I have argued Americans prefer McMansions to modernist homes. Another reason this might be the case: the glass modernist house works better on certain kinds of properties.
But it wasn’t until they found the perfect piece of property in the Lake Minnetonka community of Woodland that they were able to make their glass house dream a reality.
They’d been planning to sell their three-story Arts & Crafts-style home in Orono, and were on the hunt for secluded, wooded acreage in the western suburbs…
In 2012, a 6-acre property with wetlands, a bog and a small lake popped up on the MLS. The land, which was in foreclosure, was in Woodland.
Kathleen was entranced by the tiny woodsy hamlet of twisting and turning roads. So, the couple consulted architect Tim Alt of ALTUS Architecture + Design about the property. He advised them to go for it.
This home holds all kind of appeal to modernists: black, low to the ground, lots of windows, multiple wings for different uses, and utilizes materials that fit with the unique natural setting. Yet, how realistic is it to expect such a home to be located near other homes? Even residents who like such architecture are unlikely to sacrifice all their privacy by living in this home within a traditional neighborhood. Americans like single-family homes partly because of the privacy they tend to offer away from prying eyes of neighbors of the government.
Then, finding the right kind of property – away from other homes, attractive nature views – becomes an extra burden or set of resources required for this kind of modernist home. These requirements likely mean it is outside the reach of many homeowners. The modernist home becomes the elite home.
All this means that it is unlikely such homes will be popular. Perhaps this was already clear since one of the models for the Minnetonka home dates back to 1949 and that design is not exactly all over the place. Such modernist homes will continue as curiosities or give people a home to aspire to even as they continue to buy mass-produced McMansions and ranches.
One downside of an open floor plan is that it also exposes all the work that goes into daily life:
That is why one company, Schumacher Homes of Akron, Ohio, has a fresh new design on offer: a house with an open floor plan, with its kitchen, dining area, and living room all flowing into one another. But then, behind the first kitchen, lies another. A “messy” kitchen. There, the preparation for or remainders from a meal or party can be deposited for later cleanup, out-of-sight, out-of-mind.
That this is “necessary” at all is a consequence of the rise of the open floor plan in the first place. On the next block or on HGTV, remodels blow out walls, enlarge kitchens, and couple them to the surrounding space. In new construction, enormous great rooms combine hundreds of square feet of living space into singular, cavernous voids, punctuated only by the granite or marble outcropping of a kitchen island. This amorphous, multipurpose space has become the center of domestic life.
It hasn’t always been this way. These layouts first became popular in pre-war modernist architecture, but their origins stretch back earlier, to the turn of the 20th century at least. Then, as now, they promised to tear down obstruction and facilitate connection. But that promise was aspirational from the start: It assumed an equality in the home that has never come to pass. In practice, open-plan design has always been a stage to a quiet struggle between freedom and servitude. That struggle continues today, and messy kitchens won’t put an end to it. It’s just hard to notice when the experience has been sold, universally, as “great for entertaining.”…
In this respect, the open plan might represent the most distinctly American home design possible: to labor in vain against ever-rising demands, imposed mostly by our own choices, all the while insisting that, actually, we love it. It’s a prison, but at least it’s one without walls.
I wonder if another trend truly explains the move to all this open space with kitchens. Americans are eating less at home as they spend more money spent at restaurants than at home. Yet, homeowners, particularly those on HGTV, regularly suggest that the kitchen is the heart of the home. But, could this heart be more of a showpiece or an aspiration than a regularly messy kitchen? Perhaps the open, gleaming kitchen of today is more like the formal living room (now less common in newer houses) of the past: it is a showpiece, is not necessarily used often, and the typical homeowner should be skilled at using the items in the room (even if they do not use it often). The open floor plan is then a selling point, status symbol, and entertaining space but not always a messy space.
The discussion here of modernism is also interesting. I have argued before that American homeowners are not fans of modernist homes but they may be more inclined toward modernism in their kitchens and open spaces. Again, these are showpieces of the new home and as I see these spaces regularly on HGTV I wonder how families actually live in them.
Looking to avoid constructing or buying a McMansion? Here are four of “10 anti-McMansion design commandments”:
1. Thou shalt not build a house with turrets, as it is unlikely to be attacked by hostiles or provide shelter for a damsel in distress…
3. Thou shalt not build a house with a three-car garage as the dominant street-facing feature…
7. Thou shalt not build a house with seven gables when two would be more than enough.
8. Thou shalt not build a big, big house on a small, small lot.
There are two related themes in each of these commandments that goes beyond just avoiding features that are now associated with McMansions. Many of these commandments address two key issues: (1) proportionality and (2) unnecessary features. Regarding the first, specific features – windows, gables, garages – should not appear oversized compared to other features. (I supposed you could have a house where everything is outsized but then it could be criticized as cartoonish compared to normal-sized homes.) Additionally, certain features are not required such as turrets, tall columns, and expansive foyers.
The proposed solution to these McMansion sins is this: “good housing design really means keeping it simple, be the house big or small.” If this is followed to the letter, the simple counter to McMansions would be modernist houses or ranch homes. From the outside, these are simply boxes with limited ornamentation. But, for many, these homes may be too simple. They do not invoke traditional styles. Or, these simpler designs may be viewed as lacking character. They were built in large numbers during the postwar era and came to be associated with suburban sprawl. While McMansions are derided for their construction in more traditional neighborhoods, imagine a typical ranch plopped down in a neighborhood of Victorian homes or a modernist home within the typical suburban subdivision. Even with more reasonable sizes compared to McMansions, I would guess the neighbors would still have concerns.
Americans often can recognize a McDonald’s or Taco Bell anywhere in the country with their familiar architecture. This may be changing:
“What is different now from what we used to do is we are breaking away from a one-size-fits-all model and going to more flexibility, more variations, to end up with a more curated approach,” says Deborah Brand, Taco Bell’s vice president of development and design. Taco Bell has spent the past two years rethinking its restaurant design, and Taco Bell Cantina is just one result. “I think it’s a different approach to value,” Brand says. “We’ve always known that we have inexpensive food that is craveable, but we also look at value as serving the same food at the same price point in a potentially much more elevated dining environment.”…
Many other fast-food chains—“quick-service restaurants,” or QSR, in industry parlance—are doing the same. Restaurants from McDonald’s to KFC to Starbucks are rethinking their spaces inside and out, in a wave of design interventions that, given the sheer number of these restaurants, will spread throughout the U.S. These designs are setting a new standard for the commercial landscape, guiding the look and feel of the stores and restaurants on our streets and in our daily routines….
A quirk of designing for chains with thousands of restaurants and global marketing campaigns means that the design of the physical spaces often has to align with the image of the restaurant being portrayed in advertisements. In recent years, the KFC brand has built its advertising campaigns around an updated interpretation of the chain’s white-haired founder and human mascot, the long-deceased Colonel Harland Sanders, playing on his Southern gentleman character, while also making him, and the restaurant he represents, a little feisty. McCauley and FRCH were tasked with redesigning the restaurants to reflect this new attitude…
Today, in the era of the Taco Bell Cantina, the chain has diversified its approach to design, shifting far away from this signature building style. But branding through architecture is still a strategy used by some fast-food chains. Take the white castle-shaped buildings of the White Castle brand, for instance, or the sloping, hat-shaped red roof of the Pizza Hut chain. In its early years, McDonald’s required that its franchised restaurants use the famed “golden arches,” two parabola-shaped yellow bands on each end of the building that became a form of physical advertising. Now, for reasons such as cost and flexibility, brands are putting less emphasis on highly defined ornamental architecture and paying more attention to the experience of the customer, both in the drive-thru and inside the building.
This has the potential to both make the structures more attractive to certain demographics – and it sounds like the young adult consumer is in the crosshairs – while disrupting a common experience across locations. Are smaller branding elements like logos enough to carry the architecture if it varies quite a bit across locations? Might this chase away older consumers who are used to a particular aesthetic?
Another thought: some of this change may be in response to local guidelines where communities are more resistant to typical fast food restaurants which are viewed as lower-class. There are plenty of McDonald’s and other fast food locations that adhere to local design standards to fit in with the streetscape. Imagine you are a big city and McDonald’s wants to open a new location: would you prefer a standard looking restaurant or something unique that does not immediately scream McDonald’s?
Continuing to draw from a 1953 Harper’s study of six mass-produced suburbs, Harry Henderson discusses an interesting aspect of the cookie-cutter houses:
We are used to the idea that a home, like many other goods one owns, is a means by which people differentiate themselves from others. Your car reveals your personality (or your financial resources). Your clothes celebrate your individuality. Your favorite TV show provides deep insights into your psychology. Your McMansion impresses those driving by with its size. And so on. But, what if residents do not have the luxury of differentiating their exterior?
Henderson suggests they then move their differentiation into activities: what groups are you a part of, what are you contributing, who do you know. But, I think this misses two features about homes:
- Even if these homes were mass-produced, it wouldn’t take long before residents could alter their homes and yards. Indeed, Barbara Kelly in Expanding the American Dream details how residents of Levittown made changes to their homes. People add additions, make landscaping decisions, paint their exteriors, and more. If you look at the streets of these homes sixty years later, you can both pick out some of the common architectural features as well as see significant efforts to stand out.
- After the section cited above, Henderson then goes on to say that the residents then emphasize interior decorating. They may be cookie-cutter homes from the outside but could have very different feels. While this is not as visible to the neighborhood, it does present an opportunity to show family and friends your own unique self.
There are current parallels to the dilemma Henderson poses: residents of condos, townhomes, and apartments have similar issues as their exteriors share characteristics with others around them.
This is also a reminder of a tendency of modern humans to look for ways to secure a higher status for themselves. Even in a supposed middle-class society, Americans want to be seen as their own individual, even if their housing choices are constrained.
One writer suggests the shopping malls of the future will need to offer a unique architectural experience:
My version of the mall game would offer more aggressive architectural interventions. Pop the top, and change the air-conditioned, enclosed food court into an open courtyard with a creek running through it. Cover the tan stucco with silvery panels to give it that au courant “industrial” look. Turn one section of the parking lot into a food truck rodeo, local vendors only. Replace the Dillards with a Spa Castle, or a Nitehawk Cinema. The mall of the future is architecturally ambitious, includes plants and water features, judiciously sprinkled with local retailers and food options, and surrounded not by a donut of surface parking lot but with housing, hotels, even educational facilities.
Don’t get me wrong: Malls are still dying. Credit Suisse estimated that 220 to 275 shopping centers, 20 to 25 percent of the current stock, would close within the next five years. We built too many, too cheaply. And it would cost too much to make many of them a worthy destination in 2018.
But even in the age of Amazon, people still leave the house, still shop, still eat. Malls have generated their own version of industrial ruin porn, including video. But when I talked to Erik Pierson, the man behind YouTube channel Retail Archaeology, he freely shared that, while his video of Mesa’s defunct Fiesta Mall may have gone viral, SanTan Village in Gilbert is doing just fine.
In an experience based society, going to the mall needs to be an exciting or satisfying experience compared to shopping at a big box store or purchasing items online.
Three thoughts about this suggestion:
- Only certain malls (and in certain areas) will have the resources to try to be architecturally ambitious and not all of them will get it right. My guess is that shopping malls in less well off communities will die off while those in wealthier areas will continue and will be the ones that take more architectural risks.
- Shopping malls have been criticized over the decades for their crass commercialism and their fakeness (acting like public spaces when they are really not, simulating other environments). Would more ambitious architecture make them more or less acceptable to critics? Take water features: they may be interesting to patrons but are they authentic design elements or just another symbol of the artificiality of the setting?
- What about creating malls that have flexible or changing architecture? Designing malls so that they have regularly changing features – as cited above, the “silvery panels” that provide an industrial look could be swapped out every 6 months with different kinds of panels – could help provide an element of novelty and excitement.
As is suggested in the article, perhaps the real secret is to better embed these ambitious malls in already interesting architectural settings. Instead of having to build a destination in the middle of a suburban parking lot, take advantage of already lively spaces and put an interesting and unique mall there.
Realtor.com asks an intriguing question involving McMansions – “So which are America’s housing markets with the biggest cribs, and why?” – but then does not follow through because of a limited definition of which homes count as McMansions:
We sifted through realtor.com listings to figure out which of the 150 largest metros had the highest percentage of homes on the market that are 3,000 square feet and above. (The average square footage of a new single family home is 2,627, according to the National Association of Home Builders’ analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.) Sure, this includes some tasteful, large homes and legit mansions. But it was impossible to separate those from the McMansions—it’s rare to see the word “tacky” in a home listing.
There are plenty of big homes in the United States – the median square footage of a new home is over 2,400 square feet – but not all big homes are McMansions. The article provides a different definition for McMansions than the one they actually use with the data:
The imposing, ostentatious structures looming over surprisingly wee plots of land. The crazily mismatched architectural styles. The hipped roofs, gabled roofs, and pyramidal roofs—all on the same house! The bank columns. The front yard Romanesque fountains. The puzzling profusion of window sizes and types. The gigantic, two-story front doors.
I can understand how the real estate listings do not easily allow for the easy categorization of homes as McMansions. Few, if any, homeowners and realtors want to advertise their homes using such a pejorative term. Yet, if you are going to use a headline involving McMansions and then talk about the poor architecture of McMansions, then your measure should take these features into account.
How might this be done? A few ideas:
- Take random samples within each metropolitan area and look for specific features.
- Do a survey of realtors, architects, and others who might be able to identify McMansions to get their sense of how many McMansions are in particular areas.
- Train a computer program to scan thousands of images of homes for sale and determine whether the homes are McMansions or not. (The coding scheme would be very similar to the one used in #1.)
These approaches are not necessarily easy but would be essential for actually getting at which AMerican cities have teh most McMansions.
For a more complete definition of a McMansion – including but also beyond their size and architecture, see my summary here.