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House of straw, house of stereotype

It has been a while since I read a children’s book, but I can honestly say that even while I was in the thick of reading bedtime stories to my children, I never once was tempted to read stories written from a layman’s perception of what designers, architects, and planners do. Not once! Reviewing our shelves, we have received a few books from relatives (grandparents can’t resist) with architectural themes that are so annoying they make my eyes roll back into my head. I chose three storybooks to review, all for ages 4 through 8, to make my case that architecture-themed storybooks are often pretentious and misguided, and might even negatively shape the minds of our vulnerable children.

The Three Little Pigs: An Architectural Tale, written by Steven Guarnaccia in 2009, is a spin on the classic story, but instead of houses made out of straw, sticks, and brick, the pigs live in architectural masterpieces. The book starts with the pigs leaving their childhood home, which happens to be the Gamble House by Greene & Greene. Each pig is personified as a well-known architect: Frank Gehry, Philip Johnson, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Pig Gehry builds a house out of scraps (Gehry House), pig Johnson builds a house out of glass (the Glass House), and pig Wright builds a house out of stone and concrete (Fallingwater). As in the classic tale, the wolf blows the first two houses down (the ones made out of scraps and glass), leaving pigs Gehry and Johnson to retreat to pig Wright’s house made of stone.

As the wolf is unable to blow down Fallingwater, he lures the pigs to meet him at various other locations, and this is where the story goes off course. Throughout the book, the author and illustrator pepper images of famous pieces of architecture and design, from Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome to Aldo Rossi’s espresso pot. Although I can’t imagine a child humored or truly engaged by the inclusion of these design classics, I suppose they are there to entertain the adult reader, like a version of Where’s Waldo?. Perhaps if there were more irony, humor, or inventiveness with the story line, it would appeal to the ever-so-expansive field of architects and designers who raise children, which then begs the question: Why mess with a classic story to appeal to a microcosm of humanity?

Next on the shelves is Iggy Peck, Architect, written in 2007 by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts. It is the story of a very young boy who loves to build structures out of various media (diapers, pancakes, chalk, etc.) and is egged on by his very fashionable parents. His mom wears Pucci-influenced mini-dresses and gowns, and his father wears tuxedos, but I digress. When Iggy reaches second grade, he meets a soul-sucking teacher who suppresses his passion for architecture and forbids him to build structures or read books about architecture. Without being able to pursue his passion, Iggy becomes a typical bored second grader.

The story takes odd twists and turns, but you can rest assured that Iggy saves the day by building one of his structures in a moment of crisis and is never denied his passion for architecture again. This storybook left me wondering: When has an architect ever been a superhero? Call me cynical, but nothing pops to mind.

Although I’m not buying the story line, I do think that the illustrations are fantastic. I am particularly fond of the outfits that are rendered as if they are collaged onto the characters in the book and the inventiveness of Iggy’s tower constructions. Surprisingly, the buildings illustrated in the book are shown as generic office structures in black and white, and are merely a backdrop to the vibrantly rendered characters.

The classic children’s book, The Little House, written by Virginia Lee Burton, portrays the evils of the city, which probably was the dominant sentiment when it was written in 1942. The story is about a house built in a bucolic setting. The owner loves this house so much that he sets a condition that it can never be sold by any of his relatives. The house is personified as a “she” who observes the rising and setting of the sun, change in seasons, and the transition from horse-drawn cart to automobile. Next she observes a surveyor lay out a major road to connect the countryside to the city. The road is followed by an explosion of development that surrounds and engulfs the house with mid-rise buildings, high-rise buildings, elevated trains, and subway lines, leaving the house in a plume of fumes.

This story leads the young reader to believe that the city is a toxic place, void of any substantial qualities of life; yet, ironically, with every turn of the page, the value of the land the house sits on increases. If written today, the house would be portrayed as a pot of gold, a lucky landowner in the middle of a noble transit-oriented development site. No doubt today’s versions would also do away with the carbon emissions and would illustrate green energy strategies such as wind turbines, photovoltaic panels, and a vertical farm.

Still, The Little House is an engaging story and much better than the two contemporary books, partly because it is about issues we are still wrestling with today — urban density and sprawl — and doesn’t name-drop or portray architects as stereotypes. But of all the annoying characteristics of architects in these depictions, what really gets my goat is that they are all portrayed as men, which is the most dangerous and damaging perception of all; leaving me to wonder what stereotypes we are communicating and reinforcing when we read these stories to children.  ■