Architect discusses Bin Laden’s McMansion

I’ve continued to track the meme of Bin Laden’s Abbottabad house being a McMansion and a new mentions trickle in each day. Here is an explanation of the Bin Laden-McMansion connection from an architect at Architect magazine:

It may be unfair to tar your typical New Jersey Neo-Colonial with the brush of a Pakistani compound, especially since Bin Laden’s crib seemed to be home to a multigeneration community of interest and family. It made better use of sprawling space than most nuclear family–inhabited American homes, and I hate to say that it looks from the photographs to be more honestly modern than most of our fake palazzos and palaces.

The bin Laden compound was also not like a true McMansion because it was not about flash. There were no fancy cars in evidence, no landscaping that was put in place every spring and ripped up again in the winter, no garish colors. There was, for heaven’s sake, not even an Internet connection–how did they play games? How did they get onto Groupon?

We have made Osama Bin Laden everything we are afraid of. It is fitting that evil turns out not to lurk in caves, which would be so last millennium, or live in a tent, which would be so the millennium before that. It lives in the suburbs. It turns out that our fear of cities and our distaste of others was something he shared while fostering the paranoia that we might be in danger if we leave our cocoon through his and his cohorts’ murderous programs. So we, or at least the government that many of us do not want to pay for, swooped in, surgically extracting the emblem of that fear. I note that, unlike in so many other operations against our enemies, we left the McMansion standing.

A few things stick out:

1. There are a number of jabs here at McMansions. So we don’t like Bin Laden and we don’t like McMansions – why not put the two together? Seriously, the argument here is that McMansions are emblematic of sprawl, have poor architecture/design, are full of tacky people (who use Groupon! and have garish landscaping!), and they are all about flash.

2. There is another story referred to here: Bin Laden was found in the suburbs, the last place Americans would expect and one that goes against all our fears of people who live in caves or cities. I’ve already written about this and still find it a bit strange to claim that Bin Laden was living a suburban lifestyle in a suburban home when this particular community seems somewhat unique as a miltary community.

3. Additionally, it is claimed that Bin Laden, like Americans, was afraid of cities and others, hence, the need to live in a compound/McMansion in a suburb. Americans do have quite an anti-urban bias and occasional fear of others. There is likely some truth to this but I wonder how the average American might respond to being equated to Bin Laden.

4. Is it safe to presume that the last sentence indicates that the author would have preferred that this particular raid have destroyed the Bin Laden McMansion? If so, is it more because it was home to Bin Laden or because it is a McMansion?

Overall, this a good piece for illustrating the common critiques of McMansions.

Finding Bin Laden in the suburbs

There has been a lot of commentary about where Osama Bin Laden was found in Pakistan. On one hand, there has been a lot of interest in his house, including people dubbing the compound a “McMansion.” (However, reports yesterday and today have suggested that the house was less unusual or prominent as was first suggested.) On the other hand, he was found in an unusual military town. Here is one take that suggests that Bin Laden was found in the unlikeliest of places: a suburb.

We now all know that, of course, bin Laden was not in a cave. He was hiding in plain sight in a million-dollar mansion in a posh suburb of Islamabad.

Not only that, the suburb was a military complex described as Pakistan’s West Point. And the mansion apparently was built expressly for him – as though he were some chief executive officer cashing in on his bonus options, so he wasn’t being especially discreet.

He apparently had been living there undisturbed for six years, according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). He was a suburbanite enjoying the pleasures of a life of leisure – behind 12-foot walls.

This was so far beyond our expectation of how the world’s most wanted terrorist would be living that no one, apparently, bothered to look for him outside the mountains. Terrorists just don’t live in the suburbs.

I’m not so sure this community was a suburb. It was at least an hour outside of Islamabad. It was also a military community, not necessary a resort community. However, there have been reports that a number of wealthier military officials live in this community. And Bin Laden was living a life of leisure when he was possibly in the same room for five years? Bin Laden is comparable to a CEO “cashing in on his bonus options”? In terms of thinking that this community is like a typical American suburb outside of Los Angeles or Chicago and Bin Laden was the typical suburban head of household, this is not quite the case.

The story goes on to cite the sociological idea of “lifestyle enclaves”:

Back in 1985, the sociologist Robert Bellah and his cohort, in their seminal book “Habits of the Mind,” coined the term “lifestyle enclaves” to describe the way Americans had begun to cluster on the basis of “shared patterns of appearance, consumption and leisure activities, which often serve to differentiate them sharply from those with other lifestyles.”

These enclaves were self-selected – you gravitated toward others like you. In the sociologists’ view, they were increasingly replacing real community in America with these superficial bonds of similarity.

There are dozens of these enclaves today – from members of the National Rifle Association, to upwardly mobile young married couples, to outdoorsmen, to the very wealthy. Enclaves have become a primary way we define ourselves.

But I doubt that Bellah and the others ever thought of terrorists as a possible enclave back when they were writing the book. Yet the concept of people who choose to live with others who look like them and think like them is now so deeply embedded in our consciousness that the idea of a terrorist enclave apparently did cross the mind of the intelligence community today.

The conclusion of the piece is that Bin Laden was found because he didn’t play by the “lifestyle enclave”/suburban rules. So all of the residents of Abbotabad were terrorists?

All of this seems like a stretch in order to connect to the average American suburban reader. The basic premise could be interesting: the suburbs (or more rural/military town suburbs) are supposed to be the land of safety, not the place where terrorists (or any people who commit violent crimes) actually live next door. But to suggest that Bin Laden was similar to a typical suburbanite and was caught because he didn’t fit in seems kind of silly. Projecting the image of the American suburbs on Abbotabad, Pakistan may not be the best way to understand a complex situation.

Bin Laden and his McMansion

As the details of Osama bin Laden’s death have become public, some attention has been paid to the house in Pakistan in which he was staying. Here is an extended description from Politico:

The White House says the compound that housed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan was “extraordinarily unique” and had many signs that indicated he was hiding there.

The structure, which has been described as a mansion, was on a “large plot of land” in a “relatively secluded” area, a senior administration official told reporters on a conference call. The residence itself was “eight times larger” than other homes in the area, said the official, who refused to be identified.

“We were shocked by what we saw,” the official said after President Obama announced that bin Laden had been killed at the compound in Abbottabad.

The security measures at the compound were “extraordinary,” the official said, describing walls that were 12 to 18 feet high and topped with barbed wire, in addition to walls on the inside. Access to the mansion was restricted with two security gates, officials said.

Another sign was that the residents of the mansion burned their trash, unlike their neighbors, who simply put their garbage outside, they said.

The property, valued at $1 million, had no telephone or Internet access, the White House said. It was “custom built to hide someone of significance,” the official said.

When I first heard about this house in a Pakistani community, I wondered if anyone would tie this kind of unusual house to the idea of a McMansion. I found three examples. First, a columnist links bin Laden’s house to McMansion complaints in an Austin neighborhood:

And so much for the legend that bin Laden was a really big camper who survived in caves. Bin Laden was found in a huge house, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, eight times larger than any other house in the area. So if he had been hiding in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood, they would have found him years ago because people would have called the city to complain about his McMansion.

They must have a lot of complaints about McMansions in this neighborhood.

Second, a Brooklyn-based publication links bin Laden to McMansions and Martha Stewart:

As for the details, we’ll find out over time (we’re expecting a big spread in Martha Stewart Living about how you can make your house look like Osama’s Abottobad Dream McMansion).

I don’t think we’ll be seeing that particular spread soon.

Third, the blog SpyTalk has this headline for a blog post: “Mystery: Who Financed Bin Laden’s McMansion?

Why exactly would people say bin Laden was living in a McMansion? Perhaps a few reasons: the house was quite large. The house was larger than anything nearby (the relative size argument). The home was quite private with its walls, gate, and barbed wire. But this seems kind of ridiculous: the typical suburban McMansion looks nothing like this nor are its typical residents dangerous terrorists (regardless of what the movie Arlington Road might lead you to believe). But if you don’t like McMansions and you don’t like bin Laden, perhaps this makes sense…

(A Time piece suggests the house was not even a mansion:

The compound doesn’t quite fit the descriptions of a mansion, as some have labeled it. The walls are 12 feet high walls and about 13 inches thick – enough to shield the tall terrorist leader from public view. The property itself is spread over an area slightly smaller than an acre. The house is a great deal smaller, rising over two-storeys. In other ways, it was unremarkable but sometimes noticed.

So there are some differing opinions on this.)