Defining a McMansion, Trait #3: Architecture and design

When I tell people that I have published about McMansions, the same question almost always arises: “What exactly is a McMansion?” My paper defining the McMansion answers this but in a series of posts here, I want to update the definition based on what I have seen in the last five years.
The size of the McMansion – whether absolute or relative – is important but not all large houses are McMansions. Another key trait is the architecture and design of the home. At the least, McMansions are considered to have a mish-mash of architectural styles, an architectural incongruence where the individual pieces don’t seem to go together. One guide to American houses described this as an eclectic style. More negatively, this may be described as garish or buffonish or unrefined. The particular design may have a purpose – to impress viewers – but the architectural purity is dubious or just plain wrong.
The recent Tumblr McMansionHell has great visuals explaining the architectural difficulties McMansions pose. I won’t repeat what is there (see a 2014 post about possibly the ugliest new build McMansion) but considering the design of McMansions leads me to several different areas of thought:
1. If McMansions are not acceptable architecture, what exactly is? American homes display a variety of styles involving historical periods as well as regional designs. (See some of these on one handy poster.) Of course, one of the oddities of McMansion designs is that they tend to colonize both older and regional designs into some new combination. Take, as one example, the ranch home of the postwar era. Are such homes beautiful or functional? Are they the result of mass production processes after World War Two? And yet, with the passage of time, some now find them worth celebrating and preserving.
2. Many Americans may not mind the architecture and design of McMansions. This could be for multiple reasons: Americans prefer other features of homes (such as their size or their location) over the architecture; Americans aren’t well educated in architecture (where exactly is this subject taught?); Americans don’t mind novelty and bricolage. As one Australian architect suggested, perhaps more residents would reject McMansions if their architectural awareness increased.
3. For good reason, including that it is easy to view from the street (whether from passing vehicles or Google Street View), the exterior (particularly the facade) of McMansions gets a lot of attention. Yet, the interior is a bit neglected. I’ve asked in earlier posts whether a home could be not bad by exterior McMansion standards but the interior is McMansion-like (see here and here).
4. I’m fairly convinced that if given a choice between modernist homes (a favorite of some architects and designers) and McMansions, more Americans would choose the McMansion. See earlier posts here and here.
5. I would guess that much of the architectural critique of McMansions is related to education levels. People with more money tend to live in nicer places regardless but think about the stereotypical image of who lives in McMansions or who you have seen or heard criticize McMansions. Additionally, if architects criticize McMansions, are they doing so partly due to self interest? A relatively small percent of American homes are designed by architects and criticizing bad designs could lead to more business.
6. Finally, I’m still waiting to find the builders and architects who would admit to designing and constructing McMansions. There are a variety of ways to get around the term (think “executive home” or “estate homes“) even if the architecture and design of the home clearly signals a McMansion.

13 thoughts on “Defining a McMansion, Trait #3: Architecture and design

  1. Pingback: “Why we love to hate McMansions, but still buy them” | Legally Sociable

  2. Thanks for keeping up on the McMansion topic. I live in a McMansion, and I love it. I love the space, I love the amenities, I love having the ability to entertain more graciously. I don’t love the brick facade with vinyl on three sides; but it is a small annoyance compared to all the things I love about my house. That my neighborhood is filled with cookie cutter homes doesn’t bother me a bit.

    My home is within walking distance to playgrounds, ball fields, community pool, hiking trails, ponds and a river. Within a 3-10 minute car ride, I have grocery stores, pharmacies, movie theater, restaurants, a wide variety of retail shopping, a large municipal sports/rec center, and a branch of an award-winning library system. High-paying jobs have moved out to suburbia, too, in pursuit of the educated and highly-skilled workforce that dwells in McMansionland.

    Yes, my neighborhood is beige. But in spring and summer, it is carpeted in green, and dotted with all manner of blossoming things. And yes, my house is basically beige, too. My doors are hollow-core, my walls are sheetrock, my wood floors are prefinished, and the exterior mixes fake shutters, quoins, Doric columns, and Palladian windows. I suppose I would have turned my nose up at this house in my 20s; back then I opted to buy a charming, drafty money pit. I repaired it, updated it, and expanded it; it became a drafty, renovated, enlarged money pit. It took more than a year to find buyers for that house; they were young and naïve, like my husband and I were when we bought it. But it did sell, and we were free to buy the housing equivalent of a Thanksgiving dinner: comforting, predictable, and a bit over-the-top. I didn’t need my McMansion to be haute cuisine to love it. It’s warm and very pleasant. It’s home. D


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