Dr Naomi Stead, 2009
McMansions are the peculiar artefact of a specific economic model of developer-driven land subdivision and speculative housing. They tell us about the failure of the planning profession and governing authorities to control the excesses of such self-interested land planning practices. They tell us about the failure of the architectural profession to increase public knowledge and expectations about what buildings can actually do, and to make good design accessible to everyone. But they also tell us about human aspirations, the desire for status and identity, the power of a constructed image of ‘home’ in the popular imaginary. The McMansion is a fascinating social and anthropological and political document.
The term ‘McMansion’ is clearly intended as a pejorative label, and there is much to be critical of here. Profligate in their use of material and energy not only in construction but over the whole life of the building, these dwellings are generally over-sized, poorly sited and oriented, lacking quality in materiality and space, and usually also located in outer-suburban situations so lacking in population density and basic services that they lock their owners in eternal servitude to the car. When you combine a larger than median building footprint, a smaller than median site area, and a statutary building setback, you end up with enormous houses built to within a hair’s breadth of the side and rear boundaries, and with no back yard to speak of at all. Thus the suburban ideal of having the best of both country and city living finds itself squashed and debased from both directions. But it could be seen that McMansion is actually a slightly misleading term. The Mc is presumably intended to imply banal and repetitive sameness, regardless of site or climate or specific local conditions. As with other ‘Mc’ labels, it also carries the connotation of ‘low’ populism, commercialism, and the excessive consumption of resources. Like the consumers of McDonalds burgers, we are led to assume, those who dwell in McMansions are crass, undiscerning, and lacking in taste. But in fact if you examine the actual buildings, their architectural ‘style’ and all that it connotes about class, status, luxury, wealth, prestige, sensibility and all the close inter-relations between those terms, then you realise that the emphasis should not be on the ‘Mc’ but rather on the ‘Mansion’. A McMansion is not a cheap house. Or rather, it is cheaper than some houses, but considerably more expensive than others.
The McMansion is speculative building presenting itself as architecture. This can most clearly be seen in the use of ornament – the multiple gable fronts and brick feature panels, the columns, porches, finials, bay windows and double-panelled side-lighted front doors.
Historically, architectural ornament was the indicator of status, prestige, and expense. In both private and institutional buildings, its presence or absence was the line of demarcation between plain, lowly ‘buildings’ and ornamented, representative ‘architecture’. The former could be understood as primarily utilitarian, and without pretensions to be anything more, while the latter is self-consciously more than simply functional, it is building-as-art. Thus ornament, which has long had the association of being unnecessary, supplementary, useless, is in fact the very excess which tells us that here is a building that is more than just a building – here is a building that is art, here is Architecture.
What, then, should we make of the melange of historicist architectural ornament that characterises McMansions? The mix varies from house to house, but is still recognisable as a kind of stylistic soup, the same ingredients bobbing around and resurfacing on different houses in different combinations. The easy answer is that Architecture has the prestige and status of art, while speculative building that provides the maximum house for the minimum money does not. The expanse of new, carpeted, enclosed and air-conditioned space that is now the preserve of the McMansion was once a direct sign of luxury and wealth. But that which was once expensive and directly represented status, prestige and what Pierre Bordieu called ‘cultural capital,’ have now become relatively cheap and accessible.
What the McMansion is not is modest. It is expansive, full of bonhomie, showy – big enough for a crowd, it projects the possibility of large social gatherings, the idyll of popularity. These buildings show fascinating vestiges of actual mansion architecture – the ornate double doors are wide enough to be thrown open to carriages full of visiting nobles, a double line of servants standing to attention, the ballroom bedecked with flowers. The rooms are scaled
for a crowd, especially the public spaces – the foyers, formal dining rooms, staircases, multiple lounge spaces. Between this residue of past aristocratic wealth and the contemporary reality, of a middle-class couple or small nuclear family eating on the couch in front of the television, is a gap both enormous and poignant.