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A photo of the cover of "The Language of Houses" by Alison Lurie.

In her latest book, Alison Lurie delves into building design and decoration—and how they, consciously or unconsciously, say who we are.

Photograph courtesy of Delphinium Books

Simon Worrall

for National Geographic

Published August 17, 2014

A critic once remarked that Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alison Lurie writes so simply that a cat or a dog can understand her. It was meant as a compliment and taken as such. In her new book she turns her lucid gaze on a subject baffling to many of us: architecture.

In this candid interview she talks about what buildings tell us about their owners' aspirations and politics, why she built houses for fairies as a child, how she feels about being compared to Balzac and Jane Austen, and what her own home in upstate New York reveals about her.

The subtitle of your new book is "How Buildings Speak to Us." Can you unpack that idea a little?

Well, I believe any building, any house, any room even, is talking to us in its own language. We often hear or register the message subconsciously, but it's there. Sometimes the message is deliberate—the designer wants us to feel the way we're feeling. Sometimes it's completely unconscious. I don't think that most people set up their sitting room in order to say things like I'm a world traveler, or I love to read, or I don't like to sit too near to other people. But the message is there, and we pick it up.

Can you give me some examples?

If you think of the standard Victorian parlor, often there are as many as three sets of curtains at every window. There would be a sort of net curtain, then there would be a chintz curtain, and then there would be heavy velvet drapes, which were closed at night.

And if you look at paintings or photographs of these rooms, the exterior is shut out. Now if you look at ads in the paper today for new apartments in a big city, what you see are vast expanses of glass. Everything is open. Everything is visible.

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So are we more narcissistic and voyeuristic as a culture than our Victorian forebears?

I don't think so.

But we want to be seen...

I think that we're willing to be seen more. Like the difference between the Victorian bathing suit and the modern bikini—we're willing to expose ourselves more. Or so it seems. Of course, the private, internal life may be just as hidden.

You're best known for such prize-winning novels as Foreign Affairs. Why did you want to write a nonfiction book about architecture at this stage in your life?

Throughout my whole adult life I've written fiction and nonfiction. And when I can't think of a good idea for a novel, I'll write about something else that I'm interested in. And I've got lots of interests. I've written a couple collections of essays on children's literature, for instance. And I've, of course, written the prequel to this book, called The Language of Clothes. It's about what clothes mean, how we express ourselves, sometimes without meaning to, by what we're wearing. I don't know that many stories that I want to tell. So in between the stories I just talk.

In an interview I read you recalled how as a child you built houses for the fairies in your backyard. Is that where your interest in architecture and buildings started?

[Laughs.] I don't know. It's possible. I think it was more that I wanted to believe that the world was magical and that, maybe, if you built a house for fairies, they would come. It's just like you might say today that if you make your house comfortable and warm and beautiful, people will want to come and visit you. I think it was that kind of impulse.

You say that our houses are as shameless as a tabloid, revealing all about the people who live in them. What are some of the things a private house can tell us?

I think it can tell us things like whether the people who live there are happy or unhappy, whether they're well organized or inwardly chaotic, whether they're friendly or unfriendly, even how they get on with each other.

If you have children, in the beginning they're living in rooms that they didn't design. But as they get older, the rooms become much more individual. And finally, when they're teenagers, the message of a teenager's bedroom is completely different from the message of his or her parents' bedroom. Sometimes even shockingly so!

You suggest that we can even tell a person's political beliefs from their house.

We showed a lot of pictures of houses to students at Cornell, where I teach, and asked, What sorts of people live in these houses? And right away they jumped in and said, Oh, the people who live in this house are Republicans, or they're arty, or they have a lot of kids and don't control them very well, because the yard is full of abandoned plastic toys. They knew right away what made up the lives of the people in these houses. It was quite amazing how quickly they did this and how sure they were.

There are many references to buildings in literature. In what ways is architecture useful for a novelist?

It's just like clothes. You can use architecture as a kind of shorthand to talk about what people are like or to set a scene. You can describe a house and say something about the people who live there to your reader without spelling it out. In Henry James's The Spoils of Poynton, one of the principal female characters has a complete identification with the things she's collected, which are mostly antiques and luxury goods. They tell people she's artistic and sensitive and romantic and all the things she wants to be or believes she is. And James does this deliberately.

Another classic example is Miss Havisham's room in Great Expectations. It's the dining room where the wedding banquet was going to take place but didn't. And she's left it as it was on that day. So now it's covered in cobwebs; mice are running along the table eating the rotting birthday cake. Rather than just saying, This woman has been devastated and driven half mad by being stood up on her wedding day, Dickens describes that room.

Tell us about some of your favorite buildings.

I like buildings to be a little bit odd, because I've looked at so many pictures of buildings, and after a while I got a little bored with, or in some cases even suspicious of, buildings or rooms that are too regular. I prefer houses and buildings that are willing to be a little personal, a little eccentric. I like going into a house where there are strange objects and odd pictures and things that people have found on their travels and brought back.

There's a wonderful building in Wales called the Woodland Home. It's known locally as the Hobbit House, because it looks like it grew out of the ground. The roof is grass. Like Tolkien's own illustrations of Hobbit houses.

Houses or buildings people have designed themselves are usually very interesting—like the buildings in Barcelona that Gaudí designed. They have strange little balconies and odd-shaped windows and turrets, and you just feel that Gaudí had a wonderful time designing these places. (Related: "The Big Idea: Biomimetic Architecture")

In the chapter "Houses of Learning," you write that public school buildings say a lot about class. Can you explain that?

Unfortunately what happens is that schools rich people attend are usually beautiful and well kept and spacious. The schools that poor people go to tend to be ugly and poorly maintained, and sometimes even dirty, because money hasn't been allocated to clean them. And I think this is a very important thing, because kids learn about who they are by where they live and where they go to school. If you walk into your school and the rooms are dark and ugly, it says: This is a second-class school, and this is where you belong. You're a second-class person.

You've been compared to Jane Austen, Proust, Balzac, and Evelyn Waugh. How do you feel about that?

[Laughs heartily.] I think it's very nice but a little over the top! But one thing I do have in common with these writers is that I'm interested in family relationships and childhood and memory. There are other writers I would never be compared to. I mean, no one is ever going to compare me to Hemingway or Conrad.

What does your house tell us about you?

I'm talking to you sitting in what used to be called a Morris chair, in my bedroom. It's a house where I've lived since 1976, almost 40 years. We're on a road that has houses on both sides, but behind them are woods and fields. If you walk out of the back door, you see fields of hay. But if you go out the front door, you're on a street of houses.

Inside, the house is full of things that are part of our history: paintings that my parents or my husband's parents had; things we've bought here locally from artists we know or that my husband brought back from Africa and India, where he was a Fulbright scholar as a young man.

What would your dream house look like if you designed one?

It would be very much like this one, except it would be farther from the road. It was originally a farmhouse, so it was built close to the road. In those days all traffic was by horse and wagon—and the snowblower hadn't been invented—so you wanted to be as near to the road as possible. Houses built more recently are set back about 50 feet. But ours is only set back around 15 feet. So I'd like to move the house back. And I'd like a bigger sitting room. But otherwise it's just fine.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

9 comments
Matthew Buchannon
Matthew Buchannon

Is this a joke? What does this have to do with National Geographic? They are so desperate to put content out 24/7 they will publish anything...

Jarrod Baniqued
Jarrod Baniqued

I wonder if she's read The Fountainhead. I think she might like Howard Roark's houses...Maybe translate them into real life.

MADHU THANGAVELU
MADHU THANGAVELU

Very down to Earth. Must read for architects, especially for students of Architecture. I always thought that the profession is well heeled in reality, after all architects dictate what we live in and move around town and city. So the built environment that shapes our behavior and culture is heavily influenced by designers. Once in a while, ever so gradually,  science technology lends a helping hand and we see the new and progressive face of architecture, But in the end, it seems humans like to hold on to values instilled in them by childhood, culture and customs, so the more aggressively architects pursue change and futurism, the more things remain the same. We want our surroundings to look permanent, perhaps ? I am attached to things like my grandfather's clock(real grand father's real clock !) and my great grandfather's tall and ornate  lamp that was lit while he performed dance on stage.

Clark Bennett
Clark Bennett

I stopped reading after the paragraph about window treatments in Victorian parlors vs window treatments in modern homes. These difference are based primarily on the advent of mechanical HVAC systems and the use of better constructed windows.

Greg Fietz
Greg Fietz

Thank you Alison for helping me understand myself and my friends that little bit more. What you say is so simply correct. We should all learn, or be taught or and encouraged to express our real selves more. I have always chosen friends, journeys, cars, houses to have an individual 'character'. 

Simon Worrall
Simon Worrall

Click on the links, Susan. You should find some there.

Matthew Buchannon
Matthew Buchannon

@Matthew Buchannon this belongs in an in-flight magazine at best. After four decades of following it saddens me to say National Geographic has lost it's way. The online presence is following the Channel's demise, and the Magazine is following too especially with below-par photography like Cory Richards in the current edition. In the end if it's rubbish it's rubbish. 

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