Spacious Vulgarity: The Aesthetics and Morals of McMansions
Few architectural forms seem to secure as much overwrought disdain as the massive homes that are often referred to as “McMansions.” Architectural aesthetes have a rich history of attacking built environments that spark deep-seated aesthetic and social revulsion, and over-sized 21st-century homes have become targets of comparable critique. Critics of massive residential homes often lament departures from stylistic codes, which typically includes tract mansions’ massive scale, asymmetrical forms, lack of proportionality, inferior materials, and departures from established historical or local architectural distinctions. However, such analyses routinely descend into ethnographically shallow social and class commentaries that fail to wrestle with our inchoate aversion for this particular material form. It is indeed hard to fathom the attraction of many oversized residences, and it is unreasonable to simply ignore our emotional revulsion for them; nevertheless, a compelling assessment of McMansions–and reflective urban planning–should sympathetically wrestle with our experiences of these structures.
McMansion Hell is among the legion of observers ridiculing massive “garage Mahals” and “starter mansions.” McMansion Hell is distinguished by its concrete architectural analysis of oversized residences, spending much of its energy dissecting specific material elements of the pejorative McMansion. This is in some ways an archaeological approach to a class of material things, revolving around systematic material description of specific architectural features that unsettle many observers. McMansion Hell does not try to stake a claim to contrived objectivity, instead acknowledging its aversion for massive residences, sarcastically deconstructing a host of aesthetic features, and painting a very distinctive social and material notion of the stylistic if not social deplorability of tract mansions. However, it focuses on the stylistic dimensions of “bad” architecture and does not feature especially clear ethnographic evidence that might interrogate both the appeal of McMansions and the widespread distaste for them.
The massive and affordable luxury home had emerged in many American communities by the mid-1980’s. Jack L. Nasar, Jennifer S. Evans-Cowley, and Vicente Mantero’s 2007 study of over-sized homes found that between 1987 and 2001 the average new home had increased in size from 1900 to 2300 square feet, and “the percentage of new houses with more than 3000 square feet has almost doubled.” By 2003, more than 20% of newly built homes occupied more than 3000 square feet. Yet over that period that houses expanded, the average household size decreased from 3.14 in 1970 to 2.57 in 2000, and house lot sizes decreased as well.
Many commentators simply react emotionally to massive homes; that is, they voice their genuine aversion for such homes but risk an impressionistic response that trades ethnographic insight for dismissive sarcasm. For instance, about.com’s architecture expert Jackie Craven reduces huge homes to tacky displays of affluence, ignoring the roots of desire for such homes: “McMansions are a type of wannabe mansion, built by upper-middle class people with enough down payment money to show off their economic status. . . . Many people love McMansions. Likewise, many people love McDonald’s Big Macs. That doesn’t mean they’re good for you.”
Perhaps one of the most fascinating archaeological dimensions of McMansion rhetoric is the homes’ capacity to induce such emotional declarations of oversized homes’ tackiness and ugliness. For instance, in 2014 the Los Angeles Times’ Ted Rall mounted a measured analysis of tract mansions but was reduced by essay’s end to proclaim that “My main objection to McMansions is that they, like most post-1960s architecture, are not just ticky-tacky but really, really ugly. My eyes! They burn!” It is perhaps honest to acknowledge one’s own sentiments that massive residences are aesthetically uninspired or plain ugly things, but that revulsion deserves its own critique. Naomi Stead (PDF) is wary of the myriad negative impacts of tract mansions, but she acknowledges that McMansions still “tell us about human aspirations, the desire for status and identity, the power of a constructed image of ‘home’ in the popular imaginary.”
The heart of derogatory McMansion rhetoric may be its invocation of McDonalds. George Ritzer popularized the notion of “McDonaldization” to refer to the rationalized efficiency, predictability and disciplining that characterize the fast food chain and an increasingly homogenized social and material world. The Baltimore Sun’s architectural critic Edward Gunts was among the first observers to use the term McMansion in 1990 when he concluded that the newly built Peabody Library “is poorly detailed to boot, with brick stringcourses that don’t line up and stepped granite edging near the sidewalk that seems tacked on like the roof flashing of some cheap suburban McMansion.” Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk used the term McMansion by 1992 to invoke a particular sort of planning that has no substantive roots in place, much like a McDonalds dropped nearly anywhere in the world. They lamented the social isolation fostered by suburbs in general and expanded by monster single-family residences that are “both pretentious and isolated, an island in a sea of strangers and cars.” Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck’s Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream admits that McMansions may well provide a superior private space, a host of rooms and features that are “simply a superior product.” However, they are uneasy “that most suburban residents, the minute they leave this refuge, are confronted by a tawdry and stressful environment.”
For many critics of McMansions in particular and suburban planning in general, many post war residential environments have fanned enormous social isolation as householders retreat to their homes. Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck circumspectly concede that the escape into tract mansions may provide a sort of sanctuary “in the finest private realm in the developed world, but our public realm is brutal.” Howard Kunstler has been a sustained critic of such communities and their apparent capacity to socially separate people, arguing in 1999 that “In these large houses people are compensating for the lack of a meaningful public realm or public places. … It’s especially characteristic of suburbia that the private realm is luxurious and the public realm is squalid.” Such critiques revolve around contending visions of community and materiality as well as home and public that violate many communities’ existing sense of space and place. For instance, when President Obama spent part of his 2016 vacation in a massive Martha’s Vineyard home, filmmaker Thomas Bena complained to The Guardian that “the house the Obamas are renting this year is a prime example of the kind of mega-construction that is threatening to destroy the character of the island.” Bena’s case made in his film One Big Home is that “this is more gross than mere conspicuous consumption. …. It’s another type of gentrification. We need to start taking care of our communities and be more careful with land use and zoning.”
In 2014 Salon’s Thomas Frank took aim on “the undisguised pretentiousness” of suburban mansions, arguing that they were “a product not of some epidemic of vulgarity but of the larger economic changes in the world. By this I do not mean that Americans were being swept up in a wave of extraordinary affluence beginning in the 1980s, but rather that one class of Americans was essentially taking its leave of the rest of us.” Frank is perhaps correct that the post-war suburb was an idealized leveling mechanism in which sameness was celebrated over distinction, an argument made most persuasively by William Whyte’s 1956 classic The Organization Man. However, as Frank acknowledges, the superficially democratic ideal of post-war suburbs masked their class and color boundaries (and Whyte was himself circumspect about the depth of homogeneous appearances). Frank concludes that 1980s McMansion neighborhoods are not remotely democratic and instead are valued as exclusive and pretentious displays of class and social difference: “Inequality is the point of the McMansion, and the McMansion is also, to a certain degree, the point of inequality; it’s the pot of pyrite at the end of the rainbow of shit that we have chosen as a nation to follow.”
Brian Miller’s measured assessment of McMansion media rhetoric argues that much of this discourse wields the McMansion as symbols staking out broader ideological if not moral critiques (compare his blog Legally Sociable). Miller found that the McMansion functions as “a complex term with four distinct meanings: a large house, a relatively large house, a home flawed in architecture or design, and a symbol for more complex issues including sprawl and excessive consumption.” Miller frames the McMansion as a narrative device that continues a longstanding debate over the social and moral implications of suburbanization, home, sprawl, community, and consumption.
Much of the critique of McMansions revolves around the apparently overdone class theatricality of monster suburban developments. In 2005, for instance, Paul Knox cast oversized mansions and newly affluent suburbs in very unflattering terms, deploring American suburban “landscapes of bigness and spectacle, characterized by packaged developments, simulated settings, and conspicuous consumption, and they have naturalized an ideology of competitive consumption, moral minimalism, and disengagement from notions of social justice and civil society—the peculiar mix of political conservatism and social libertarianism that is the hallmark of contemporary America.” Knox referred to these new suburbs as “Vulgaria,” a landscape that Knox paints in vivid detail: he emphasizes the pretentious symbolism of “tract mansions and starter castles of 3,000 or 4,000 square feet and upwards, featuring two-story entrance halls, great rooms, three- or four-car garages, huge kitchens, spa-sized bathrooms, his-and-hers room-sized master closets, media rooms, fitness centers, home offices, high-tech security systems, and perhaps even an au pair suite.” Rebecca Graff argues that such rhetoric extends a longstanding contempt for material surfaces that reaches back to the Gilded Age itself. Ideologues and aesthetes in the late-19th century and contemporary world alike bluntly dismiss seemingly pretentious displays of wealth that theatrically—if not in-authentically—perform affluence and class ambition.
McMansion Hell’s author argues that the distaste for McMansions is perhaps most firmly rooted in generational divides, with an older generation intent “on owning and having assets and this generation is now more interested in having experiences.” She echoes longstanding anxieties about suburban isolation and car culture that are heightened for younger generations and magnified by tract mansions: “For a lot of young people that grew up in the suburbs, once you reached adolescence, there was a quality of life that was really impacted by the isolation of the suburbs and I think that has played a huge role as to why the younger generation is rejecting this notion of ‘the big house’ and this notion of always being in the car.” Yet sociologist Brian Miller persuasively counters that such broadly painted generational pictures are inevitably clumsy generalizations that fail to wrestle with cross-generational desire for such homes.
A sympathetic view of McMansion residents can still stake a critical position on massive residential tracts and laissez faire community planning policies. For instance, Joel Garreau’s 1991 study Edge City: Life on the New Frontier champions a compassionate view of residents living in what he calls “edge cities.” Garreau argues that edge cities are distinguished by their concentration of workplaces and consumer spaces outside the traditional urban core, typically being placed at the urban periphery near highway interchanges and suburban residential tracts. The edge city is cut from a series of urban forms rooted in expansion out of the urban core that began in the late-19th century, and the oversized mansion can be found in suburbs, urban in-fill (i.e., razing existing homes and building proportionally large homes), and edge cities alike. Garreau’s study is distinguished by his skepticism that urban planners and developers forced various apparently unappealing community forms like suburbs onto Americans; instead, he suggests that Americans have routinely embraced non-traditional community spaces and may actually desire to live in places many observers deplore. Garreau perhaps under-estimates the sway of federal policies on urban settlement patterns, since migration from central business districts has routinely fueled planners’ efforts to engineer communities around classist, racist, and auto-centric and business-friendly policies. However, Garreau breaks from the chorus of urban planning critics in his view that Americans’ imaginations of suburbs, edge cities, and boomburbs is socially consequential.
Willow S. Lung-Amam’s analysis of monster homes in Fremont, California defies the commonplace assumption that “tacky” tract mansions confirm their residents’ “inauthentic” affluence. Lung-Amam echoes the familiar argument that “dominant social and cultural norms regarding the proper use and design of suburban space are often reinforced through planning, design, and public policy.” However, she underscores that the “mechanistic neutrality” of such planning norms “tend to privilege extant suburban landscapes and their embedded values, meanings, and ideals, and thereby naturalize and normalize established (and most often white) residents’ privileged sense of place.” Lung-Amam avoids shallow dismissals of tract mansions’ desirability and paints a picture of ostensibly progressive planning policies (e.g., “smart growth” “anti-sprawl,” etc) that reproduce a longstanding state effort to engineer urban landscapes and notions of class and home: “While most exclusionary housing policies tend to discourage poor and working-class minorities from purchasing homes in suburban neighbourhoods, McMansions expose the ways that planning and design professionals, processes, and regulations can disparately impact middle- and upper-class minorities by marginalizing their values, meanings, and desires for their homes and communities.” Lung-Amam’s study of planning in Fremont takes aim on planners and processes that “marginalize minority voices and their participation” and evade the distinctive ways Fremont’s Chinese immigrant residents define home, community, and affluence. In an ocean of scholarship and popular writing attacking McMansions, Lung-Amam provides one of the most sympathetic analyses of tract mansion residents, and that almost certainly is because it is firmly based on ethnographic insight. She concludes that “As many of Fremont’s Chinese immigrants expressed, both publicly and in personal interviews, their visions of what it means to be `at home’ and part of a `community’ are fundamentally different from that of many established, white residents.”
Many observers are now reading the death rites to the massive suburban mansion, citing a relatively well-defined decline in square footage; nevertheless, the impending death of oversized tract mansions has been signaled quite a few times over nearly a decade. In 2011 Gawker declared the “McMansion is dead,” and Witold Rybczynski predicted that a five-year housing decline likely spelled the doom of tract mansions; two years later Curbed cautiously wondered if the McMansion was being resurrected; and last week the Hartford Courant once more proclaimed that newly built homes are shrinking in size and massive homes are neither affordable nor desirable for many home owners. The McMansion is perhaps no longer an economically viable investment (or at least not likely to hold its value), and it is possibly true that the pure economics of massive homes make their market unlikely to grow significantly. Nevertheless, there is still consumer desire for such spaces among some prospective homeowners, and the commonplace revulsion to these houses and the classist and social xenophobia they enable remain unexamined.
A host of new planning ideals propose to end the unchecked expansion of aesthetically and socially undesirable neighborhood forms and homes, building on a rich tradition of urban engineering that has often fumbled with the human experience of places like suburbs. One darling ideal for many ideologues and planners has now become the “tiny” aesthetic, referring to both the literal scale of residences as well as their environmental and social footprint. Yet as Brian Miller emphasized this week in his Legally Sociable blog, smaller does not necessarily mean new home models will be any cheaper (or even more sociable) than tract mansions.
There are indeed good reasons to champion more modest residential footprints in many communities, and it is foolish to simply ignore our own embodied experience of monster homes, regardless of whether such spaces provoke unvarnished horror or an appealing sense of affluence and retreat. Nevertheless, impressionistic dismissals of tract mansions risk dismissing alternative social, cultural, and class ideals in favor of shallow if not utterly ideological notions of appropriate style, community, and materiality. Minimally, very little good anthropology is done when scholars and observers do not have some sympathy for peoples’ experiences, desires, and feelings. Our commonplace distaste for oversized homes may indeed be well-placed for various social, community, and environmental reasons, but we risk dismissing families’ desire for tract mansions, and we hazard ignoring why material things like McMansions allow scholars to unleash their own classist, suburban, and material stereotypes.
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Cedar Hill TX mansion image from Zillow
Indianapolis Kitchen interior image from Zillow
Indianapolis Pool image from Zillow
Indianapolis Waterside Home image from Zillow
Ohio McMansion image from Jenny
Rockwell Texas McMansion castle image from Zillow
Sopranos McMansion Caldwell New Jersey image from DrBob2012 Toronto Prelude Club page
Twin Cities McMansion image from Bill Forbes
Washington DC McMansion image from DC Urban Mom