McMansions as misplaced societal priorities

An obituary of a notable architect turned architectural critic concludes with a passage linking McMansions to larger societal ills:

Michael Sorkin, a fiery champion of social justice and sustainability in architecture and urban planning, who emerged as one of his profession’s most incisive public intellectuals over a multifaceted career as a critic, author, teacher and designer, died March 26 at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 71…

“Civilizations are marked by their priorities,” he wrote, “and ours are too given over to prisons, malls, and McMansions and too little to good housing for all, complete and sustainable communities, green energy, rational mobility, structures of succor. Politics programs our architecture. The emblem of Trump’s agenda is a piece of architecture — that absurd pharaonic wall he bruits for the Mexican border. His whole project trumpets control, and his mantra is shared by many an architect: just leave it to me!”

This would fit well into the fourth dimension of the term “McMansion” I discuss in analyzing hundreds of articles in the New York Times and Dallas Morning News that use the term. Here, McMansions are symbols of larger issues. In this case, Sorkin argues that society has the wrong priorities; instead of McMansions, we should look at “good housing for all.”

In this kind of argument, the McMansion is a symptom of larger issues. Fight against McMansions, as some critics and communities have done, and the larger issues still remain. If McMansions are part of larger issues, addressing the design and construction of McMansions may do relatively little to change conditions or address important social problems. Indeed, addressing architecture and local regulations might be much easier to do that considering systemic concerns. What about building large houses in general, not just McMansions? What about incentivizing or requiring the construction of affordable housing? What about sustainability? What about building communities with fewer private spaces and more attractive public spaces? McMansions might be particularly noteworthy – hence McMansion Hell – but they are products of particular conditions and processes.

Perhaps flipping the question around makes for a more provocative conversation: instead of thinking of how McMansions symbolize larger social problems in American society, we could think of whether a more just or equal or good society would or could have as many McMansions. Are they mutually exclusive? Must the McMansions decrease so that better outcomes would result?

Designing homes to be “everything all at once” for times when everyone is home all the time

Americans generally like private single-family homes but are the homes Americans have now designed well for confinement and sheltering in place?

Homes, whatever their size or their layout, are constructed to be part of an ecosystem. They make assumptions about the way their eventual residents will interact with the affordances, and the economies, of the outside world. They assume, generally speaking, that people will commute to work (hence, in suburbs and rural areas, the abundance of driveways and garages). They assume that people will live much of their life outside the home. And they assume that the home’s residents will, as a consequence, have access to goods produced elsewhere: groceries, games, cleaning supplies. (American refrigerators are the size they are because their designers made informed bets about how often their owners would visit a grocery store.)

Apartments in cities make similar assumptions, but in reverse: They assume that the city itself is a meaningful extension of whatever square footage a dwelling might offer. They treat the home as what it often will be, for the resident: one place among many in the rhythms of a day…

Neither scenario accounts for what many Americans are experiencing right now: home as the only place. Home as the everything. The confinement can pose, for some, a direct danger. Jacoba Urist, writing about the “tiny apartment” trend in 2013, noted that large amounts of time spent in enclosed spaces, particularly if those spaces have several occupants, can be a source of stress—especially for kids. A child-protective-services worker recently sent ProPublica a list of worries she has about the people in her care: “that my families will literally run out of food, formula, diapers. That some of them may die for lack of treatment. That some children may be injured or harmed through inadequate supervision as their desperate parents try to work. That stress may lead to more child abuse.” Gwyn Kaitis, the policy coordinator for the New Mexico Coalition Against Domestic Violence, noted in the same piece that “violence increases when you have circumstances such as unemployment and isolation.”…

“In general, it’s wonderful,” Susanka said of the open-concept approach to living spaces. “But when it’s done to an extreme, it makes it very difficult to live in the house, because your noise, whatever you’re doing, goes everywhere.” When the home involves kids, that borderlessness becomes even more acute. A child might need to be entertained or fed while her mom is on a conference call. An older sibling might be playing video games or watching a movie while her dad is trying to cook dinner. Another sibling might need a retreat from his co-quarantiners, and have no place to go. In an open space, one person’s activity becomes every person’s activity. Alone together, all the time: For many, that is the current state of things. The “See Also” section of Wikipedia’s “open plan” article cites only one related page: “panopticon.”

There is a lot to think through here. A few thoughts on what this might mean for homes in the future:

  1. I have seen the suggestion from a few places that more Americans will seek out homes in the future that have dedicated office spaces at home. Without a room that can be closed off and relatively quiet, it can be hard to work from home when everyone else is also home.
  2. Will this push more Americans to seek out more square footage in their dwellings? The argument can go like this: you never know when you might need that extra space (such as during a pandemic). An extra room or two could be converted to office space or classroom space or food/toilet paper storage when residents need to stock up. Additionally, does this experience limit how many people will be willing to bet on a tiny house?
  3. A push toward further integration of technology into houses. If people are working from home and spending all of their time there, imagine dwellings with screens and speakers in every space, effective wi-fi everywhere, and both ample space for sitting and standing (with the need to stand and work to vary it up and move around). Carrying a laptop, a tablet, or a phone around to every interior space may not cut it.
  4. Earlier evidence suggested people congregate around the kitchen while other parts of the house go relatively unused. The kitchen might still be a gathering space but perhaps more attention and innovation will come to other spaces that in earlier times would be relatively ignored. When a bedroom has to serve more purposes, perhaps this means there will be different furniture or amenities there.

Proposal to build federal government buildings in a classical style

A draft executive order suggests new federal government buildings should be constructed in a particular style:

A draft of an executive order called “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” would establish a classical style, inspired by Greek and Roman architecture, as the default for federal buildings in Washington and many throughout the country, discouraging modern design.

The order, spearheaded by the National Civic Art Society, a nonprofit group that believes contemporary architecture has “created a built environment that is degraded and dehumanizing,” would rewrite the current rules that govern the design of office buildings, headquarters, and courthouses, or any federal building project contracted through the General Services Administration that costs over $50 million…

If a style other than classical is proposed for a project, the order establishes a high bar for getting approval: it would establish a presidential “re-beautification” committee to review designs and would still give the White House final say. Benjamin Forgey, the former architecture critic for The Washington Post, called the order “profoundly mischievous,” and said it would eliminate the ability of architects to consider contemporary design and context when creating new government spaces…

The proposed mandate has triggered protests from architects and critics of the administration who say the president should not have the ability to issue a top-down mandate on how government buildings should look. News of the draft first appeared in the Architectural Record.

Administrations and bureaucrats only last for a while, buildings can last decades or even centuries. This is no small matter: how buildings are designed and who gets to design them has the potential to influence future workers, visitors, and neighbors for a long time. Together, the collection of buildings in key centers like Washington D.C. create an entire atmosphere that connects to larger ideas about the government and the United States.

There could be several ways to read this debate. Architects need commissions and public commissions like large federal buildings are significant. Perhaps this is more personal; Donald Trump’s design choices would be considered more garish and less sophisticated (let alone his political stances and views). Putting design choices in the hands of a president sends a different message than using a public committee or primarily drawing on the expertise of architects.

If I had to guess, more Americans would side with classical architecture versus modernist designs. I have argued Americans lean away from modernism with houses. I would think the same is true with important public buildings: the public is more comfortable with and familiar with classical design, they associate it with history and longevity, and modernist designs leave them feelings colder even if the structures are impressive. It is hard to imagine a modernist capitol building at the state or federal level. A bureaucratic modernist building might make more sense, particularly given the way many Americans feel about bureaucracy.

 

Depicting heaven, hell, and in between through mid-century modern, the 1980s, and the Getty Center

The creators of The Good Place aimed to create a specific aesthetic for the locations on the show:

Rowe: There’s a signature that is heavily inspired by mid-century modern. Not just because it looks cool and clean, but because [the creative team] made a very deliberate dedication to a certain style per world. So the ’80s were the Medium Place. The Mad Men era was the Bad Place. The heightened, more European, I would say, version of that influenced the backlot. Dan Bishop created that cute, charming, endearing vibe from European villages. Those ice-cream colors and those colorful pops in our flowers—those defined what the rest of the world would look like.

It’s very important to point out that [Ted Danson’s character] Michael was an architect, and that was a character choice from Mike Schur that influenced everything from there. What architect going to school, at any stage doesn’t love mid-century modern? Plus the age of the actor—he’s all dressed up. If he was designing kooky ’80s architecture or ’70s skyscrapers, I don’t know if those would fit.

The focus on European villages gets at some features of desirable places: existing at a human scale, full of street-level activity including food and shopping alongside people talking and walking, and a relatively small set of people. (One feature of these some villages that might be missing on the TV show: the homes seem to be set apart from the village area, separating home and work.) While the village streetscape could be part of a larger city (perhaps each neighborhood or district has a village area like this), it hints at more small-town life. Residing in smaller-scale villages might fit better with human history than the substantial urbanization of the last two centuries. At the same time, we view big cities as centers of progress and human achievement. Perhaps the choice of villages hints at human desires for social connections and a human scale rather than big cities. (But Michael’s depiction is not what it seems – so is this commentary about European villages?)

As for heaven itself:

Rowe: When heaven showed up, it was pretty much unanimous right away that they wanted to shoot at the Getty [Center, an art museum in Los Angeles]. There was a lot of discussion that happened to help the Getty get on board, because obviously they have a brand they want to protect. The location manager went and said, “It’s a show about heaven, and we’re showing the Getty as a place of paradise.”

We actually didn’t do that many things there, because the architecture speaks for itself. People breeze through that museum, and you can ask them, “Oh, did you see any paintings?” And they’re like, “Yeah, I kinda saw the modern stuff upstairs, but I was basically outside the whole time.”

The Getty Center is indeed a unique building and it connects modern architecture, gardens, and a view overlooking Los Angeles. As an oasis set apart from the Los Angeles bustle, I could see how it would be compared to heaven:

Getty2

Comparing depictions of heaven across time and cultures could prove to be a fun exercise. How much do the depictions reflect contemporary tastes or standards? If the architects of today or those with architectural knowledge generally like mid-century modern, this is what they might prefer heaven to look like. Would Christians throughout the United States agree? There have been too many depictions of clouds for that not to show up somewhere and ancient Greek architecture – familiar to Americans in a number of important buildings including government structures – might be popular. Would heaven look more like the nondescript suburban megachurches of today or more like a Gothic cathedral? Or, would Americans prefer heaven to look like mansions in a well-kept suburb or prefer it to be more about nature? And global depictions would likely differ significantly from these options.

Gendered McMansions, Part 1: big and flashy homes

A review of a new TV show involving the lives of competitive high school cheerleaders includes a brief discussion of the problems of McMansions:

Colette drills her squad into greatness and rewards them with parties at her home where the alcohol flows freely.  But to Addy, the girl so unlike anyone else in that dinky little town, she lets slip that the suburban fantasy about the baby and the big McMansion is there to lure unsuspecting young girls into a compromised existence.

Relatively little scholarly work examines the gendered nature of McMansions. Do these large homes represent something different to women and men or provide different living experiences for men and women?

Start with the base trait of a McMansion: it is a large home, roughly between 3,000 and 10,000 square feet and above average in size compared to the average new American home. Americans often connect size to males who can have a commandeering or larger physical presence. Purchasing and living in a bigger home is an extension of this: the larger home asserts the domain of the owner in square feet. Perhaps like the cathedrals of the Middle Ages where the size of the structure was intended to produce awe, the McMansion helps others recognize the size of the owner.

Additionally, the physical size of the home also broadcasts success. A single-family home is a key means by which the owners can show others who they are. Like other consumer goods, we assume what we purchase and own says something about us. Bigger often means more resources or money were necessary.

Take as an example the McMansion on The Sopranos. The large home in an upscale New Jersey neighborhood shows off both the space Tony Soprano takes up as well as his position and status. He is not a small guy; he is a leader and this comes out in his physical presence, particularly in anger and violence. His large home sits on top of a small hill, putting those who come to the house having to drive up to Soprano family. (The FBI agents after Tony have to come up to him. This also has interesting implications for McMansions that sit downhill or below the plain of other McMansions; are they less imposing and impressive?) Furthermore, the size of the home suggests he has a successful career and he can provide for his family. Even though Tony is not particularly happy with the life he leads, he never considers selling this home: it is a marker of what he has accomplished and it provides advantages for his family.

The architecture of McMansions can add to this garish or imposing presence. With numerous architectural features, possibly including turrets and other symbols of castles, the McMansions aims to overwhelm. The stereotypical McMansion does not meekly sit on its land or complement the landscape; it asserts itself through its busy facade and large features.

In contrast to males and Tony Soprano, females are often asked to project a different presence in social life: quieter, more in the background, not so assertive. In The Sopranos, Carmela goes about her home differently than Tony with more attention to the care of her family and guests (more on this tomorrow). Does this suggest women prefer smaller homes and men larger homes? Are more men driving the purchases of McMansions? Perhaps someone has data on this (I would guess Toll Brothers has an idea).

The suburban McMansion is masculine in size and presentation. Tomorrow, I’ll consider the interior spaces of McMansions and gender.

Claim: “The physical environment feels depressingly finished”

As Derek Thompson of The Atlantic considers innovation and Silicon Valley, he includes this paragraph regarding innovation in the physical and urban realm:

And if you look up from your smartphone, progress becomes harder to see. The physical world of the city—the glow of electric-powered lights, the rumble of automobiles, the roar of airplanes overhead and subways below—is a product of late-19th-century and early-20th-century invention. The physical environment feels depressingly finished. The bulk of innovation has been shunted into the invisible realm of bytes and code.

There are several pieces that can be pulled out of this an examined:

1. Has innovation in cities and urban areas slowed? Many of the major changes may have already happened – think the modern skyscraper, the car and all the roads to go with them – but I’m guessing there are some lesser-known changes in the last few decades that have made a major difference. (For better or worst, one would be the global shift toward and innovations in capitalism, neoliberalism, and the finance industry that has had large effects on numerous cities and neighborhoods.)

2. If “the physical environment feels depressingly finished,” does this mean a change in aesthetics or style could alter this? Science-fiction films and shows tend to depict cities as white, gleaming, and move curved than they are today. Think Her which merges city life and technological change. Or, find images of cities from researchers, activists, and architects who imagine much greener cities full of plants and life rather than hard surfaces and cars. Perhaps the problem is not innovation as it is described in this article; one issue is that the look of big cities has not changed much in the fifty years or so (even as some individual buildings or projects might stand out).

3. If the look and feel of cities has not changed as much recently, could “the invisible realm of bytes and code” bring significant changes to the physical environment in the next few decades? In contrast to #2, perhaps future innovation in spaces will be less about collective experiences and aesthetics and more about changed private experiences. Imagine Virtual Reality in cities that allows pedestrians to see or overlay different information over their immediate surroundings. Or, easier access to Big Data in urban settings that will help individuals/consumers make choices.

Turning a 55 year old suburban split-level into a LEED platinum home

A couple in Arlington Heights is committed to a green home for the upcoming decades of its lifespan:

Amy Myers and Mike Baker could have torn down their 1964 split-level home in Arlington Heights and replaced it with a McMansion…

It will be the first LEED Platinum home renovation in Arlington Heights. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is governed by the U.S. Green Building Council and serves as the most widely used green building rating system in the world.

The house has been designed with such features as net zero energy consumption, smart stormwater management and integrated rainwater storage. Plans include wrapping it in a tight thermal envelope and utilizing materials like airtight drywall to maximize the home’s energy efficiency…

“We’re really trying to do everything we can to make his a model of how you can recycle a 1960s home into something for the future,” Kollman said.

A Google Street View image of the home in question:

ArlingtonHeightsHome

This is a serious commitment to a fairly nondescript suburban single-family home. I would guess few suburbanites would make such an investment. At the same time, this does hint at possibilities for the many postwar suburban homes. Rather than being torn down for better homes, there might be relatively cost-effective ways to such homes operating as improved dwellings. (And this could apply to ranch homes as well as McMansions which are maligned early in this story.)

Does the green retrofitting of such homes help wipe out the more destructive aspects of suburban sprawl? Even if this house achieves LEED Platinum status, it is in a setting revolving around the car. The owners might have an electric or hybrid car – but driving is still required and making those vehicles is not all good for the environment. Would the reduced heating and energy costs be more efficient than living in a multifamily building? Do landscaping changes offset the changes subdivisions made to the landscape there beforehand?

I would be interested to see the possibilities of more LEED suburban homes, particularly if the costs are reasonable enough for homeowners to consider this as opposed to moving or tearing down the home. In the end, this would require more homeowners to think about keeping a home for a much longer scale and investing money in a way that might not lead to a huge return in their property values.