and intelligible at a glance, and the seats are usually arranged in parallel rows.
Circular plans may, however, be disturbing. The elegant snail shape of the Guggenheim Museum in New York depends on the flexibility of metal and concrete and presumably suggests that viewing art is natural and fun. However, after nearly seventy-five years, some art lovers refuse to visit the Guggenheim, claiming that it makes them feel dizzy and ill because of the low interior walls, the sloping floor, and the vertiginous view down to the bottom of the spiral walkway.
Complex speech favors elaboration: long words and sentences, striking metaphors and similes, and intricate grammatical constructions. Complex architecture tends to involve intricate shapes and elaborate decoration. The result may be attractive or hideous, depending on the skill of the architect and our own taste. The architecture of late Victorian Europe and America, heavy with ornamentation, sometimes recalls the romantic lushness of late-nineteenth-century poetry. Private houses of the period were often complex in design and ornamentation, with bow windows, elaborate porches and verandas, canopies over the front door, towers, romantic balconies, and lacy wooden trim. They can be wonderfully original and charming, like the famous "painted ladies" of San Francisco, where windows and doors and gables are outlined in brilliant complementary colors. They can also be ostentatious and oppressive, especially when very large, as in some of the Newport, Rhode Island, chateau-style "cottages" built by the tycoons of the Gilded Age.
But just as the great nineteenth-century poets inspired hundreds of untalented and melodramatic imitators, so did less talented practitioners of Victorian styles in architecture sometimes produce monstrosities. These are the haunted houses of contemporary cartoons and film, with their spiky wrought-iron trim and their elaborate, sometimes nonfunctional towers, pillars, balconies, gables, dormers, and verandas.
For the founders of modern architecture, such houses were truly haunted, but by an evil cultural past; their complex exterior design and elaborate interiors seemed to suggest artistic immorality or dishonesty. To committed modernists, all decoration was superfluous, and thus unsightly. Only unadorned simplicity was considered beautiful and good. As Alain de Botton puts it in The Architecture of Happiness, "a structure was correct and honest in so far as it performed its mechanical functions efficiently, and false and immoral in so far as it was burdened with non-supporting pillars, decorative statues, frescos or carvings."
The conscious preference for apparent simplicity in the early-twentieth-century modernist movement in prose and poetry was echoed in what is known as the International Style of architecture. The new literature avoided archaic words, elaborate images, grammatical inversions, and sometimes even meter and rhyme—a rose was a rose was a rose. In the same way, one of the basic principles of early modernist architecture was that every part of a building must be functional, without any unnecessary protuberances or fancy trimmings. Most International Style architecture aggressively banned moldings, cornices, and sometimes even window and door frames. Like the prose of Hemingway or Samuel Beckett, it proclaimed, and sometimes proved, that less was more. But, just as with the many less talented imitators of Hemingway and Beckett, second- rate modern architects often produced buildings that were simple without being inspiring or original. Instead they were boring and often unpleasant to live in.
Some modern architects, unfortunately, designed buildings that looked simple and elegant but didn't in fact function very well: their flat roofs leaked in wet climates, their plaster disintegrated, and their metal railings and window frames rusted. Occasionally these buildings also made people psychologically or physically uncomfortable. Anyone who has ever tried to descend a floating staircase without risers or an effective handrail, or sat through a dinner party in a chair designed by an artist with no knowledge of ergonomics, will recognize these sensations.
Absolute simplicity, in most cases, remained an ideal rather than a reality, and in the early twentieth century complex architectural decorations continued to adorn many private and public buildings. During those years the façade of almost every new apartment house of any pretension in a major American or European city was deliberately ornamented in some way. Often the ground floors were faced with marble or granite blocks; luxury buildings had exterior nonfunctional columns and statuary and elaborate entrances and balconies; even less expensive ones might have classical trim on the lower floors and low-relief plaster garlands around the main door.
As time passed, some modernist architects, rather than opting for total functionalism, incorporated what were seen as up-to-date decorative styles. The columns and garlands were replaced with Art Deco designs that suggested science and technology, motion and speed. Statues and flowers were out: squares and zigzags and parallel lines were in. The middle years of the twentieth century also saw the proliferation of nonfunctional tailfins for automobiles, and jazzy patterns on carpets, curtains, and clothing. Toasters and clocks that were not going anywhere and could therefore never profit from reduced wind resistance were "streamlined." Even today, modernist decorations have still not been totally phased out in new construction and design, though they sometimes express a self-conscious postmodern nostalgia and irony.
After World War II many builders (perhaps for reasons of cost) rejected the earlier, more elaborate styles in favor of a totally stripped-down look: stark beige or white brick or concrete walls, and aluminum-framed windows. The interior offices or apartments usually had smaller rooms and lower ceilings. It took a while for customers to catch on, but today "prewar" is a selling phrase in real estate ads. Many people who live in these older buildings appreciate the extra space, and even the exterior decorations, which are now considered original and elegant—or, by the more sophisticated, ironically charming.
Simple buildings are not always informal, nor are complex ones formal. A small Greek temple or a New England church is simple and formal, like the greeting, "How do you do?" A log cabin or a bus shelter, on the other hand, is simple and informal, the architectural equivalent of "Hi there!" A French chateau, like an official political speech, is complex and formal, while the witch's overdecorated gingerbread house in "Hansel and Gretel" is complex and informal.
LARGE AND SMALL
A very large building, like a loud voice or a 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. This is even truer if the component parts of the building are also supersized: for instance if it has broad, high doors and windows, and walls built from giant blocks of stone. The imposing effect is increased when we must climb a flight of steps to reach the entrance, as in some churches, museums, and government buildings. Even large, famous, and powerful people are dwarfed by structures like the Houses of Parliament, Notre Dame Cathedral, many famous opera houses, and the Supreme Court of the United States, with its long flight of steps and giant columns.
Inside, oversized proportions emphasize the significance of whatever the building contains or represents. Massive double doors, immense entrance halls and staircases, high ceilings, and long wide corridors suggest that the building's natural or symbolic residents (Gods, Kings, Politicians, Art, Music, Drama, Education, Science, Justice) are important and powerful, while we are relatively small, insignificant, and weak. In the vast entrance hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, for instance, visitors are dwarfed literally and symbolically not only by the oversized, echoing space, but by the tall Corinthian columns and the huge and famous flower arrangements, which resemble wedding bouquets for giants.
Excerpted from The Language of Houses by Alison Lurie, Karen Sung. Copyright © 2014 Alison Lurie. Excerpted by permission of DELPHINIUM BOOKS.
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