Architecture Whither the McMansion?
Sometimes architecture embodies more that its function.
Skyscrapers are the image of New York. The White House is more America than a home. And McMansions have become a punchline. When I sought to find land in 1982, a broker pushed a building lot in a McMansion development, pushing its allure by flatly asserting, “We’re talking about some seriously beautiful homes here.”
A neologism first used by the Los Angeles Times in 1990, the word was coined to describe homes built with the ethic of fast food — with superfluous visual condiments and supersized to the point of embodying the Whopper, and just like the Quarter Pounder, made to fit a price point and sell at first impulse.
The McMansion even has its own Wikipedia page, where its definition reflects its disastrous branding:
“… a large, mass-produced dwelling, constructed with low-quality materials, and craftsmanship, using a mishmash of architectural symbols to invoke connotations of wealth or taste, executed via poorly imagined exterior and interior design.”
The value of size over substance captures the spirit of many in my generation, the boomers, who were given every advantage in life by the Greatest Generation — except humility. So as boomer income rose in the generation’s peak earning years, a new aesthetic emerged. Chardonnay, suspenders and shoulder-padded clothing, Madonna’s “Material Girl” on MTV and those Benson and Hedges cigarette ads depicting success. But the most the spectacular exemplar of boomer hubris is my generation’s most lasting leagacy: the McMansion.
Time has not been kind to we boomers. We basically tanked the entire world’s economy with “irrational exuberance” that found its most publicly grotesque distortion in those McMansions. Make no mistake millions of less-than-McMansions had more distortional impact on the credit markets than the hundreds of thousands of McMansion, let alone the one-off attempts by individuals who try to buy social legitimacy by building large homes — the real mansions.
When did McMansions jump the shark? These ungainly icons of ego fell into that awkward place where people try to simulate a reality they do not have. Like the Hummer or sending your kids to private school, the public image of what you consume is part of the value of your choices — and like cosmetic surgery, the results can be unfortunate. McMansions desperately try to check off real estate agent-defined boxes of beauty, but are, sadly, seldom beautiful, let alone “seriously beautiful.”
Like smoking, fewer and fewer want to participate in the guilty pleasure of brazen excess. In fact, it is fashionable to bash the most embarrassing excess in the history of home since we all installed solar collectors to heat our hot water.
A few years ago, blogger/critic Kate Wagner created “McMansion Hell” to express her disdain. Beyond a snarky finger pointing at the obviously ugly, Wagner has a pointed cultural indictment that accompanies her guileless use of real estate photos which she covers in thought bubbles of outrage, irony and sarcasm.
To Wagner, the ugly realities of McMansions are caused by their “cheap materials,” “no concept of mass,” “poor balance,” “horrible proportions,” no “architectural rhythm” — but I think it is more than this critic’s aesthetic litany.
McMansions are the largest physical boomer legacy soon inherited by their children, the millennials, who have had the worst economic birthing since the Great Depression. Kate Wagner was barely in her 20s when she called out the final fruits of 40 years of serial housing booms that afflicted America. But the impact of in-your-face domestic chest-beating is especially present in Connecticut, which realtor.com trumpeted as having the “metro” with the third most McMansions in the country. And that impact was doubled down by the added insult of unending instant “tear-downs” of those homes built in the previous generation in the tight Northeast.
As an architect I have remade any number of these instantly dated ego vehicles. We have also revived any number of raised ranches, garrison colonials and Capes. Often those homes need strategic expansion. But with McMansions, removal of the offending detail and pretense is often the first remediation.
Like all other houses, McMansions are now the home of memories for their owners. Whether popular or not, McMansions are just a place to live, to the point that realtrends.com declared last year that in places that need housing stock,“McMansions are back.” Their flaws are not only stylistic, the shear size of the typical McMansion is an extraordinary flaw in a changing economy.
The vast majority of homes are not only larger than necessary, they are also overstuffed with windows, gable roofs in collision, cheesy trim and “lawyer lobby” double-height entries that are not going anywhere unless they are rethought. Do we change zoning laws to allow quads and triplexes to feed off their subdivided bulk? In the out years, do McMansions provide places for “co-housing” where individuals can live together, as independent homeowners living under one roof?
In the light of their fading luster of excess, McMansions just may need to relearn the wisdom of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who said “less is more.”
Duo Dickinson writes about architecture.