At the end of House by Mouse, the architect is shown in her own favorite leisure environment, which proves to be not a conventional house, but instead a temporary campsite in the forest. It is this sense of inhabitation — inhabitation as living inventively — that runs powerfully through the book. Most of my pleasure lay thus in the sense that through the alchemical magic of the mouse-protagonist’s creativity, each dwelling was not only completely original, but also perfectly and absolutely suited to its occupant, in defiance of orthodoxy. All of the houses were individualized to each animal, not only to bodily needs but also to desires — one might say that each house represents not just a life but also a lifestyle. And since the animals all had highly diverse habits and habitat needs, this individualization stood in for the possible diversity of the human clients that a human architect might design for.

The role of the architect-mouse seemed thus to make habitat, and this is why, in my conception, it was so essential that she focussed on houses. The bubble would have burst had she worked on public buildings, let alone generic, speculative commercial work. I found it endlessly satisfying that the mouse had such happy clients, some of whom she visited in the illustrations (often intrepidly — for instance, donning a diving bell to visit the trout’s undersea palace). These post-occupancy expeditions and evaluations seemed universally joyful and full of gratefulness. In short, I liked the idea of the architect as service provider, solving complex problems through brilliant, unique solutions, all the while ministering to the diverse needs of her satisfied constituents.

And this brings me to the reservations I have as an adult, trained in architecture, looking back at the values encapsulated in House by Mouse. It is still pleasing to see the architect as inventive service-provider, still pleasing to see happy clients, with no evidence of defects lists or rancorous contractual disputes. And it is still pleasing to think of buildings as places where tranquil lives can be played out, in perfect harmony with the character and predilections of the occupants. But what troubles me now is those for whom architectural services are almost always provided — the raw privilege represented by the bespoke pleasure palaces that the mouse designs. Who signs up to be an architect just to make houses for rich people? Perhaps it’s ridiculous that my adult class-consciousness should spoil the pleasure of a childhood world where there were no such things as class, or race, or gender, or any status division between the haves and have-nots. But back then I simply didn’t realize — couldn’t realize — how closely architecture cleaves to wealth and power elites. So for me this has become the unexpected question opened up by children’s books: what could or should be the role of the architect in society?

https://placesjournal.org/article/writ-small/

Naomi Stead