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July 01, 2009

Bubbles, McMansions

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* What role did the ventromedial prefrontal cortex play in causing the current economic crisis?

* Have Americans fallen out of love with McMansions?

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at July 1, 2009




Comments

Build one of these and you may as well pin a target on your back that says, "Tax me!" And that doesn't even cover the cost of keeping one of these viable.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on July 2, 2009 11:19 AM



The use of the term of abuse "McMansion" has always confused me. A leftist professor type who uses it seems to imply that this isn't a *real* mansion, unlike their own meticulously restored 1800s vintage colonial.

That is, it might be *intended* as an attack on capitalism and the idea that the middle class should be able to afford a nice house with enough space for kids to play...but it *comes across* as just rank class snobbery, which is kind of an own-goal for the person invested in tearing down the bourgeois capitalist system.

Posted by: fjkl on July 2, 2009 2:10 PM



Totally agree, fjkl. That snobbery comes from both sides of the political spectrum, though. It's part of a bigger trend of the middle-class having more and more access to and interest in luxury items, be it houses, food, travel, etc.

Posted by: JV on July 2, 2009 2:39 PM



Really? You guys think that the term "McMansions" represents objectionable snobbery?

I mean, obviously it can be. But always? Do you have the same objection to terms like "junk food" and "corporate pop"?

They're all implicitly putdowns, I guess -- though anyone who wants to is certainly entitled to say about a given house, dish or song, "Yeah, but so far as McMansions go it's a pretty nice one," or "Yeah, but it's good junk food," or "Yeah, but so far as corporate pop goes I like it."

But they're also good (and lively/slangy) indicators for certain kinds of products that we're all very familiar with. "McMansion" -- it's clever, funny term for a distinctive kind of housing product that's of fairly recent vintage. You can picture what's being spoken about really easily.

Do you have a better term to offer up?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 2, 2009 4:23 PM



Junk food is just that: food that is junk. It's not applied to a product that is imitating a luxury item.

McMansions are houses built for middle-class families that mimic the attributes, in size and style (though not always successfully on the latter) of houses once only available to the rich. The disdain for them I believe is rooted in a gatekeeper mentality, because once the plebs have houses like the rich, well then how are the rich supposed to differentiate themselves from the plebs?

I'll agree that many so-called McMansions are ugly, but then so are many actual mansions. But what are "actual mansions?" If you take 2 houses of equally large size, say 5000 sq. ft., with one built on a lot in a development and the other on an estate, then which is the "real" mansion? Is it a mansion and not a McMansion only because the one on the estate is owned by someone with more money than the one in the development?

Posted by: JV on July 2, 2009 5:16 PM



I think you're off, and on a number of points.

For one, junk food mimics a lot of things about food "richness": it's plentiful, it's colorful, it's bursting with flavors, and (let's face it) junk food is pushing such flavors and textures as chocolate, cream, salt, and fat pretty hard. All these used to be eatin' pleasures that only rich people could afford, while the poor made do with gruel. It's all manufactured and fake, of course, as well as a disservice to the organism. But there's a lot of mimicry-of-abundance goin' on in the junk-food aisles.

I think you're also off on the "gatekeeper" thing where McMansions are concerned. For one thing, a lot of middle-class housing over the centuries has done what it could to mimic the housing of the rich -- nothing new there. For another, I haven't actually heard many rich people refer sneeringly to "McMansions" -- they might very well, but most of the people I've encountered who use the term are other middle-class people, often middle-class people who are marveling over what's being erected in those plowed-under cornfields at the edge of town. They need a term for those developments and houses -- McMansions seems to suit a lot of people. (I initially called these developments "big-barn suburbia" myself, but it never caught on with the masses, sigh.)

So, I dunno, to me they're pretty close equivalents: manufactured products that are peddling the illusion of substance, quantity, "taste" ...

As far as I can tell (I know this is debatable), the term "McMansions" caught on not so much because uppity gatekeepers were sneering at parvenus, but because so many people recognize these houses as fakey, often poorly-made, fast-food imitations of traditional luxury.

(Incidentally, and FWIW, I sometimes enjoy nouveau-riche gusto and vulgarity, and I often find "solid good taste" an oppressive drag.)

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 2, 2009 6:10 PM



Out here in the suburbs, I can't think of a single instance of anyone mentioned the word "McMansion" in conversation. Pretty much everyone out here either lives in a house that would qualify as such or wouldn't mind doing so. I have seen it brought up in conversations with my single and mostly urban friends.

As for the quality, they are no worse than other new houses being built, and in many cases they're better. We've walked through many and can tell the difference in quality between a McMansion type and a regular, 2400 sq ft type home.

I truly think you and other single, urban types are put off by the accessibility of luxury that McMansions represent to average people, as well as the drive to attain such luxury. Seriously, are you that put off by the architecture?

Posted by: JV on July 2, 2009 6:53 PM



Meant to add: The "after" house in the article you linked to is pretty damn traditional and nice looking. I'd live there in a hot minute. Does that house bother you? If so, why?

Posted by: JV on July 2, 2009 6:57 PM



What do people do with all that interior space? Seriously! It's not like they have a bunch of kids to shelter. The average American family size is tiny compared to what it was at the turn of the 19th century (7.0 kids) and is small when compared to the turn of the 20th (3.5).

I am genuinely curious as to what people do with all that space. Set up home theaters? My father has a workshop in my parents' averaged sized house, but it is only an averaged sized house. I've also known of many a man who dreamt of his very own wet bar, but married life and children tend to put an end to that dream.

Posted by: I_Affe on July 2, 2009 8:10 PM



The disdain expressed for McMansions is simply lumpen intellectual's McEnvy writ large.

Posted by: ricpic on July 2, 2009 8:25 PM



JV -- Given that I'm not attacking McMansions (just defending the use of the term), I'm puzzled that you're defending them with such fervor. Against whom?

I mean, if you want to make the case for McMansions as cool or desirable housing products, that could be a lot of fun. Though I wouldn't choose to live in one myself, god knows we indulge in a lot of populist counterprogramming around these parts.

But it's the term that's on my mind. And it's already in dictionaries and encyclopedias. It's been around for more than a decade. Everyone knows what a McMansion is, just as everyone knows what a "condo farm" is, or what "sprawl" is.

Maybe they aren't technical, neutral terms -- they were all born out of disparagement or annoyance. But that's the story for a lot of perfectly good and widely-accepted terms, including "punk." And finally these are slangy populist terms. They're anything but terms promoted by dismissive, sneering gatekeepers.

Hey, Wikipedia's entry on McMansion's is pretty good:

LINK

So is Witold Rybczynski's slideshow:

LINK

Here's a good rundown on the history of the phenomenon:

"One broadly accepted definition ... is a house larger than 5,000 square feet -- about double the national average -- with four or more bedrooms that is built cheek by jowl with similar houses. Most have been erected since the mid-1980s, when major developers such as Toll Brothers and K. Hovnanian Homes began to chase couples who wanted more space -- and luxury -- than they had when they were kids. These houses often boast grand, two-story entryways, three-car garages, double-height family rooms and master-bedroom "suites" equipped with sitting areas and whirlpool tubs. Developers market the homes under names such as the Grand Michelangelo, Hemingway and Hibiscus -- while detractors have dubbed them "garage mahals," "faux chateaux" or "tract castles.""

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 2, 2009 11:56 PM



Fun article about how shoddily-constructed many houses built in recent years have been:

LINK

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 3, 2009 12:15 AM



I think fjkl is right, in general. It has been my observation that people fervently, righteously, gloriously, hypocritically both socialist and affluent (such as professor types), tend to use terms like "McMansion" more than others. These are the same people who shop only at organic food stores, buy hybrid cars or Volvos (and then plaster them with leftist bumper stickers), lovingly restore 1800s colonials, and travel the globe for authentic period antiques. Yet when the married guy with three kids who owns a local construction business moves into a house like the new one pictured in the article, that house is a "McMansion".

Personally, the new house in the article is not my top choice in terms of style and arrangement, but I don’t see anything about it worthy of disparagement. I’d certainly like to be making the money it takes to build, pay for, and maintain something like that!

Posted by: Laikastes on July 3, 2009 3:55 AM



Hmmm, I've never heard the term McMansion used in any other way but derisively. My first glimpse of the term was in Sarah Susanka's Not So Big House. It was definitely used in derogatory way there.

Still though, I think it is a term that accurately describes the product. The houses are to architecture to what fast food is to good cooking. Ok in small doses, but toxic if a staple. Look, I hate the yuppie snobs as much as the next normal person, but I gotta agree with them that many of the McMansion are déclassé; a triumph of means above taste.

Posted by: slumlord on July 3, 2009 6:57 AM



But Michael Blowhard, the term "McMansion" is itself an insult, just like "McJob" is an insult.

Go ahead and insult it, I guess, though there's no dearth of people piling on to slam the poor middle class burgher. A lot of people who live in "McMansions" are nice people who would get a crestfallen look on their face if you called their house a "McMansion" to their face. Here they worked hard to get that promotion and finally move out to a place where they have a lawn and a barbecue. American Dream, ain't it? Affordable family formation, no?

Sure it's a bit cookie cutter. They aren't rich! Levittown was cookie cutter too, yet that became legendary and synonymous with the postwar American middle class.

I dunno. Rather than sneer at my neighbor's big house -- either out of misplaced envy or out of the leftist university professor's hatred of anyone else's fun -- I wish him well. I hope his wife has fun with that PTA thing and that we have a big barbecue this weekend.


Also -- do suburb residents come up with witty, pithy insults for the lifestyles of the urban and childless? Even if they did, would said insults be repeated endlessly in newsprint and broadcast TV?

Oh yeah -- here is some more evidence that the term itself is derogatory (because McDonalds is associated with cheap, unhealthy food and low-wage jobs):

LINK

OOOH, I hate that word! It's so derogatory,'' Sheila Stone, vice president of the Julia B. Fee real estate agency, said with a shudder.

What sent the shiver down her spine was the word ''McMansions,'' a term used to describe large luxury homes that are increasingly springing up next door to smaller, more modest homes in neighborhoods like Scarsdale, Larchmont and Rye, where her agency is located.

Posted by: fjkl on July 3, 2009 7:28 AM



Remember that song, "Little Boxes"? You know...

There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And of course, the sneer at the people:

And the people in the houses
All went to the university
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same
And there's doctors and lawyers
And business executives
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

That was leftist sneering at the burbs of the time. Same attitude today, I think. The left has more sheer snobbery per cubic leftymeter than any other group on the political spectrum. Now they've found a new way to look down on middle class aspirations. And--special fun!--the people who have those aspirations, and who attain them.

My problem with McMansions is that they swallow up lots (end up "cheek by jowl" as the article says). That's true, of course, of suburbs with much smaller houses too. They really do become oppressive when they're bunched up like that.

But the attitude to McMansions strikes me as being rooted in the same disdain for mass-produced products and the pleasure they give to the masses that has marred leftist critiques of capitalism for decades now. Probably also a near-100 percent correlation with those opposed to "car culture", one of the greatest liberating forces in human history and now under the most sustained assault it has ever experienced.

Old School Marxist types weren't so bad: they wanted McMansions (well, real mansions) for everybody. Not so with today's snoot-in-air progressive types.

Car-haters hate freedom and power and energy. They also invariably hate the suburbs. And now McMansions.

These things go deep. I know which side I'm on.

Posted by: PatrickH on July 3, 2009 10:57 AM



For anyone paying attention, here is another classic case of a "strawman" argument, "... people fervently, righteously, gloriously, hypocritically both socialist and affluent (such as professor types), tend to use terms like "McMansion" more than others. These are the same people who shop only at organic food stores, buy hybrid cars or Volvos (and then plaster them with leftist bumper stickers), lovingly restore 1800s colonials, and travel the globe for authentic period antiques.

Architecturally the term "McMansions" to me means faux "traditional" features and form in an outsized scale that might best be thought of as a cottage with a thyroid condition. I grew up as one of four kids, living with two parents and (intermittently) a grandparent or two in a six room, single bath, cookie cutter cape of roughly 1200 sq. ft. While no longer living in the same part of New England, I frequently get back to the town I lived in then. In the nineties many of the developments that sprang up in the area during the fifties and sixties saw houses similar to the one I grew up in bulldozed and replaced with 5000 sq. ft. edifices with 4-5 bedrooms, each with a full bath, and any number of oversized and luxe features (granite counters, stainless steel appliances, sub-zero refrigerators, etc.)

The house my parents bought was purchased on the salary of a public school teacher. The McMansions replacing these modest homes sell in the low seven figures and it is fairly clear that few teachers, police, or auto mechanics can afford them. The phenomenon did much to contribute to the rapid inflation of housing values with the result we now see as the boom has gone bust.

Whether from a standpoint of aesthetics, or for the market distortion and social costs of pricing all but the upper and upper middle classes out of an area, "McMansion" deserves to be a pejorative term.

Posted by: Chris White on July 3, 2009 11:12 AM



Laikastes -- In order to indicate that particular kind of housing product, everyone these days uses the term "McMansion." They aren't all snobs, let alone gatekeepers. The real-estate industry probably objects, and probably has some hilariously dignified/technical term for the product. But if we let industry dictate our language we'd be referring to our wristwatches as "chronographs" or "timepieces" or something. Screw that.

As a practical matter, how else would you refer to these houses and developments? "Er, well they're huge, they're recent, they look like three houses bulldozed together, the fronts of them are often fancy while the sides and back are often blank, they're often financed with balloon loans, and they take up a bigger percentage of their property than most suburban houses traditionally have." That's unwieldy -- almost nobody's going to go to that trouble. And though it's an accurate description of the phenomenon, it isn't a compact, evocative and punchy term.

Slumlord -- It's hard not to have a giggle or two at the expense of McMansions, isn't it? And where's the harm?

fjkl -- I admire your desire to defend the tastes of common people but in this case I think you're 'way overdoing it. Of course the term "McMansion" wasn't invented as a compliment. And of course someone in the business of selling these products is going to object to the term. She wants people to lay out -- or at least promise to lay out -- 700 grand! You don't do that by using semi-satirical terms like "McMansion."

But such terms as "sprawl" and "punk" and "B movie" weren't initially compliments either, and nearly everyone is OK with them now. "Punk" initially meant not "cool hip trend in music" but "loser" and even "guy who takes it," perhaps even sexually.

So what? These are all colorful and evocative terms. They're also immensely functional. That's a virtue. Same with McMansion. Say the word "McMansion" and people instantly picture (at the very least) "big" and "recent." That's useful. And it's not a minor plus that all these terms have caught on. McMansion may not yet have hit quite the same level of acceptance that "punk" and "sprawl" have, but it seems well along its way.

(Hey, "SWPL" looks like it may have some staying power too -- fun! That's another example of a satirical put-down that's turning into a word-in-common-usage. Such is one of the ways language operates.)

...

Anyway, my minor quarrel with JV and fjkl doesn't have to do with McMansions themselves, let alone any larger topic, it's just with the notion that using the term automatically indicates gatekeeper-style snobbery.

Yes, the term was born out of aversion and ridicule. But, for one thing, aversion and ridicule don't ALWAYS represent gatekeeper/snobbery feelings. Aversion and ridicule can even express populist feelings.

For another: By now the term has passed into common usage. I've heard people who can't themselves afford McMansions -- and who have zero opinion-making status or power -- refer to these houses as "McMansions."

Hey, I got an email from a friend in Westchester yesterday. She was giggling about a party she'd attended at a "McMansion" that she'd spent hanging out around the "kitchen island."

Now, she wasn't putting the house down -- she was just telling me in an amusing way about a party at a friend's place. In other words, she was using "McMansion" just as she was using "kitchen island" -- as amusing shorthand.

If she had written to me that she'd spent the party at the "McMansion" hanging around the "kitchen island" and munching on "junk food," would you accuse her of gatekeeping foodie snobbery? Or is she just being funny, fast, and flip? If you're offended, how would you have her tell her story?

And when newspapers refer to these products as "McMansions" I don't detect intellectual-critic-style snobbery behind it either. The reporters and editors are just using a current tangy/slangy term in order to evoke "those tracts of big houses that look like crazy collages of ritzy styles that have been appearing in droves on the edge of the 'burbs since the late '80s." They're using contempo journalistic language.

Here's an experiment. Let's say some guy wants to refer to this particular housing product. And because he's such a very very nice guy, and because has such a lot of respect for other people's feelings and dreams and tastes, he wants to avoid using the term "McMansion." OK, then: What term would you have him use?

BTW, I think it's pretty amazing if we've come to the point where people with $700,000 6,000 square foot houses 1) need defending, and 2) are considered "common people"!!!!!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 3, 2009 11:25 AM



Short version of my case:

Sure you can find leftists, gatekeepers and snobs using the term "McMansion" as a way to put down the tastes of common people. But you can also find loads of people who aren't lefties, gatekeepers or snobs using the term "McMansions." Some of the ones who intend ridicule are more populist than the owners of the McMansions; some people use the term without intending any judgement at all.

(Not that there's anything wrong with making fun of McMansions, god knows).

Besides, it's a fun and pungent word. And in any case the term has already passed into common usage. There's no good alternative to it. You don't want to be a language dictator anyway. So deal with it.

As for whether the tastes of people who can afford $700,000 houses -- and whose preferences are being catered to by immense official and semi-official institutions and resources -- really need tenderhearted and idealistic defending ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 3, 2009 12:11 PM



It's hard not to have a giggle or two at the expense of McMansions, isn't it? And where's the harm?

I don't have a problem with the term Michael, though the owner of a "McMansion" may. No offense Michael, but I think your conception of the term is with odds on how it is frequently used. The owner of a McMansion is obviously trying to project this image of class, wealth and sophistication to his fellow peers. When his house is labeled a McMansion, it is a public affirmation that he has failed in his endeavors. It's a social put down.

Still, the interesting point about McMansions is in the concepts they embody but fail to articulate properly. When the average man thinks of his dream home, he wants lots of space, the traditional language of architecture(traditional windows, pitched roofs, columns,etc) and he wants to build something that his friends and neighbours will admire, not confront them. It is in effect the common man's rebellion against modern architecture albeit frequently executed without any skill.

Posted by: slumlord on July 3, 2009 5:23 PM



it's pretty amazing if we've come to the point where people with $700,000 6,000 square foot houses 1) need defending, and 2) are considered "common people"!!!!!

I don't know where you live, but I live in an area where a $700k house is (still) middle class. With a thirty year mortgage, that works out to roughly $25k per year, or $2000/month. Renting is roughly half that -- I pay $1500/month for my modest apartment.

I'm not a fan of defending the "common people" per se. That's a Marxist trope as well. I don't like humanities professors and journalists. I also disagree with you about whether the term is one of snobbery. When a reporter uses a slam, 1 million people read it. In general, no one hears the retort. It vanishes into the ether, if it happens at all. Once in a long while the journalists are bloodied because someone on the internet pipes up. They rear back in confusion and disgust. Aren't they the ones supposed to be casting stones, from their glass houses?


Posted by: fjkl on July 3, 2009 10:06 PM



What always got me about McMansions is how they cram them together about 5 feet apart. I realize today's little butterballs never go outside but still. Give me a little shack with a huge ass yard. If you want to be able to hear your neigbor taking a dump in real time move to a city and get an apartment.

Posted by: Bhh on July 3, 2009 11:52 PM



PatrickH:

But the attitude to McMansions strikes me as being rooted in the same disdain for mass-produced products and the pleasure they give to the masses that has marred leftist critiques of capitalism for decades now. Probably also a near-100 percent correlation with those opposed to "car culture", one of the greatest liberating forces in human history and now under the most sustained assault it has ever experienced.

I certainly agree that the standard environmentalist and other leftist arguments against car culture are mostly bunk, but is it really fair to describe it as "one of the greatest liberating forces in human history"? Take just the following example. Imagine if someone in the U.S. or even Canada proposed that internal passports should be introduced, and the police should conduct random paper checks in public places under threat of criminal penalties for non-compliance. This would be perceived as an unacceptable totalitarian intrusion even nowadays. And yet, the car culture has given us exactly this long ago, and everyone apparently agrees that it's perfectly fine. (Your driver's license has also acquired many other aspects of internal passport, and continues to acquire additional ones.)

Of course, cars are immensely useful practically and people have them even in places where life is far less car-centric than in North America. However, the ugly truth is that the real social purpose of the North American car culture is self-isolation. People normally want to live close to others who are similar to them and share a common culture and tradition, but in the modern atomized and multicultural society, this is obviously impossible (and it's actually illegal to attempt to build a community organized on such principles). So, people seek a lifestyle where everyone is distant and isolated from everyone else, and life is organized around point-to-point commutes, because this is the only way they can get something resembling their desired environment and social circle. Such social atomization can perhaps look liberating at first glance, but I'd say this is very deceptive, because an aggregate of atomized individuals has no way to effectively resist the gradual imposition of total state control over all aspects of life.

Posted by: Vladimir on July 4, 2009 2:18 PM



Hey, I got an email from a friend in Westchester yesterday. She was giggling about a party she'd attended at a "McMansion" that she'd spent hanging out around the "kitchen island."

Pretty much exactly what I'm talking about. That friend in Westchester (ha!) must live in a proper mansion, I guess, unless there's a new area of Westchester I'm not familiar with.

Posted by: JV on July 4, 2009 7:47 PM



Slumlord -- I like your interpretation of what the McMansion thing represents: people's yearnings for trad-style housing satisfactions.

I think you're overdoing it, though, where taking the word as invariably a putdown goes.

Main point: There is no other common word available for the phenom. In other words, to refer to the phenomenon at all you pretty much have to use the term "McMansion."

To argue that the term invariably represents a putdown, you'd have to argue that each and every use of the term is a putdown -- basically, that there is no way to discuss this housing style without putting it down. (Because there's no way to refer to it without using the term McMansion.)

Yet I can easily cite instances where the term isn't being used as a putdown. For example:

LINK

LINK

Are things different in Australia than they are here? In the US the term has been around for 15 years or more. There's no realistic alternative to it. It was born as a putdown, but by now it's become THE term one uses to indicate this widely-observed, widely-recognized housing style.

You can use McMansion in a snobbish or denigrating way, certainly. But these days (in the States at least) you can also use it simply to indicate those big houses on small lots etc, as the WSJ does in the two articles I linked to.

fjkl -- Take a look at the links to the WSJ that I provided above. Do you really take those as slams? On what basis?

Here's another example.

LINK

The term McMansion is used by the writer of the story, and is then used by some of the commenters. None of them are slamming McMansions. They're just making reference to them as one specific kind of housing product. If you can detect putdowns in the way these people are using the term, you're a more sensitive soul than I am.

Vlad -- That's good!

JV -- I suspect that you don't know Westchester well. There are rich sections, but lots of people who live in Westchester are middle-class. My friend, who works as a graphic designer and doesn't live in a mansion, is one of them. And in her email she certainly wasn't mocking her own friend's house. She was using a lot of merry shorthand to tell a story about a party she'd attended.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 5, 2009 1:39 AM



Are things different in Australia than they are here?

It would appear to be so. Here on the other side of the Pacific the term is definitely used derogatively. McMansion here is associated with an outer suburban, high consumption and eco-unfriendly lifestyle. The chattering classes regard living in one of them as proof of unsophistication. To have "made it" amongst the people that matter(at least to the people who think they matter) you have to live in your renovated, small inner city terrace house within 10Km of the centre of town. Life outside these limits is for the untermensch. For the record, I live about 20Km from the centre of town. Although I don't live in one, McMansions abound around here.

Vlad:
Your comment was brilliant.

Posted by: slumlord on July 5, 2009 7:55 AM



Vlad:

Much in your comment to ponder. Some points, not disagreements so much as questions:

Much of the police power exerted over drivers via drivers’ licences is exerted on public roads. Perhaps the totalitarian intrustiveness you decry is rooted in a de facto government monopoly on the medium of movement that automobiles are perforce obliged to use (to say nothing of the incentives for such use created by public roads being supported by all taxpayers, not just those who drive).

There are also paper checks with criminal penalties for non-compliance established at access points to public spaces in general. Photo IDs associated with time-stamped records of every entrance and exit, closed circuit cameras. Now you might say that this too is totalitarian. But totalitarian or not, these intrusive measures are clearly not caused by the automobile, nor even enabled by it. They are the result of governments owning public spaces and enforcing (not always unreasonable) rules on those who would enter and use them.

As for cars being used for self-isolation, or perhaps for the attempt to create or enable not entirely satisfactory substitutes for genuine community (by which I, and I think you as well, mean something like T. S. Eliot’s definition of “tradition”: the same people in the same place), well, this point strikes me as quite powerful. The image of people creating quasi-communities by organizing their lives around isolated castle-like buildings connected by point-to-point commutes reflects much of my own experience in US ‘burbia… something rather less prevalent up here in Canada (I’m glad to say). It’s a chilling image.

And yet, while the automobile enabled white flight from the cities, surely it didn’t cause it, at least in response to the enforced (on whites) togetherness of the modern ethnic AA spoils system. Given my own sense that enforced integration (imposed one-way on whites) is in fact totalitarian, the automobile, by enabling whites to get out from under that regime, was precisely a liberating force. That the substitute communities of exurbia are not as real or intense as the urban neighbourhoods they replaced is true no doubt, and the car does contribute to that lack of reality.

Of course, white flight isn’t the only reason for the growths of the ‘burbs. The lure of the Country Manor for the newly middle class with their newly available cars was no doubt part of the appeal. I question, though, whether that idea, the Country Estate as the pinnacle of the Good Life, can be blamed in any way on the car. After all, the original country estates of which suburban houses (not just the McMansions) are poor substitutes, were isolated and connected point-to-point by commutes (by carriage or by horse in the pre-car days). If seeking self-isolation is an ugly truth about the creation of the burbs, it seems to be a widely enough spread impulse that as soon as people get the money and the transportation to allow them to self-isolate, they do.

In any case, great comment Vladimir, as others have said. Just adding in some angles.

Posted by: PatrickH on July 6, 2009 2:02 PM



from slumlord: "It is in effect the common man's rebellion against modern architecture albeit frequently executed without any skill."

This seems right to me. It's also a rebellion against the drabness of the tract houses of the late 60s and 70, described by Alan Watts as looking like they were designed by someone who had heard of a house but had never seen one.

I don't live in a McMansion, but my 1983 tract house demonstrates the beginning of the trend. Angled walls, high ceilings, useless details. People wanted something better, but didn't know what exactly. So the designers, by then unschooled in traditional architecture, threw on details with the lights out resulting in a kind of "Mr Potato Head house" that mostly just needed to look expensive to succeed.

Especially amusing are the results in the Southwest. Most of the people here come from either the Midwest or SoCal. So you often see houses that combine colonial, generic california modern, santa fe and something vaguely spanish, all at one. Dormers with red spanish tile, faux adobe and a redwood deck out back, this sort of thing.

One thing that modern houses often succeed at is the floor plan. My own house has a much more functional and interesting floor plan than many older houses. For example, I think the open kitchens common now are a huge improvement over the small sequestered kitchens of old houses. Ultimately I think these houses get built because they work for people. That they fail aesthetically indicates the low priority given to that by the buyers and the lack of examples of pleasing design to influence others.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on July 6, 2009 2:06 PM



PatrickH:

Much of the police power exerted over drivers via drivers’ licences is exerted on public roads. Perhaps the totalitarian intrustiveness you decry is rooted in a de facto government monopoly on the medium of movement that automobiles are perforce obliged to use (to say nothing of the incentives for such use created by public roads being supported by all taxpayers, not just those who drive).

I wouldn't call it "totalitarian"; this would definitely be too strong a word. In fact, I don't think it's a particularly harsh intrusion by itself (though the resulting ID system is inevitably creeping into other, unrelated areas), and it's unclear if private motorized transport would be possible at all without such control. Still, I think it's a siginificant cultural observation. In the whole English-speaking world, the idea of obligatory internal passports and police paper checks has powerful totalitarian associations. The words "Papers, please!" immediately conjure up the image of leather-coated Gestapo or KGB agents; just remeber the famous "no papers" quote from The Hunt for Red October. Even in the UK, which has the most intrusive state in the entire Anglosphere, the introduction of national ID cards is facing great resistance. And yet, the car culture has indirectly obliterated this powerful Anglo-Saxon libertarian attitude.

This is just one of many reasons why despite the great practical utility of cars, I definitely don't find car travel as a liberating experience. I find driving a terrible chore, even without traffic jams, endless searches for parking, and other frustrating experiences; not to even mention worrying about whether I can have an extra beer if I have to drive home. Freeways are an ugly and depressing sight for me. I do understand that it's a subjective view, though.


And yet, while the automobile enabled white flight from the cities, surely it didn’t cause it, at least in response to the enforced (on whites) togetherness of the modern ethnic AA spoils system. Given my own sense that enforced integration (imposed one-way on whites) is in fact totalitarian, the automobile, by enabling whites to get out from under that regime, was precisely a liberating force. That the substitute communities of exurbia are not as real or intense as the urban neighbourhoods they replaced is true no doubt, and the car does contribute to that lack of reality.

On the other hand, if there hand't been a relatively easy way out, maybe the resistance to these policies would have been more powerful and effective. But who knows? We can only speculate.

In any case, the problem with these "substitute communities" is not only that they provide less comfort and convenience. They effectively replaced the previous patterns of ethnic segregation with class segregation, which didn't solve any problems associated with the former, and at the same time created countless new ones. One of the worst consequences of the isolation/point-to-point commuting model is that different social groups and strata have become truly separate worlds, far less aware of what's going on with the rest of the society than ever before. I'm sure this is responsible for many delusional attitudes that are prevalent among all sorts of people nowadays.


Of course, white flight isn’t the only reason for the growths of the ‘burbs. The lure of the Country Manor for the newly middle class with their newly available cars was no doubt part of the appeal. I question, though, whether that idea, the Country Estate as the pinnacle of the Good Life, can be blamed in any way on the car. After all, the original country estates of which suburban houses (not just the McMansions) are poor substitutes, were isolated and connected point-to-point by commutes (by carriage or by horse in the pre-car days). If seeking self-isolation is an ugly truth about the creation of the burbs, it seems to be a widely enough spread impulse that as soon as people get the money and the transportation to allow them to self-isolate, they do.

Well, the parallel developments in Canada have provided an experiment showing how things would have probably unfolded in the U.S. without urban decay and white flight. And indeed, newer Canadian suburbs are almost as car-centric as the American ones (although, as you noted, with less social isolation, and also with nowhere as many visible manifestations of the struggle to keep the undesirable elements out in every legal way possible). Similar trends can be seen even in Europe, although the population density places much more severe limits on sprawl there. There is no doubt that many people value spaciousness and privacy above all else.

Also, it should also be noted that the suburban/exurban sprawl in North America was actively subsidized and encouraged by the government, even regardless of any white flight issues. A whole generation of mid-20th century government planners, as exemplified by Robert "cities are for traffic" Moses, strongly pushed things in this direction, both consciously and by disastrously misguided "urban renewal" projects. The political roots of local zoning laws and regulations are also often murky, and not to even mention the issues of planning and financing the infrastructure. Overall, it's hard to tell how significant each of these factors was by itself.

Posted by: Vladimir on July 7, 2009 3:43 AM



They effectively replaced the previous patterns of ethnic segregation with class segregation...

Yes. It's astonishing to me how America, which obsesses so publicly about race, suppresses (or even represses) her real dark secret: class.

And it occurs to me that when enough time has passed to enable a clear-eyed assessment of the 20th century, some of the hyped megastars (Picasso, perhaps even Einstein) will be seen as having had less influence than types like Robert Moses. Why do I say this? Because Moses (oh what a name for the man who led us into a wilderness and left us there!) had a greater (and more malign) influence on the quality of life of more people than all the modern artists (not architects) and physicists put together.

Posted by: PatrickH on July 7, 2009 11:27 AM






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