Alison Lurie

Alison Lurie, author of the new book, The Language of Houses, at her Ithaca home. 

“I think practically everybody unconsciously registers things, but they don’t articulate them,” said Alison Lurie last month from her home in Ithaca. The novelist, critic, and professor emeritus at Cornell University has spent a long and varied career finding words to express what is often left unsaid in our personal relationships: romantic, familial, societal. Now, in The Language of Houses, she’s turned to translating architectural vocabulary, setting out to explain the symbols, syntax, and ongoing conversation we have with the places in which we find ourselves. 

Published by Delphinium Books, the work is a sequel of sorts to The Language of Clothes, published more than 30 years ago. Tuesday, Sept. 9, Lurie will read from the new work at Buffalo Street Books, at 215 North Cayuga Street, and later in October will present a PowerPoint slideshow of Ithaca buildings to the History Center.

Like all of Lurie’s non-fiction work, it’s accessible without being shallow, jargon-free but with a depth uncommon (in this era) in work aimed at a general reader, and driven by her familiar chatty and breezy narrative voice.

“I’m not speaking down because I’m not up,” Lurie explained in a long-ranging afternoon interview. “I’m an amateur just like you. I’ve never studied architecture. I’ve read a lot of books on the subject, but I take it from the point of view of somebody who goes into a building and feels a certain way and doesn’t exactly know why. And I wanted to find out why do we feel this way?”

Lurie is best known for her novels — sharp social satires of academics and other members of the upper middle class who find themselves trapped by their surroundings, and bound by the societal structure of post-war and Boomer America—and her own academic studies in children’s literature—for which she became the second tenured professor at Cornell. But the near nonagenarian (she celebrated her birthday on Sept. 3) shows no sign of slowing. And The Language of Houses teems with the sort of insight readers have come to expect from the wry writer. 

•     •     •

Architecture has always been as much a personality in Alison Lurie’s work as the shrewdly drawn characters that inhabit her fictional world. Glass and garb become much more: a young protagonist in only cashmere and slacks on a frigid November morning is numb to the weather, and to the affections of her pompous husband; a memory of a stained-glass panel transforms a doctor’s office into “a kind of church” for a young academic; and the counter-culture is full of fat flowing dresses. 

The yellow farmhouse on Jones Creek Road in The War between the Tates is featured as prominently as the title characters that live there. The battleground for an exasperated and then estranged married couple, the home sings in metonymy: a sagging leaking roof, a worn-thin red kitchen floor, and the cellar “dark and usually damp, with mottled walls of a sour gray cement that will not hold paint, and a web of rusty pipes and hot-air ducts and wires hanging from the low ceiling.”

Lurie explained the method of writing about architecture for The Language of Houses. “It’s a mixture of talking to everybody I know and asking my students to go out and do surveys and reading as much as I could,” Lurie said.

“There are many causes to why a building looks the way it does. People imitate what they have seen before, the styles; people make decisions for commercial reasons or because they want to attract a certain kind of buyer,” Lurie said. “What architects want to do and what patrons want are different things. Architects want to build something beautiful and original and remarkable. The people who are employing them want something that will look impressive or that will make money. So they’re kind of at odds in many cases.”

She continued: “For example, developers are always trying to lower the ceilings of apartments. So that is why when you buy what is called in New York [City] a ‘pre-war’ apartment you get the high ceilings and the big windows, but you can save money by lowering the ceiling and shrinking the windows. If you take a foot off the ceiling, for twelve floors, you have another twelve feet and you can squeeze in another apartment. So you get these buildings that are like ranks in a post office. And they are just as deep rectangle spaces with one window at the end. And that makes money because people want to live in New York but they’re ugly in fact.”

A third of the book focuses on the materials, components and rooms of family homes. She employs dichotomies to discuss the way in which different-looking houses may reflect their inhabitants. 

“I think clothes and houses are both part of the environment,” Lurie explained. 

Rhian Ellis, an Ithaca writer and former research assistant, said: “Alison is really interested in clothes, and I think she thinks of houses as very, very large clothes,” Ellis said. “But the kind of house you choose is just as important as your clothes.”

The Language of Clothes, the predecessor of her current book, was published in 1981, and similarly examined the syntax and vocabulary, history of costume, style, and uniform. Simply put and entirely self-assured, her conclusions read almost as a long list of Of-Courses. The Russian in his bearskin coat and overcoat is a Russian bear; ostentatious feminine outfitting does reveal subtexts of ownership and power prevalent in fashion. 

With already six novels to her name and a tenured professorship at Cornell University (and three grown sons), Lurie had not yet won the Pulitzer Prize—that would come in 1984 with Foreign Affairs—but her nonfiction writing style was already solidified. 

Lurie deconstructed an obscure language that had already made cameo appearances in her literature. For example, her likening of “co-ed” fashion as akin to paper dolls in The Language of Clothes was a pronouncement made by Brian Tate, Lurie’s foreign policy professor at Corinth College. In her earlier novel Real People, a character at an artists’ colony called Illyria calls out a younger woman’s dress as “wrong—much too old and sophisticated for her … like a child in her mother’s evening gown, trying to act sophisticated and holding up the hem so she won’t trip.” 

•     •     •

For The Language of Houses, Lurie harnessed the collective experience of her student research assistants. “I hired students to do things like when they were going home for vacation to talk to their parents, friends, and neighbors and ask them about what I was interested in at the moment. And they would do a survey with three or four questions, and they would come back and see what people said.”

“At one point they had pictures to show—studies where a picture of a ‘modern colonial house’—a standard tract house—and I got one of the students who understood [Adobe Photoshop] and she produced pictures of the house that were all different colors—a white one and a brown one and a barn-red one like this and a green one and a tan one. And then she asked students which of these houses they would want to live in.” 

She sighed: “Most of them wanted to live in the white one. Some of them wanted to live in the tan one, which I thought was the least interesting of all.” 

“And then she asked some of them what kind of people paint these houses the different colors: most thought that the white house was just a typical suburban one. Well the yellow one—these people want to stand out—one of them said that’s a salesman.”

“They were all just making this up of course. But what it shows is that we make these assumptions so fast and so immediately.”

•     •     •

Though a third of the book focuses on the materials, components and rooms of family homes, The Language of Houses doesn’t limit itself to private residences. Subtitled “How Buildings Speak to Us”, Lurie offers an introductory course on churches (“houses of god”), grade schools and colleges (“houses of learning”), hospitals, asylums, nursing homes and prisons (“houses of confinement”), offices (“houses of commerce”), and many more. 

 “Architects want to make their mark—now that you can design a building that is more important than the art that goes in it, they do. The notorious example is the [Frank Gehry-designed] museum in Bilbao—but it is a piece of sculpture, beautiful in itself, but people who have been there all say the inside is very depressing because the rooms are strange shapes.”

“You begin to notice things—like the fact that public buildings tend to be raised above street level. And the more important they think they are the higher they are. I mean, the Supreme Court is up a couple flights of stairs, though everybody who is in the know goes in the street-level entrance, and takes the elevator. But why do they do this? Well, it is not as it is with the brownstone where you can have an apartment below street level and is still attractive and still has enough light. It is to impress us, and awe us, and make us say, this is an important building and you have to look up to it. And you have to look up to reach ‘art’ or ‘justice’ or ‘government’ or whatever.” 

Lurie returned repeatedly to private residences. “In the next few years you will probably buy a house,” she said. “You might even get married. Are you engaged?” she asked, expectantly. 

•     •     •

Lurie’s own home is a small two-story cottage just outside of Ithaca. The brick-red shingles give the modest home the air of a rustic barn. A stone driveway leads up to the bright porch, where Lurie was watering plants when I approached in my car. Behind lay an expansive field perhaps two acres, and at a distance of perhaps 50 meters from the back deck, a lush and bountiful August garden. 

“There is little here that couldn’t have been here hundreds of years ago,” Lurie pointed out, when I asked her about what her own home communicated about its inhabitant. “Other than my computer, there’s no modern technology to speak of—I’m quite proud of that.”

Lurie was happy to share her opinion on local architecture. “I don’t think ultra-modern architecture is so wonderful for the [Cornell] campus. Harvard has done some of that, but they have mostly kept it to the periphery.”

She raved about the Dewitt Building. “It was the old high school, and you can still see the signs that read ‘boys’ and ‘girls,’ but they have done a wonderful job of doing that over. And it is a lot of people don’t want to go to assisted living; they can take an apartment and walk downstairs, and they have their choice of several restaurants and a grocery store and a bookstore, and I have been in many of those apartments and they have kept the high ceilings and the large windows, and the view of the parks.

The Tompkins County Public Library received some criticism. “First of all, the entrance is designed so that you park on the street, but you walk all the way around the corner. Why is there not a door from the parking garage? And the books are so far from the entrance. It makes sense to put the milk and the eggs and the butter in the back of the supermarket, but I don’t think that’s the thinking at the library. On your way to the fiction you don’t pass any other books. You pass exhibits organized by local schools, and there is a whole lot of extraneous space. Every time I walk around the corner, and up the ramp, and through two sets of doors, and all the way to the book I want, I feel annoyed.”

Fact and fiction can tend to blur. Lurie’s home is on a road that has been plagued with long-term construction, which is widening the street. “It’s terrible,” Lurie said, sounding exasperated. 

At the beginning of The War Between the Tates, her seminal satire of academic life, a new development called “Glenview Heights” contrasts with the Tates’ small home, surrounds and suffocates the modest residence. “[A] ‘Charlestown’ model with false white pillars and wrought-iron balconies glued to the façade, costs twice as much as their house; the ‘Paul Revere’ next to it not much less. The homes are full of expensive build-in appliances; their carports bulge with motorboats and skimobiles. The children who live there watch 25-inch color TV every evening, their eyes.”

Outside on her back deck, the occasional rumble of construction vehicles interrupted a breezy day. “I have sometimes thought that we should have a fence but it is so beautiful to look out there and not have a fence,” she mused waving her hand towards the weeping willow and the expanse of swaying grass beyond.

“She lives in that little tiny farmhouse, and I rather think she would like to live as if on a small farm,” Ellis said. 

•     •     •

Almost ninety, and ten years beyond her official retirement from Cornell, Lurie continues to work on projects and write. She publishes regularly with the New York Review of Books, and though she wouldn’t reveal her next endeavor—“I don’t even show my husband anything until I’ve finished the first draft”—it is clear that she is as sharp and active as ever.

“Even after I retired from Cornell I went on teaching one course for quite a while,” Lurie said, adding gleefully: “for the fun of it.” 

“And I only stopped on one winter day, and I was dragging a briefcase of students papers across an icy lawn, and I decided that it was too much.” She paused, and then added “but I miss it.”

With just under a dozen novels and a short-story collection, as well as four collections of non-fiction, Lurie is a prodigious writer, if not the most published.

“I haven’t published as many books as Joyce Carol Oates, or as Updike, but of course, they didn’t have families to raise,” Lurie said. “Updike did—he would take his children on those little picnics, but his wife really did it all.” 

She added, proudly but not sharply: “None kept house.” §

Alison Lurie’s new work, The Language of Houses: How Buildings Speak to Us, is available now from Delphinium Books. Lurie will read at Buffalo Street Books on Tuesday, Sept. 9.

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