Thinking about “The Language of Houses”

A review of the new book The Language of Houses summarizes what American houses have to say:

Lurie serves as able guide on an opening overview of basic architectural themes: style, scale, materials. Concepts such as formal and informal, open and shut, darkness and light, as well as the influences of foreign and regional idioms, become the building blocks on which she proceeds into her discussion of dwellings. We learn that the simple, unadorned, home intended to convey “green” values, often uses “old bricks and boards that in fact cost more than new ones,” while a suburban McMansion’s pricey entrance is coupled with cheap siding and exposed ductwork out back. She chronicles the evolution of the Colonial meeting house into Gothic worship sites that are mini-theaters with their raised altars, lavish pipe organs, and stage lighting. Gender differences abound: In homes and offices, men prefer what she calls “prospects”; women, “refuge.”

Lurie’s most interesting material limns trends and their policy implications. “The average new home size in the United States was 2,673 square feet in 2011, up from 1,400 square feet in 1970 and a mere 983 square feet in 1950,” she writes. “Meanwhile, though the average size of the American family has been shrinking, the size of individuals has increased.” Has modern architecture contributed to obesity with its elevators and elevated temperatures, she asks? Or this: Second homes often depart in style, décor, and locale from first homes, suggesting an inner void in our everyday lives for which we seek restitution on the weekends.

“[U]nattractive, cheap, badly designed buildings appear to have a negative effect on both mood and morals,” Lurie writes. Rundown and crowded dwellings communicate danger and neglect. Despite these seemingly obvious truths, Lurie informs us, many public buildings are designed intentionally to resist what one sociologist calls “human imprint.” These — prisons, public housing projects, factories and some offices — have few windows or doors, uniform design, and high security. To the list one might add: big-box stores, public schools, fast-food chain restaurants, airports, and low-budget subway stations. As a category, these instances of “hard architecture” occasion “anxiety, irritation and the (sometimes unconscious) wish to leave. Eventually, those who cannot get out will become restless and angry, or passive, withdrawn, and numb.”

Lurie maintains a light touch with such damning observations. But if we take them seriously, it would seem that the funding and design awards for spaces where large percentages of the population spend most of their waking hours demand greater vigilance on the part of urban planners.

Sounds like it has potential: built environments have the ability to influence social behavior. At the same time, the review suggests there isn’t much data to back up these observations and linking the direct effects of environments to behaviors is more difficult.

Perhaps the bigger issue overall is an American culture that tends to privilege efficiency, leading to clunky houses and buildings that function just fine but don’t offer as much in the way of customization and beauty. If the goal is to get a house that offers value and more space for the money, then considerations like quality materials and creating a good fit between the owners and the house matter less.

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