Two common uses of the word McMansion: to describe teardowns, tied to larger issues of consumption

Earlier this week, I ran across two articles from two major newspapers that illustrate two of the definitions of McMansions.

1. The term McMansion can often refer to teardowns. In the Chicago Tribune, an interesting overview of teardowns in several North Shore communities in the Chicago suburbs uses the term this way:

Critics often pair “tear-down” with the pejorative term “McMansion,” coined more than 15 years ago to describe quickly built, super-sized structures that replace more modest homes. Some neighbors complain that once a home is torn down, there is seldom an effort to blend its replacement with the surroundings…

But now tear-downs seem to be rebounding. Last year, the village [of Winnetka] issued 28 demolition permits. Through March of this year, the village received 10 applications for permits, according to Ann Klaassen, a village planning assistant…

The factors behind the new upswing have changed from a decade ago, when developers and speculators were driven by easy profits. Tear-downs now seem to be the result of the foreclosures that left homes deteriorating.

Whatever the cause, Follett says tear-downs threaten the North Shore’s historic housing stock.

But builders call it a positive sign of an economy finally getting back on its feet, and argue that many buyers just prefer new homes over renovation jobs.

The key here is that teardown = McMansion plus the term McMansion is used as an effective piece of negative rhetoric. This is quite a different idea than a McMansion being built on a cul-de-sac in an exurb. These North Shore communities have a long history and an aging housing stock. The battle over teardowns is taking place in many communities across the United States and one tool at the disposal of preservationists and those who wish to avoid this architecturally incongruent new homes is to label them McMansions.

2. In contrast, an op-ed column in the New York Times about obesity and eating habits in the United States ties McMansions to other objects of excessive consumption:

I lived in Western Europe—in Rome—for two years. And I happen to be in Western Europe—in Lisbon—as I write. And in this part of this continent there’s a different attitude and set of signals about the appropriate amount of food a person should eat than there are in America.

In restaurants and at dinner parties here, portions are much, much smaller. And, seeing them, no one cries foul about insufficient value or inadequate hospitality. We Americans somehow imprinted our nation’s historical and famous “bigger-is-better” mentality onto the way we eat. Our Costco purchases and our supersized meals mirror our S.U.V.s and McMansions: they’re assertions of wealth and expressions of comfort through sheer size.

This matters. Because if, indeed, our evolutionary nature is to grab and gorge on food when it’s there, then we’re best served in the current era of abundance by cultural cues that try to condition us in the opposite direction.

This is a common argument: American culture promotes the idea “bigger is better” and this applies even to our food. But particularly interesting to me is the link between McMansions, Costco, supersized fast food meals, and SUVs. When this argument is made, these objects often are placed together, perhaps to show how pervasive this American mentality is: it covers where we live, what we eat, what we drive, and where we shop. In other words, McMansions are an easy to spot symbol of a larger American issue of excessive consumption.

Overall, I would argue that these are just two of the meanings of the word McMansion. These two articles do illustrate the idea that when people use the term McMansion they don’t necessarily mean the same thing.

2 Responses - Add Yours+

  1. Brian Hickey says:

    Teardowns – the replacement of an existing structure, most often as part of some kind of infill redevelopment. Purpose – evolution not revolution.

    McMansion – a new home that is considered by most (subjective) to be of poor taste, large size and/or quality (aesthetics).

    The connection? When a home has been torn down and replaced with a home of poor design and/or out of character with the surrounding community.

    If a reader is familiar with communities where teardowns are prevalent chances are they will see homes that replace older, most functional obsolete structures, can be beautiful, not so beautiful, and some will be considered a McMansion.

    “McMansions”, as we understand them, can be built in green spaces as well, without the need to teardown and replace any existing housing stock. Therefore, in many cases the two words are mutually exclusive.

    Thanks,

    Brian

  2. […] exactly flattering, the comparison to a McMansion is not a good thing for Facebook. Although the term McMansion has multiple meanings, it is clearly a negative label and is tied to these ideas: excessively large, much larger than […]

Leave a Reply