Tuesday, June 23, 2009


“McMansion” is one of the glib slang words I would like to see retired. Not only is it overused, it is wrongly used to the point that it has lost any meaning.

Someone clever coined the word at least a decade ago. When first introduced it was apt and funny. McMansion does not appear in my American Heritage dictionary. But if it did, the definition (as originally intended) would be something like this:

McMansion (mik man’shen) n. 1. A large mass-produced house meant to imitate the stately features of expensive custom homes. 2. A pretentious tract house. 3. A house built from stock plans that ineptly mimics custom home details.

This was worth a chuckle because it poked fun at our ready acceptance of mass-produced schlock by linking bad architecture to the most recognized icon of mass-produced food. In both instances, we know it is not good for us, but we gobble it up anyway. Probably for the same reasons: we perceive it as a good deal and it satisfies our hunger for something meaty. It takes a higher level of awareness to recognize the empty calories in one and the bankrupt esthetics in the other.

We have long ago departed from that definition, applying the word in ways that have left it devoid of meaning. It is like the phrase “luxury apartment”. That is applied to rental units of every size and quality. I have seen the words on large banners affixed to the balconies of the most ordinary apartment buildings. It seems that running water and fresh paint are sufficient amenities to qualify an apartment as luxurious.

Likewise, McMansion is devalued by overuse and misapplication. I have heard it used to describe any of the following structures:

a) Large houses we simply do not like (maybe we are feuding with the owners)
b) Any house bigger than its immediate neighbors
c) Homes bigger than a prescribed square footage deemed acceptable for the number of people living in it (a moving target depending on the notions of the people
setting the standards)
d) Beautiful homes that legitimately are mansions but hated because they are larger than we can afford

Used in these ways McMansion has moved from a witty gibe about architecture to a dismissive insult that is so broad there is no room for debate. Do you still beat your wife? Is your house still too big? There is no thought behind the remark and no acceptable response. McMansion has absorbed all the venal qualities of jealousy, social engineering, and avarice without retaining the redeeming quality of humor.

This is not just a rant about grammar. Words have consequences. The McMansion jeer is used in public meetings to sway politicians and set policy. It comes up all the time in zoning discussions. There is an ongoing debate in many cities over what constitutes appropriate infill projects or replacement housing. In Denver some older neighborhoods are battlegrounds over this issue. Andrew Hyatt, a real estate appraiser and broker, countered in the North Denver Tribune that “these McMansions… help create a better neighborhood and local economy. Scraping an old, functionally obsolete bungalow is truly not the nightmare down zoning critics would have you believe.” His article goes on to describe how new, larger homes provide choices and value to buyers and how older homes are often inadequate with their head-ducking basements, inefficient furnaces, crumbling foundations, and substandard plumbing and wiring.

I wish Mr. Hyatt had not accepted McMansions as a broad description of infill development. But he is correct in defending head on the phenomenon of new development in existing neighborhoods. In the community he was describing, some people find new development a positive evolution and others want it anywhere but in their own backyards. There are legitimate differences of opinion based on adequacy of infrastructure, solar access, and density. That is where the debate should turn, not on the style of the houses. Nevertheless, opponents of change have latched onto the McMansion phrase as a substitute for rigorous exchange and clear thinking.

Perhaps the real problem is simply that some (many?) houses truly are ugly. This can happen anywhere, but it is most obvious (and becomes most contentious) with infill projects that loom above more diminutive and quainter old homes. It’s a sad fact that a lot of things we don’t like do get built. But so do a lot of good things. If everything had to look like what is around it, how would great architecture ever emerge? By definition, no radical advance in architecture, from the Renaissance to the modern movement, ever came about by architects trying to match their surroundings. I get nervous when I hear phrases like “form based zoning” and “neighborhoods of stability” used to control architectural design. Often the McMansion word is used to “objectively” back up such ideas. But at what point does change move from good to bad? Was Manhattan a better place in pre-skyscraper days? Say, 1880? Or maybe skyscrapers were good until about 1970, but became bad when they simply got too big? Has New York changed for the better since 1970 or is it a worse place to live? We could debate such questions for a long time. I don’t know when we should freeze-dry a neighborhood or a town and say, “That’s it. That’s the best this place will ever be.” I do not feel qualified to make that pronouncement. When in doubt I will argue for the maximum latitude in personal expression, not the least. Let the McMansions – whatever they are – coexist with the good, the bad, and the ugly. Sometimes the rough edges are what make a city vibrant and exciting.

As an architect, I would like to see every aspect of the built environment in perfect harmony, well proportioned and beautiful. But this works best when it happens organically and with variety. By allowing great latitude in the system, mistakes may happen and things may not always look the way we want them to. Nevertheless, maximizing creative freedom also invites exciting innovations that just may point the way to a better life for everybody. On the other hand, when architecture and development are micro-managed you do not have real places, you have Disneyland. A nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Let's retire the word McMansion and have real discussions about architecture, development, and the future of our cities.

[Closing note: I don’t deny McMansions exist; I just don’t think the term should be misapplied and I don’t believe esthetics can or should be legislated by zoning. I had intended to include pictures in this blog entry as examples of my definition of McMansions. These come from what I call my Architectural Horror File -- a collection of houses with goofball proportions, misshapen details, a cacophony of materials. But they are soft targets. There are too many houses (some of them, sadly, in my own neighborhood) that are seriously flawed. I hope that they were designed without professional assistance. I’d hate to think that my colleagues are that thick.

It’s easy to be a critic, hard to be creative. Who knows what forces produced these horrors? Maybe the builder didn’t follow the plans. Maybe the architect had a bout of temporary insanity. Maybe the owners purposefully demanded some of the bizarre details. So, for now, I refrain. Besides, people actually live in some of these houses. At some point, they chose to conspicuously exhibit their bad taste. I just don’t have the heart to publicly shame them. It’s just too easy. Too easy.

So this is posted without pictures.]

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