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Originally published Sunday, August 31, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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‘The Language of Houses’: Buildings speak our language

Alison Lurie’s “The Language of Houses: How Buildings Speak to Us” looks at how buildings and humans interact, from the humblest of cottages to the most grandiose of mansions, from ivy-covered colleges to ultramodern megachurches.

Special to The Seattle Times


“The Language of Houses: How Buildings Speak to Us”

by Alison Lurie

Delphinium Books, 308 pp., $24.95

“A building is an inanimate object, but it is not an inarticulate one.”

That opening line from Alison Lurie’s new book, “The Language of Houses: How Buildings Speak to Us,” is so epigrammatically complete and concise that there’s almost no need to expand upon it.

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Lurie (“Foreign Affairs,” “The War Between the Tates”) does expand upon it, of course, in a book meticulously packed with facts, paradoxes and observations.

Some of her observations can be over-obvious (“Small rooms encourage intimacy — large ones favor formal behavior”). It can also feel at times as if she’s holding forth on our civilization’s architectural nuances for the benefit of extraterrestrials who’ve never seen so much as a Quonset hut.

“The Language of Houses” is nevertheless 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.

Buildings, she notes, can express nostalgia or homage to past civilizations: “The equivalent of archaic words and phrases often appear in architecture.” They can also lie, as they did in towns in the Old West that added fake second-story facades to one-story structures to make the place seem more built-up and prosperous than it really was.

Public buildings speak to us, Lurie observes, while our homes speak for us (albeit within the constraints of our budgets and our gifts for expressing ourselves in design terms). Building materials — wood, brick, marble, granite — convey messages, too, to do with status or purpose.

What buildings express, moreover, can change over time. Think of how architectural fashion has affected Seattle’s King Street Station, recently restored to its 1906 glory after decades of being covered up with dropped tile ceilings deemed more alluringly “modern” in the 1960s than the original design.

The things buildings say can even be self-destructive. Ivy on college-campus brick walls, she writes, sends a powerful message about academic tradition — but it wrecks the buildings themselves.

Lurie is alert to how architecture can be “a cause of human action and feeling, rather than an effect.” Supermarket layouts, for instance, by placing must-have staples like eggs and milk at the back of the store, ensure that customers see more optional items throughout the store.

One oddity of the book is the fastidiously impersonal tone Lurie takes in its first half. In its second half, she relaxes more, throwing in some personal anecdotes. She also, after coming across as a bit of a space alien herself, starts to have overt fun with the notion.

“A visitor from outer space,” she writes, “might well conclude that the God who lives in a megachurch is a politician, public official or rock star, who loves loud music and big crowds.”

“The Language of Houses” covers its ground diligently, whether that ground is instantly familiar or entirely unexpected.

Michael Upchurch is an arts writer for The Seattle Times.

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