Introduction to McMansions: Character or Caricature?

In this post, we are going to start to poke some fun at ourselves and our architecture. I want us to struggle together for an answer to the question: “Why we are seemingly incapable of producing houses and or neighborhoods that are still aesthetically viable or visibly relevant hundreds of years from now?”.


While some of you will have fun with this, others may come to realize "Oh #%@^, he’s talking about my house.” Just so you feel better, I’m also talking about my house…until I remodel it.


If we look back at historic homes prior to 1920-ish, we have no problem admitting they are still visually rich. This visual richness and character wasn’t just for the rich like it is today. All classes had a great architectural heritage.


But today, our architectural heritage is the “McMansion”.


McMansion Example

Mc "stuff" represents mass produced products that are merely a hint of the original thing. They are often disposable cheap representations of something that used to be made by artisans and are now made by machines or assembly lines. McMansions are the architectural manifestation of this idea.


There is no real artistry as artisans no longer work with natural materials. We now “assemble” mass produced building materials. The materials get cheaper and cheaper and have become more uniform like a massed produced burger you can dress up with toppings, but in the end is empty calories of sameness.


However, I must be grateful for this mass production in some sense. We have been able to make homes more cost effective in terms of price per square foot allowing for more people to get into homes.


Another huge loss due to mass production is that of the artisans/craftsman like stone masons, finish carpenters and so on. They used to take a lot of pride in and put their heart and soul into their work. Some still do, but most subcontractors are just hired hands for assembly and we rarely value true artisans’ skills as we once did because we are so focused on price per square foot and getting the best return on our real estate “investment.”


So as we talk about McMansions, for those of you who love modern architecture, you’re not out of the woods. There are also modernist McMansions as well as modernist timeless homes. The principles we talk about here apply to both.


So, lets start. First-Character versus caricature. Character represents the essence of something where all the individual components are composed in a way that proportionally relate to each other in scale and hierarchy. A caricature is the result of making the individual components of a thing out of scale and proportion so different aspects are exaggerated and/or diminished. This is appropriate in cartoons and theme parks, but our neighborhoods probably shouldn’t be theme parks.


Home or Theme Park?

Most of us live in these types of neighborhoods. Most of us like these neighborhoods. But I ask, do we really want home that will be dated within a decade? I hear that complaint from everybody. I remodel houses to “update” them continually. If we can (and we can), why not build homes that never go out of style?


In the next posts we’ll look at the different aspects of the McMansion that make it a caricature of the authentic mansion

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2019 Clayton Vance