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The Language of Houses

The Language of Houses

by Alison Lurie

In 1981 Alison Lurie published The Language of Clothes, a meditation on costume and fashion as an expression of history, social status and individual psychology. Amusing, enlightening and full of literary allusion, the book was highly praised and widely anthologized.

Now Lurie has returned with a companion book, The Language of Houses, a lucid,


In 1981 Alison Lurie published The Language of Clothes, a meditation on costume and fashion as an expression of history, social status and individual psychology. Amusing, enlightening and full of literary allusion, the book was highly praised and widely anthologized.

Now Lurie has returned with a companion book, The Language of Houses, a lucid, provocative and entertaining look at how the architecture of buildings and the spaces within them both reflect and affect the people who inhabit them. Schools, churches, government buildings, museums, prisons, hospitals, restaurants, and of course, houses and apartments—all of them speak to human experience in vital and varied ways.

The Language of Houses discusses historical and regional styles and the use of materials such as stone and wood and concrete, as well as contemplating the roles of stairs and mirrors, windows and doors, tiny rooms and cathedral-like expanses, illustrating its conclusions with illuminating literary references and the comments of experts in the field.

Accompanied by lighthearted original drawings, The Language of Houses is an essential and highly entertaining new contribution to the literature of modern architecture.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
According to Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Lurie (Foreign Affairs), buildings make statements “in brick and stone... metal and glass” if one knows what to look for. In this companion to The Language of Clothes, the author shows how architecture, buildings, and spaces affect us and how they reveal a wealth of information about their inhabitants. A lighthearted and lucid narrator, Lurie unearths the historical, psychological, social, and emotional meanings of public and private spaces: churches, museums, schools, colleges, hospitals, prisons, hotels, retirement communities, offices, stores, restaurants, and homes. Making use of ample wisdom from architectural historians, sociologists, philosophers, art critics, environmental psychologists, and others, Lurie discusses architecture as a moral force. For example, she writes about the way weather affected how houses were built in different parts of the country; the evolution of popular religious architecture in 19th- and 21st-century America and the particular denominations drawn to each style; and the way current concerns about safety have affected school and playground designs. At times, Lurie belabors the obvious (less welcoming homes have “high wall around the whole property”), though, overall, her observations are witty, insightful, and playful, particularly in the chapter on religious buildings: “Some churches in southern Germany and Austria, with their gilt barley-sugar pilasters and whipped-cream cupids and angels, suggest a highly romantic nature, with a craving for sweets.” Illus. throughout. Agent: Melanie Jackson, Melanie Jackson Agency. (Aug.)
Wall Street Journal
The Language of Houses …. makes a powerful argument that how we choose to order the space we live and work in reveals far more about us.… full of mischievous apercus, and Ms. Lurie at her best is bracingly subversive….a mine of adroit observation, uncovering apparently humdrum details to reveal their unexpected, and occasionally poignant, human meaning.”
Seattle Times
“. . . a book meticulously packed with facts, paradoxes and observations. . . . a rich compendium of information, exploring how we inhabit our homes, our offices and our places of learning, leisure and worship, from every conceivable angle, in neatly organized chapters addressing each category of building.”
Boston Globe
“Lurie maintains a light touch with such damning observations. . . One of the book’s best chapters treats public high schools. . . .its insights into our vanity, and capacity for almost negligent public construction, are ripe for the gleaning.”
Edmund White
“Alison Lurie, in her lucid, jargon-free way, allows us to read what architecture is saying. She has culled the best ideas from a vast secondary literature and passed it all through the sieve of her brilliant mind.”
James McConkey
“There's much to absorb in this sequel to Alison Lurie's The Language of Clothes, but The Language of Houses is an extraordinarily absorbing book—it wears its learning lightly, holding this reader's attention the way a fine novel does. I was particularly fascinated by the linked chapters on religious buildings and museums.”
Louis Begley
The Language of Houses has every quality you would expect from a work by Alison Lurie: intelligence, authority, wit and charm.”
Library Journal
Architecture can make a person feel many emotions including joy, awe, sadness, and foreboding. Lurie (English emerita, Cornell Univ.; The Language of Clothes) builds on this idea as she posits that architecture is a language that naturally conveys meaning to those who look upon a building. The author explores various types of buildings—houses of worship, prisons, offices, hotels, restaurants, schools, and shopping malls—and demonstrates how architectural choices influence how people feel and act within a structure. The bulk of the book covers residences, as in how these structures' size, building materials, decorations, and landscaping all play a role in how the building and its inhabitants are perceived. The material is highly readable and accessible and is most appropriate for casual readers as the author tends to generalize the psychological and social effects of architecture without the benefit of scholarly rigor. Additionally, Lurie is primarily concerned with architectural styles within the United States. VERDICT For casual readers interested in learning about architecture in the United States.—Rebekah Kati, Duke Univ. Pr., Durham, NC

Kirkus Reviews
A noted novelist (Truth and Consequences, 2006, etc.) returns with a generally genial but sometimes-slicing analysis of our buildings and their interior spaces.In the tradition of her earlier work (The Language of Clothes, 1981), Lurie’s new volume proceeds both thematically and chronologically (within chapters). She devotes sections to such types of buildings as private homes, religious structures, museums, schools, “houses of confinement” (prisons, hospitals, asylums, nursing homes), hotels and restaurants, stores and offices. She asks us to consider exteriors: What do they tell us about the building and its intents? What do they tell us about what we’ll experience inside? (Consider: a school that looks like a factory, a museum that resembles a palace, a retirement community that looks like a resort.) Lurie also takes us inside to help us see more clearly what’s before us: an office with cubicles, an elementary schoolroom with rows of desks bolted to the floor, a church that looks like a Gothic cathedral or like a theater complex. The author occasionally inserts a few personal comments, mentioning, for instance, that in her home, a spare bedroom serves the function of the attic (now missing in many newer homes). She also shows flashes of attitude here and there. Having discussed the pervasiveness of electronic devices in students’ lives, she notes how “silence and solitude” have become “either irrelevant or frightening or both.” Although Lurie alludes to multiple nonspecialist sources (and periodically offers quotations), her interest is not so much academic as analytical; on every page, she has us consider something we might not have thought of—e.g., did you ever wonder why supermarkets place ordinary staples (milk, eggs, etc.) very far away from the entrance?In clear, patient prose, the author encourages us to stop and think about what has been in front of us our entire lives.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

Meet the Author

Alison Lurie, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Foreign Affairs, has published ten books of fiction, four works of non-fiction, and three collections of tales for children. She is a former professor of English at Cornell University, and lives in an old house in upstate New York with her husband, the Writer, Edward Hower.

Brief Biography

Ithaca, New York; London, England; Key West, Florida
Date of Birth:
September 3, 1926
Place of Birth:
Chicago, Illinois
A.B., Radcliffe College, 1947

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