"The Language of Houses" by Alison Lurie (Delphinium)
How Buildings Speak to Us

By Alison Lurie

Delphinium. 308 pp. $25.95

THE LANGUAGE OF HOUSESAbook with the premise of decoding the unspoken language of houses, written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, certainly has all the makings of an architecture geek’s summer beach read. All the more so because it shies away from an exhaustive summary of materials and styles (parsing the difference between Doric and Corinthian columns is kept to a minimum) and instead takes a broad look at the design of museums, residences, schools, prisons and restaurants — to name a few of the featured categories — and how they have evolved over time.

The tone of Alison Lurie’s “The Language of Houses” is light and breezy. “A small Greek temple or a New England church is simple and formal, like the greeting, ‘How do you do?’ ” she writes. “A log cabin or a bus shelter, on the other hand, is simple and informal, the architectural equivalent of ‘Hi there.’ ” Her 1981 book, “The Language of Clothes,” directed a similar lens at fashion; her 1984 novel, “Foreign Affairs,” won the Pulitzer for fiction. Not surprisingly, there’s a literary bent to her latest undertaking, with allusions to the work of Charlotte Brontë, Tom Wolfe, Joyce Carol Oates and Michael Lewis, whose decision to rent a seven-bedroom, $13,000-a-month New Orleans mansion at the height of the real estate boom gave him personal insight into the American penchant for overspending on a dream home.

Yet “The Language of Houses” turns out to be a disappointment — in the book’s parlance, a postwar brick number with structural issues and dated decor. In Lurie’s hands, overgeneralized, superficial passages are as common as bland government office buildings in Washington. For instance: “In many large cities members of different racial or ethnic groups tend to live in separate areas, identifiable to visitors by stores and restaurants with signs in Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Russian, or other foreign languages. The presence of several Catholic or Greek Orthodox churches, Muslim mosques, or Jewish temples and synagogues, of course, suggests that many of their congregants dwell nearby.”

Or this, from a section on hotels: “Piles of clean towels in the bathroom are promising — plastic glasses are not. A selection of free shampoo, conditioner, and lotion is a standard amenity: their lack announces that the place is on the skids. A TV or air-conditioning unit that does not work, or makes a loud rattling noise, is another ill omen.” At certain points, the book reads like a collection of observations recorded by tribes from Papua New Guinea visiting America for the first time. Nor is there much deep, substantive reporting, and promising leads are often left unexplored. Lurie writes, for instance, that according to a recent study men tend to design spaces that might be classified as “prospect” (grander, open areas), while women tend to create places of “refuge” (more enclosed and cozier). (Frank Lloyd Wright used the terms “perching” and “nesting.”) And while Lurie correctly observes that architecture still is very much a male-dominated pursuit, she fails to ask what that means for the design of built environments, or why the push to expand the influence of women in the profession is so important.

Her chapter on hospitals neglects the rise of evidence-based design, in which architects use research about how design choices affect patient outcomes to inform new projects. The chapter on houses of commerce glosses over the rise of open-office design as an antidote to cubicle-land, in which the collaboration-speak and loss of private space have sparked a backlash among some workers. (A glimpse into the most visionary Silicon Valley offices would have added depth to the section.)

As for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, which recently moved its collection to a new museum in Center City Philadelphia after a protracted legal struggle, replicating the layout and scale of the former galleries in suburban Merion — that case, a microcosm of the art world’s shifting priorities, is dispensed with in one sentence.

Lurie offers a few enticing truffles for architecture geeks. We learn that the Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston has a McDonald’s with drive-in service (parishioners need not go spiritually or physically hungry). And 13 institutions in the United States are dedicated to the tenets of intelligent design, notably the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., where, according to its Web site, “Children play and dinosaurs roam near Eden’s Rivers.” (Discovering how the museum handles the inconvenient truth of the fossil record might make the place worth a visit.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the stronger chapters is on houses of learning (Lurie is an emeritus professor of American literature at Cornell University). She documents the adaptive use of former Wal-Marts and other big-box stores as new grade schools — although, once again, more project-specific details would have been welcome. And she notes that experiments at the University of Rochester and other institutions have shown that students who sit at the front and center of a lecture hall tend to get better grades than students at the sides or in the back. More strikingly, even when seats are assigned alphabetically, those at the front and center still tend to perform better.

In reading “The Language of Houses,” one can’t help but think of Lurie as one of those back-row students who’s churned out a superficial term paper that glosses over substantive themes. It’s not enough to salvage what was an enticing premise for a book.

Wills is a senior editor at Architect magazine.