Co.Design

McMansions: An Architectural Parable On The Death Of The American Dream

Hideous houses are ruining America.

Searching for an architectural parable on the obliteration of the American Dream? Look no further than the story of McMansions, those massive suburban homes that have become ubiquitous in wealthy suburban America. At Salon, culture columnist Thomas Frank has a scathing history of the McMansion and how it has shaped—and been shaped by—extreme inequality.

In the 1980s, Frank writes, "Hourly wages were dropping, the stock market was rising, taxes for the rich were falling, public housing was not a priority anymore, and in-your-face tract mansions were sprouting everywhere." This inequality, he argues, is the entire point of the McMansion:

The McMansion exists to separate and then celebrate the people who are wealthier than everybody else; this is the transcendent theme on which its crazy, discordant architectural features come harmonically together. This form of development wants nothing to do with the superficial community-mindedness of the postwar suburb, and the reason the giant house looks the way it does is to inform you of this. Have the security guard slam the gates, please, and the rest of the world be damned.

Still from the documentary "Subdivided" via Flickr user Dean Terry

The soul of the McMansion is as ugly as its faux-classical facade. The proliferation of these towering, occasionally turreted homes is directly related to tax policies that have channeled wealth toward the rich and given top-tier earners incentives for investing in housing:

What put them into mass-production in the mid-’80s? The most obvious answer is that decade’s transfer of wealth to professionals and managers, a shift made possible by the top-bracket tax cuts of 1981. Where corporate earnings had previously been spent on skyscrapers and company planes, it now poured into the personal bank accounts of executives. Tax policy then steered those executives’ spending toward residential real estate.

The result? Sprawling suburbs made to accommodate larger and larger homes that tend to be a ugly mishmash of architectural sensibilities. McMansions present a unique design challenge that, sadly, is rarely overcome with dignity:


The obvious problem for McMansion designers, both then and now, was what to do with the structure’s vast exterior walls. In the early days, the facades were often flat and simple and covered with brick veneer, but as the houses grew they evolved the complicated folds and bulges and gables-on-gables-on-gables that are so familiar today, techniques that express a pathetic longing for the urbanism of olden times. Other notable features were introduced as the years passed: the turrets, the theater rooms, the gift-wrapping rooms, the attached gazebos, those enormous and complicated circus-tent roofs.

The new American Dream of obtaining a gift-wrapping room, while hilarious, has a nefarious impact that stretches far beyond the neat edges of a suburban lawn. Though McMansions are rumored to have fallen out of fashion, there's plenty of evidence to show they're coming back: After a brief downturn between 2009 and 2011, average sizes of new homes began to rise again, and in 2012, they surpassed the peak square footage set in 2007. That isn't just bad news for neighbors. There's a domino effect that has profoundly affected the way all of America lives to accommodate the desires of those wealthy enough to afford such gargantuan and opulent residences:

This is civilization’s very center, the only thing that really makes sense in 'clusterfuck nation,' the tawdry telos at which all our economic policies aim. Everything we do seems designed to make this thing possible. Cities must sprawl to accommodate its bulk, eight-lane roads must be constructed, gasoline must be kept cheap, coal must be hauled in from Wyoming on mile-long trains. Middle-class taxes must be higher to make up for the deductions given to McMansion owners, lending standards must be diluted so more suckers can purchase them, banks must be propped up, bonuses must go out, stock prices must ascend. Every one of us must work ever longer hours so that this millionaire’s folly can remain viable, can be sold successfully to the next one on the list. This stupendous, staring banality is the final outcome for which we have sacrificed everything else.

Long live our McMansion overlords.

Read the full thing at Salon.

[Image: McMansion via Sonya Etchison / Shutterstock]

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