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August 11, 2008 Mid-Century Modern

The Meaning of McMansions, Modern Design

Did you see Columbia University architecture professor Gwendolyn Wright’s interesting piece in yesterday’s Post on the what the homes we build say about about us? Wright, the author of “USA: Modern Architectures in History,” had a pretty harsh critique of McMansions as you can see below.

“The New Economy of the 1990s fostered delirious spending with easy credit. Americans were encouraged to borrow far beyond their means. A pervasive taste for extravagance equated size and opulence with luxury. The McMansion, gargantuan in size, appeared, often entailing the demolition of several historical houses. The facades of these homes are adorned with a showy pastiche of super-size motifs. How about some classical columns, two stories high, to stir memories of Southern plantations, alongside huge displays of half-timbering to evoke a Tudor castle? Interiors focus on a majestic stairway and a portentous spectacle called the ‘Great Room.’

“A McMansion is rife with contradictions. It’s an exhibitionistic house, yet it’s set far back from the street, with tall gates and security systems. These Hummer houses appeal to people who want a truly conspicuous display of wealth. They’ve given freedom of expression a new and rather disturbing meaning: the right to do whatever you want, to be totally self-absorbed. Which is where we are, for the most part, today.”

She is more kind on the meaning of mid-century architecture.

“[D]omestic architecture of the 1950s sought to humanize modern housing with comfort and informality. Americans enjoyed The Good Life, as they put it, a phrase that resonated around the world. Even the French spoke of ‘la Good Life’ with an ambivalent mix of disdain and desire.

“Two brand-new rooms suddenly appeared. The master bedroom provided discreet intimacy for adults, while the family room emphasized wholesome togetherness. In the suburbs, sliding glass doors opened onto patios and well-kept lawns. Floor plans became more open, with ample built-in storage for the dramatic increase in the average household’s consumer goods. Possessions were put on display: television in the living room, modern appliances in the housewife’s kitchen, golf clubs and hand-tools in the husband’s workshop-garage.”

Ah, living the good life.