From modest homes in a Canadian prairie town to McMansions

R.J. Snell returned to the Canadian prairie town of his youth and was surprised to find that its modest homes had been replaced with McMansions:

Having just returned from a two-week visit, I’m struck by the visible demise of modest restraint, particularly in the homes. Driving about the countryside, for this is what one does there, I saw many new homes of a preposterous scale, many thousands of square feet (one even had an outbuilding to house all the mechanicals), with multiple garrets and turrets, all jutting conspicuously from the fields and into my purview. They could not be hidden, nor were they meant to, and on the treeless flatness were visible for great distances.

Right beside them, sometimes just across the road, stood the old farmhouse, diminutive, overshadowed. In the towns, a kind of segregation had taken place, with the older neighborhoods a mix of homes smaller or larger (but of a kind), but new developments on the far side of town housing looming monstrosities dwarfing the older places.

This was not neighborly. This was not modest. This was a thumbing of the nose at those with less, a demand to be noticed, seen.  Roger Scruton writes of the bad manners of much contemporary architecture compared with older patterns, saying:

The principal concern of the architects was to fit in to an existing urban fabric, to achieve local symmetry within the context of a historically given settlement. No greater aesthetic catastrophe has struck our cities—European just as much as American—than the modernist idea that a building should stand out from its surroundings, to become a declaration of its own originality. As much as the home, cities depend upon good manners; and good manners require the modest accommodation to neighbors rather than the arrogant assertion of apartness.

Rod Dreher follows up with an interesting question:

The question is, did money cause this cultural revolution in domestic architecture, or did the arrival of wealth happen to coincide with a cultural revolution in the way people thought about themselves and their desires, causing them to build their houses in a certain way now as opposed to then?

Which comes first: the cultural values or the material conditions? If looking at this from the production perspective in the sociology of culture, changes in material conditions like how architects are viewed, how single-family homes are viewed (as Snell suggests, should homes fit into the neighborhood or stick out?), how houses are constructed, how the real estate business operate, how zoning laws and local regulation encourage or discourage larger homes, etc. In other words, architectural styles or consumer desires don’t just change because individuals desire this. Rather, they change in conjunction with material and cultural change.

I also wonder about larger factors affecting this community. Where did residents get this money to spend on bigger houses? I ask this after lecturing this week about the Ferdinand Tonnies’ ideas about gemeinschaft and gesellschaft as well as Emile Durkheim’s concepts of mechanical and organic solidarity. Both theorists were interested in the shift from small town life to more urban life. Both suggested urban life contained fewer strong interpersonal relationships and systems where people were joined together by interdependence and external constraints rather than tradition, family ties, and shared values. Is a similar process taking place in this prairie town, perhaps through suburbanization or the rise of a good nearby job source or the Internet which opens up more possibilities for residents to connect to the outside world?

Claim: America illustrates Gesellschaft

Daniel Askt compares the more Gemeinschaft society of Italy versus the Gesellschaft found in the United States:

Still, there’s no going back. On the contrary, it seems inevitable that societies move from what the sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies called Gemeinschaft, or a society more like Italy, to Gesellschaft, or a place more like America. Gemeinschaft refers to something like village (if not clan) life; what mattered was who you were and whether you belonged. In Gemeinschaft local rather than universal standards prevail, cooperation is emphasized over competition, and the goal is simply to keep this system of mutual regard and support going. The family is perhaps the ultimate example.

But the future belongs to Gesellschaft, and the decline of the family in Western nations reflects this individualistic trend. What matters in Gesellschaft is not who you are but what can you do. Gesellschaft is open, meritocratic, diverse, mobile, competitive, anxious and most of all modern. It’s the way we live now. It’s a great place, free and bursting with possibility, though fraught as well, since people are always having to prove themselves, and one’s offspring can’t assume their parents’ status.

Several thoughts:

1. I wonder how much this reflects all of Italy or an older image of the country. Birth rates are down for the whole country but particularly so in the north where life may be more closely tied to northern Europe.

2. It may be easy to paint the United States with this broad brush but there has always been a tension between individual and community life. While Americans have rightly often been portrayed as individuals, an image burnished by Hollywood and other cultural works, commentators from de Toqueville onward have noted the propensity of Americans to join civic groups (Bowling Alone notwthstanding).

3. This is a linear view of history: we have inevitably moved from Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft and aren’t going back. This may be the trend since the Industrial Revolution and what piqued the attention of many of the early sociologists but it is not necessarily a process that will continue ad infinitum.