Opposition to five McMansions built by billionaires in England

A proposal from two billionaire brothers for five McMansions in Blackburn prompted concerns from community members:

Mohsin and Zuber Issa, both in their 40s, who own Europe’s biggest independent forecourt firm Euro Garages, will proceed with their buildings, which have been dubbed ‘McMansions’, after overcoming a string of complaints from protesters.

Despite the fierce opposition, which saw the council face 30 letters of complaint, eight old houses on the site in Blackburn, Lancashire, have now been demolished and builders have laid foundations for the five 5,000 sq ft mansions…

The identical builds, which sit just three miles from where the Issa brothers grew up in a two-up two-down terraced house, have been described as ‘not in fitting with the local area’ as the homes stand over over 4.5 metres taller with 1,500 square metres of floor space…

He said: ‘They will look monstrously big – this is totally out of character, as all the other executive houses in this area are individually architect-designed and are laid out with plenty of valuable mature garden space between them.

This is an interesting case of McMansion conflict in England. The pictures show the land in question originally held eight homes, all single-family, with decent-sized lawns and green space around them. The land is in a more secluded area with a small forest on one side of the properties and large lots on the other side.

So these new homes are not changing the single-family nature of the stretch and they are even consolidating the number of homes from eight to five. Yet, this seems similar to many American teardown cases: the new homes are larger than what was previously there, the homes are taking up more of the lot (and reducing the greenery), and the design of the home is more cookie-cutter large home than “individually architect-designed.”

How much effect will these five McMansion homes have on a sparser neighborhood and small village? Checking back after five or ten years could reveal how the presence of these larger homes affects social relations and the feel of the neighborhood.

Gendered McMansions, Part 4: figuring out the role of gender

Thus far, I have discussed how the size and architecture of McMansions, the large kitchen and living spaces, and the emphasis on raising children in the suburbs interacts with gender. How might researchers examine the gender dynamics of McMansions? A few ideas:

  1. How many McMansion owners are women and how many are men? (This could require a master list of McMansions in a location or across a broader geography.)
  2. When choosing a home and where to live, are men or women more likely to select a McMansion? Related: when asked to compare McMansions and their features to other kinds of homes, how do men and women compare in what traits they prefer? (A series of experiments with sets of choices could reveal differences.)
  3. Which gender spends more time in different parts of the McMansion? Studies have looked at use patterns in homes; why not break it down further by gender within McMansions? Are family rooms, basements, and garages used more by men and kitchens and nearby living spaces used more by women? Does a “man cave” truly exist or is it more of a luxury item? (Use observation or some kind of recording device to track movement in the home.)
  4. When people see McMansions (either driving/walking/biking by or on screen), who do they imagine lives there (men or women, in addition to a whole other sets of questions about race/ethnicity, social class, age, education, personal tastes, etc.)? Looking at the exterior (and maybe parts of the interior), what gender do they associate with the different aspects (and how does this compare to other homes)? (More experiments.)
  5. Do McMansions simply carry on the gender stereotypes of other single-family homes and suburban locations or they challenge some aspect of this developed and experienced knowledge about gender and homes? (Need comparative work between different styles of single-family homes.)

Perhaps all of this might be of best use to builders, developers, real estate agents, and marketers who could profit off this information. On the other hand, there are many Americans who live in McMansions (and who will do so in the future or have done so in the past). Have these homes, the hours spent in them, the ways the design, size, and connotations shaped social interactions had an impact on individuals, families, and communities as well as our understandings of gender?

 

Gendered McMansions, Part 3: suburban sprawl and raising children

Many, though not all, McMansions are located in suburban communities. From the beginning of suburbs in United States, one emphasis has been on the raising of successful children. This could include wanting to stay away from the big city and its problems (historian Robert Fishman argues this was behind the efforts of Englishman William Wilberforce in moving his family out of London) as well as developing a pervasive ideology that suburban life with its single-family homes, safety, schools, and proximity to nature as the best place to raise children (attested to in numerous studies including The Levittowners).

As part of the suburban landscape, the McMansion is then part of the goal of raising children. Young children may be less interested in the home’s status and ability to broadcast a message to neighbors but the homeowners hope they use and benefit from the safe, private space that can both host time with others (family, friends) and provide space to be alone. In addition to the benefits of the school districts and communities in which the suburban McMansions are located, those with the means to purchase and maintain a McMansion also likely have the resources to put their children in extra activities or visit places or provide lots of stuff at home.

In this suburban world, women have traditionally been responsible for child care and ensuring the success of children. Think of the typical image of the 1950s suburban family: father goes off in the morning to a corporate job and returns in the evening to be served or doted on by his family. The wife takes care of the children and all the household duties with little help from the father. And even in today’s world with more attention from fathers to caring for children and household duties, children are often still the responsibility of mothers.

So if McMansions, single-family homes devoted to nuclear family life, are often nested within suburbs, also devoted to nuclear families and children, and caring for children and family often falls to women, then one of the primary social roles of the McMansion is gendered. The large home might be a status symbol as well as an attempt to get the most house for the money but it is certainly a space intended to grow successful children.

 

Gendered McMansions, Part 2: large kitchens and attached living areas

The size of McMansions provides a lot of interior space. How is it used and how does this relate to gender?

If the exterior of the McMansion is imposing and garish, the interior provides room for family activity. The ubiquitous open concept kitchen and living area with updated appliances, surfaces, and island provide space for social gatherings, storing stuff, family interaction, and solitary time for residents. This is private space par excellence in the United States.

The interior emphasis on kitchens and living space can be connected to norms and expectations regarding women, home, and family life. If the large and flashy exterior of the McMansion leans toward notions of masculinity in the United States, the roomy interior leans toward the work of women serving as supporters, wives, and mothers. The men may seek escape in a “man cave” (which suggests the rest of the interior space is not for men) and children may seek solace in their large bedrooms but the center of the home in terms of time and activity still generally involves the kitchen and attached living spaces. Even with a shift away from cooking food at home, there is still much sentiment and many expectations attached to women working in the kitchen.

Going back to the McMansion of The Sopranos, the big suburban home may represent something different for Tony’s wife Carmela. While Tony wants to come home and relax and bask in his success (including running his nuclear family), the McMansion offers Carmela space to entertain and show others that she is taking care of her family. Through gatherings and food as well as the size and location of the home, Carmela can show she is ensuring the success of her husband and children. See the two cookbooks published with Carmela’s imprint on them. Her kitchen is open to an eating area as well as a family room where the family can watch TV (though there are other spaces to escape to or that are used for more formal gatherings). Toward the end of the show, she pursues work outside of the home – though that work is still connected to houses – and encounters difficulty convincing her own family that this work outside the home is worthwhile.

Similarly, many an HGTV episode features a reveal of an open concept kitchen and living area that is often said to be for a female resident. This can be the case even if the people on the show admit that they do not cook often; the kitchen is seen as the primary gathering space. Thus, if McMansions strive to provide sizable and gleaming kitchens and living spaces and such spheres are often associated with women, the primary family and social areas in the McMansion are gendered.

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.

Twenty-first century American life: McMansions, SUVs, and celebrities

An argument that the first decade of the twenty-first century never really ended includes citing McMansions, SUVs, and celebrities as part of our current world:

You might be tempted to cap the perceptual 2000s in late 2008, when Obama was elected president and the investment banks Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns collapsed, taking down the housing market and much of the American economy with them. That collapse ended the tacky prosperity of the early 2000s, a period when the McMansion flourished, cheap gas fueled a love affair with giant SUVs, and pop culture was overrun with paparazzi shots of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan falling out of Los Angeles nightclubs while wearing low-rise jeans and trucker hats. Meanwhile, Facebook was metastasizing beyond college students, sculpting the basic contours of the digital environment much of the world now lives in. In hindsight, the moment in 2007 when the pop princess Britney Spears cracked under the paparazzi glare, attacked a car with an umbrella, and shaved her head feels like foreshadowing of the cultural brink to come, when none of this would feel so innocent or breezy.

The pairing of McMansions and SUVs continues. Both are still alive and well. Americans continue to purchase large vehicles and like driving (at least compared to alternatives). At the same time, Americans generally desire the largest new houses in the world. While housing prices may be really high in some urban markets, many still desire a starter home and suburban life.

Adding pop culture to this pair is an interesting choice. Do all three of these together suggest bigger is better or that consumption of all things – cars, homes, and people/celebrities – is what Americans want to see and experience? We have many images of celebrities driving around in expensive SUVs and living in large homes. As Americans in general like the idea of large homes, those in the public eye seem to gravitate toward large and showy homes. Their residences, such as those of sports stars and Hollywood stars, are usually beyond what the average American could buy (as are most McMansions).

These three together are likely not going to age well: do people need such large homes, large vehicles, and news about celebrities? Will future generations see this all as rampant excess and problematic? Yet, it is hard to see a future where Americans turn away from each of these three interests: new homes might be slightly smaller than in the recent past but a big shift has not occurred, driving is still necessary for most people to attain success, and celebrities allow consumers to consume people rather than created products.

Kevin McCallister of Home Alone does not live in a McMansion

From a Buzzfeed list of tweets about Home Alone, here is one that considers the primary setting for the movie:

HomeAloneMcMansion

While the house may appear to be a McMansion because of its size and suburban settings, there are multiple pieces of evidence to counter this (compiled from multiple websites including fancypantshomes.com, themirror.co.uk, and census.gov:

1. The home was constructed in 1920. This construction predates McMansions by roughly six decades.

2. The home sold in 2012 for just over $1.5 million. This is beyond the price of most McMansions.

3. The home does not suffer from the architectural issues facing many McMansions (likely because it was built in 1920): it has a consistent brick facade, a symmetrical front, and not too many gables.

4. The home is not in a suburb with residents striving to look wealthy; this is a wealthy suburb with a median household income of $220,000 for its over 12,000 residents.

5. Because this is an older and smaller suburb, it is indeed possible to walk from the McCallister house to downtown which is less than half a mile away. It is possible to have big houses located in walkable neighborhoods (which is part of the appeal for some teardowns in older suburban neighborhoods).

Kevin McCallister lives in a big house, a house for wealthy people, but it is not a McMansion. The primary setting for Home Alone is a large and older single-family home far beyond the reach of most Americans and located within a walkable and wealthy suburb.