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.

Fitting a new home into an older neighborhood

Teardowns are an issue in communities across the United States. In older neighborhoods, particularly in wealthier suburbs, new homes are contentious: their style and size may change the character of a neighborhood as well as impact property values. In this report from the Chicago Tribune, Chicago area architects talk about how they try to alter the design and appearance of these new homes in order to fit in with the existing neighborhood:

Anyone who’s driven around the city or its surrounding suburbs likely has seen plenty of examples of homes that just don’t fit. The modern masterpiece in a subdivision full of stately Colonials. The 7,000-square-foot behemoth casting its shadow over a block of tiny post-war ranches.

Size is often one of the most challenging elements of a new-construction project in an established neighborhood, Lindsay said. Those who build typically want to max out on square footage, requiring a variety of design tricks to make structures appear smaller their more modestly sized, older neighbors, such as placing much of the square footage to the home’s exterior…

Some municipalities aren’t willing to gamble that new construction will be in good taste. In Park Ridge, for example, a five-member appearance commission considers architectural style, size, site plans, as well as renderings of roofs, windows and doorways to judge whether a proposed residence will enhance an existing neighborhood. Though most construction projects get the thumbs-up, the commission helps preserve the community’s character by setting some basic guidelines, said City Planner Jon Branham.

But fitting in needn’t mean choosing cookie-cutter designs or doggedly preserving every existing structure on a block. “Some neighborhoods are outdated,” Lindsay said. “You’re not going to build a shabby house next to an existing shabby house just so it will fit it. You want to capture the best features of a neighborhood and not the worst.”

This is often a tricky situation – one architect suggests in the story that a new home is a sort of “public project.”The idea that private homeowners should inform all their neighbors about an upcoming teardown or major renovation seems to be a popular way to attempt to change perceptions.

Although homeowners have some choice over their own property, communities often have some regulations and nearby neighbors can also make their opinions heard. The community’s thoughts on this issue can make a big difference. Some communities are more conservative politically and economically  and this leads to more leeway for property owners. Others are more open to the thoughts of the neighborhood as opposed to the individual homeowners and have more restrictive regulations. All of this can come through a number of methods, including historic districts or preservation areas, but any of these measures often prompt public debate.

Fighting “immappancy” by looking at the true size of Africa

Many people have skewed perceptions of the world due to maps. Americans are used to seeing the United States (and North America) as the focal point of their maps; woe to those who put eastern Asia as the main point or even the Southern Hemisphere as the right way up! (What is interesting in these cases is that it reduces the United States to more of an afterthought. This doesn’t fit American cultural perceptions of our ) Another issue is one of size: because of the typically used projections, Greenland can vary from the largest mass in the world to a small mass. Relative sizes can be difficult to judge.

To combat “immappancy” (which apparently is a mash-up of illiteracy and innumeracy), here is a graphic that shows the size of Africa. Notice how large it is: the contiguous United States, China, all of Europe, and India all fit inside it. Yet how many people would know the true size of Africa?