I commented on a post of Legal Eagle’s which mentioned McMansions in passing, with the rider: “(S)ome love to rail against environmentally unsound McMansions (how dare the lower class have a spacious and comfortable house, bigger than middle-class people!)”. I called bullshit. Legal Eagle replied “Explain yourself!” And I thought it was worth a post.
I’m calling bullshit on the popular story that criticising McMansions is equivalent to sneering at the working class, and denying them the good things in life. In this narrative, the people championing the McMansion are the true socialists and stand with the working man and woman in their quest for a truly equal society. This is in no way peculiar to Legal Eagle – I’ve seen it all over the media.
It’s one of the endless riffs on the “elites” narrative. According to this variation, the heroic workers are approaching, under neoliberal capitalism, the egalitarian nirvana which they always sought, and the only truly authentic expression of this is a mock-Tuscan mansion of 215 or so square metres, built to the boundary on a treeless (except for pencil pines) quarter-acre block on a nodule-shaped development far from public transport, shops and services, a hotbox in summer and freezing in winter, costing squillions to heat, cool and furnish. But wait! Who’s this, crouching behind one of the two Yucca plants out the front? Oh, no! It’s those horrible “elites” again, throwing cold water on this wonderful social apotheosis, claiming that McMansions are really a bit crap. It’s because they just don’t want the heroic working class to have nice things!
Here’s the article which provoked Eagle’s reaction. It’s written by someone who knows his stuff. But I see the counter-narrative everywhere. During the last election, I saw a letter by a concerned citizen in our local newspaper complaining that the Greens bad-mouthed mcMansions and by association, ordinary Australians. I recognised the name on the letter as a Labor apparatchik (not local), so I know it’s spin.
Unfortunately for this story, its main premise is a fiction – McMansion owners are more likely to be up and coming IT workers and professionals or semiprofessionals as classic battlers. But let’s put that aside for a minute and consider the idea on its internal consistency alone.
What it comes down to is: we’re criticising a mode of planning and building, and being told we’re not allowed to claim one way of building is objectively better than another, in case we offend the lower/middle class (that is, most of us). Imagine if progressives had been the source of this idea. Political correctness! the media would cry. Po-mo relativism! Emotional!! (In Australia, the most devastating criticism possible.) Yes, built environments have political and cultural significance, but I am willing to go out on a limb and say that people who are fighting for the godgiven right of the Aussie Battlers to buy McMansions are speaking more from financial or political self interest than any warm concern for the battlers themselves.
I’m womanning the barricades, Comrades, for the right to say that McMansions are badly built and badly sited on badly planned developments. I’m not ashamed to say that building houses which regularly feature his and hers walk-in robes, home theatres and “powder rooms” as standard, but describing wall and ceiling insulation and smoke detectors as “luxury inclusion(s)” is doing it wrong. Furthermore, I’ll say these houses are poorly sited with regard to sunlight, lack eaves for shade, have thin walls, have little or no garden space, are built quickly and cheaply, will deteriorate rapidly and need expensive repairs in a relatively short time. I won’t be bullied into praising these white elephants by creative use of the Roveian/Howardian discourse of “elites”.
Now I know you’re going to say: “Yes, Helen, you can state your preference for one kind of dwelling over another, but saying that people shouldn’t want McMansions is telling other people what they ought to want, so, still elitist.” Which would be absolutely true, but don’t forget that there is an entire industry – advertising and marketing – whose job it is to tell people what they ought to want. Buyers aren’t just Choosing their Choice in a vaccuum. The building and development corporations (and the big box retailers who serve them, and the credit companies behind it all) are going to a lot of effort to appeal to aspiration, to snob value, to illusions of community and stability. Buyers adjust their “dreams” to fit whatever display model takes their fancy, while in reality the cookie-cutter homogeneity and cheapness of construction suits the developers and builders first and foremost. In other words, I think people are being told what they ought to want by the developers and the rest of the building/retail food chain, and unlike the McMansion opponents, they aren’t being called on it.
It doesn’t end there. The Big Box retailers love the bigger houses because they need to be furnished, and the pressure is on to furnish them a certain way, not just bring all your stuff from the rental house. There are more rooms, and you can’t just put a squeaky little sound system in that home theatre. Then, of course, there are the credit providers raking in their interest after that 24-month-interest-free period.
I have no doubt that if they had the will, the corporations and their advertisers could use the same lush, descriptive advertising to convince the punters they’d be happier and more comfortable (and richer!) in a smaller but better constructed and environmentally intelligent house. Swap the home theatre and his’n’hers walk-in robes for thicker walls, insulation and better basic construction. Use the Australian vernacular instead of the European, with overhanging eaves and shady verandahs on the western side. Use the space gained on the block to orient the houses for the climate. Have solar hot water and other money-saving goodies as standard, instead of “European tiles”, marble benchtops and such. Those can always come later with the money saved on power and other bills.
You don’t think they could sell this alternative vision? Of course they could. They’re the ones setting the agenda.
I dislike these houses because they are an embodiment of how individual buyers, society as a whole, and the environment on which we depend, are poorly served. I don’t dislike them because I don’t want ordinary people to have nice things. It’s because I would like them to have something so much better!
Update: The Melbourne Urbanist, Don Arthur on Club Troppo.
Update 2: Looks like a lot of people are changing their minds about house size.