Let them eat McMansions! The 1 percent, income inequality, and new-fashioned American excess

We have sprawl, wars over cheap gas, stagnant wages and longer hours because your boss wants this awful, ugly house


Thomas Frank
April 13, 2014 3:00PM (UTC)

My first memorable encounter with what we now call the McMansion came about 1985. I was reclining comfortably under a concrete bridge on what were then the fringes of the Kansas City metro area, drinking beer with alienated friends and (if memory serves) listening to Husker Du's “Zen Arcade” on a boombox. In the twilight distance, we could see a housing development going up—by which I mean a development of enormous piles, dozens of houses that were all far larger than the postwar ranches and split levels that were then so familiar to us.

Kansas City has always been a significant locale in the history of suburbia, thanks to the heroic labors of a few local developers, and as the '80s passed I became fascinated with the grandiose turn that sprawl was taking. I drove around, photographing and even walking through the yawning new homes on open-house days. What intrigued me then was the undisguised pretentiousness that accompanied the whole gaudy business. I visited a neighborhood called “Patrician Woods.” I took pictures of houses that seemed to have been designed by Stanford White after a debilitating brain injury. In 1990 I illustrated the second issue of my magazine, The Baffler, with preposterous home designs clipped from a local realtor’s catalog. Har har har.

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What I didn’t understand at the time was that these new ostentatious developments were a product not of some epidemic of vulgarity but of the larger economic changes in the world. By this I do not mean that Americans were being swept up in a wave of extraordinary affluence beginning in the 1980s, but rather that one class of Americans was essentially taking its leave of the rest of us. Hourly wages were dropping, the stock market was rising, taxes for the rich were falling, public housing was not a priority anymore, and in-your-face tract mansions were sprouting everywhere.

Today we call those changes “inequality,” and inequality is, obviously, the point of the McMansion. The suburban ideal of the 1950s, according to "The Organization Man," was supposed to be “classlessness,” but the opposite ideal is the brick-to-the-head message of the dominant suburban form of today. The McMansion exists to separate and then celebrate the people who are wealthier than everybody else; this is the transcendent theme on which its crazy, discordant architectural features come harmonically together. This form of development wants nothing to do with the superficial community-mindedness of the postwar suburb, and the reason the giant house looks the way it does is to inform you of this. Have the security guard slam the gates, please, and the rest of the world be damned.

Inequality is the point of the McMansion, and the McMansion is also, to a certain degree, the point of inequality; it’s the pot of pyrite at the end of the rainbow of shit that we have chosen as a nation to follow. As you enter its soaring narthex of an entrance, keep this in mind: Before you, in the skim-coated drywall greatroom and the monster granite kitchen with its multiplicity of faucets and its Viking stove—this is what it is all about. This is the reward of thirty-odd years of economic policy.

2.

There have always been grand houses in America. What put them into mass-production in the mid-'80s? The most obvious answer is that decade’s transfer of wealth to professionals and managers, a shift made possible by the top-bracket tax cuts of 1981. Where corporate earnings had previously been spent on skyscrapers and company planes, it now poured into the personal bank accounts of executives. Tax policy then steered those executives’ spending toward residential real estate. According to James K. Galbraith, “The 1986 Tax Reform Act removed the deductibility of non-mortgage interest,” leaving mortgage interest as the only remaining deductible type and thus “creating a powerful incentive for households to try to own their own homes.”

Signs of change appeared in 1983, when The New York Times ran a feature on gated communities—or “cities behind walls”—which the paper depicted as a rare but slightly alarming development. KB Homes, a construction company specializing in single-family homes, went public in 1986. It was followed a year later by the Toll Brothers firm, famous today for their mass-produced mega-houses. (The shares of both have performed magnificently since then.)

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In 1986 and ’87 the booming luxury-home market became a standard media meme; the Wall Street Journal ran a story on “megahouses” in Atlanta while the Chicago Tribune marveled at how “attention has shifted from affordable pricing and down-sizing to sprawling luxury houses.” In another story, the Trib marveled to learn that average house prices had topped one million dollars in certain New York suburbs; in a third, it speculated that all this had something to do with the rise of investment banking, because of the “‘new money’ being generated” on Wall Street.

A careful tracker of the evolution of upper-class taste all through the '80s, the Tribune checked off the arrival of such now-standard luxuries as the dual dishwasher, the cathedral ceiling, and, in 1987, the enormous bathroom: “The white-marble whirlpool tub is perched regally on a pedestal at the end of the room below a mirror and a Palladian window. The tub, with gold-plated faucets and onyx handles, is flanked by fluted, decorative columns, suggesting ancient Greece or Rome.” It was, the paper suggested, part of a happy trend in which developers were industriously “coming up with new rooms” heretofore not thought to be necessary (or not thought of at all), such as “studios” for children and “game rooms,” not to mention the now-obligatory “master retreat.” All this space-creation came with an ideology, too, or a marketing scheme, anyway. “Our homes are a reflection of the achievements, success, affluence and impeccable taste of each of our custom home clients,” a suburban Chicago developer told the paper. “We attract those who want more than a place to live; they want a style of living, too.”

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These weren’t machines for living as much as they were machines for flattering. Architecturally speaking, they were straight-up botches. Take a driving tour of the Eighties palaces of Potomac, Maryland (an early tract-mansion hot zone) and marvel at the elements of pseudo-classical style: The glorious entrances. The random ornament stapled on here and there. The pointless skinny columns. The helter-skelter proportions. The toaster-shaped windows that would make Palladio want to stick his head in the oven.

The obvious problem for McMansion designers, both then and now, was what to do with the structure’s vast exterior walls. In the early days, the facades were often flat and simple and covered with brick veneer, but as the houses grew they evolved the complicated folds and bulges and gables-on-gables-on-gables that are so familiar today, techniques that express a pathetic longing for the urbanism of olden times. Other notable features were introduced as the years passed: the turrets, the theater rooms, the gift-wrapping rooms, the attached gazebos, those enormous and complicated circus-tent roofs. But all that really matters—in the Eighties and today—is the building’s size, meaning the square feet enclosed by its particleboard perimeter. A number, by the way, which increases almost every year even as the number of people per household steadily declines.

Living in one of these cavernous chateaux, a friend of mine says, is like a pea bouncing around in a packing crate. But what one begins to suspect, after looking at enough of them, is that these garish houses aren’t designed for living in at all, really; they are designed to sell, and to re-sell, and to sell yet again. Sometimes, according to a passage in the 2000 book "Suburban Nation," the purpose of all this tacky architecture is to create a strong impression on a potential buyer in the first few minutes of a realtor-guided visit. These are assets, not homes. They are built to flip: human settlements organized around the premise of the Greater Fool Theory.

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3.

They weren’t called “McMansions” at first, of course; that epithet came later. The man who bears the most responsibility for popularizing the term seems to have been Andres Duany, the well-known architect and proponent of “New Urbanism.” A Florida newspaper quoted Duany using the term in 1990 and he could be found using it himself in an article he contributed to Wilson Quarterly in 1992. His critique of the McManse—“the fast-food version of the American dream,” it segregated people by income and it forced us to drive if we wanted to go anywhere—was part of a lecture he gave criticizing botched planning in the suburbs.

Google the word and you will find that nearly everyone who uses it criticizes McMansions. It is a universally hated architectural form. Indeed, after unemployment and the activities of investment bankers, the McMansion may be the most despised aspect of capitalism there is.

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Those who defend suburbia, on the other hand, often do it in the same way people used to defend inequality itself: by invoking the democracy of the market. You might not like tract mansions (or Wal-Mart, or asset bubbles, or deregulation), but the market which created these things is giving the people what they want. These houses are gaudy, in other words, because we want gaudy; they’re big because we want big; to criticize them or any other aspect of consumer culture is to imagine yourself smarter or better than the average consumer. (Besides, as certain libertarian thinkers claimed back in the innocent 1990s, the ever-increasing size of the American home, plus all those awesome new appliances, were examples of progress.)

The fog of market populism grows particularly thick when issues of suburban development come up. "Edge City," the influential 1991 celebration of malls, developers, tract mansions and office parks, starts with this sentence: “The controversial assumption undergirding this book is that Americans basically are pretty smart cookies who generally know what they’re doing.” Once upon a time, the book’s author reportedly felt threatened by giant suburban homes, but eventually he came to a kind of epiphany. Suburbia is something we Americans built by choice, he realized, as a kind of common democratic project. To sneer at disorderly new developments, like highbrow urban planners do, is an act of disdain.

And, by extension, to deride McMansions must be to look down your nose at the rich.

4.

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There’s an even stranger way in which the McMansion tracks the larger debate about inequality: Every time the pundit class has convinced itself that the conservative era is ending—that we are about to return to the good old postwar liberal way—they have also declared the end of the tract mansion. Markets crash, unemployment spikes, editorial writers declare that the American people have had it with policies that favor the rich—oh, and that the trend toward ever-bigger houses is over.

The first time this happened was in the early '90s. The economy was in recession and it looked like the age of Reagan was finally coming to a close. In the bestselling 1990 book, "The Politics of Rich and Poor," Kevin Phillips declared that inequality had gone so far that it would trigger an inevitable explosion of middle-class rage. In another bestseller, America: What Went Wrong?, two journalists piled up alarming statistics about the enriching of the privileged during the 1980s and accused politicians of nothing less than “dismantling the middle class.” The eruption came right on schedule in 1992, the “Mad as Hell” election, when everything was supposed to be about “the economy, stupid” and the superficially populist Democrat Bill Clinton talked about “hope” and pledged to the “forgotten middle class” that “when I am president, you will be forgotten no more.”

The floundering Republican incumbent, meanwhile, was lamely encouraging people to buy houses and cars. But in the Washington Post, culture critic Henry Allen was wondering whether the age of consumerism itself was over. A writer in Washington state was predicting “the crash of suburbia.” Andres Duany was pronouncing the cul-de-sac landscape a gigantic bungle. And in 1993, James Howard Kunstler published "The Geography of Nowhere," a suburban doomsday tract that presaged what he now calls, simply, “Clusterfuck Nation.”

But nothing really changed, either in politics or in suburban development patterns. The fortunes of the rich soared on Bill Clinton’s watch—by one measure, inequality hit its peak under his administration—and the McMansions of the 1990s soon trounced those of the 1980s in the two essential categories of square feet and contemptuous vulgarity. Eventually, and with the help of further deregulations and Republican tax cuts, the greatest real-estate boom of them all got going, driven (as we now know) by colossal chicanery in the mortgage business . . . and the appraisal business . . . and the investment-banking business . . . and the bond-rating business as well.

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And so came the inevitable replay, beginning in 2007: Economic collapse, anger at the banksters, a lot of talk about “hope,” a populist political explosion—and a shared judgment that the trend toward ever-gaudier houses was over. On the latter subject, at least, it was more than just talk this time around. Wrecked subdivisions and abandoned McMansions blighted the landscape from California to Connecticut after the housing bubble burst; countless galleries remain online to remind us of what it looked like and there are even stock photos available of this quintessential image of the Great Recession. More shockingly, in 2009 the average size of new American houses began to decrease. News stories proclaiming the “Death of the ‘McMansion” proliferated. Fortune magazine ran a story about the “New Affordability” in housing.

Again, however, nothing really changed. After a brief experiment with deficit spending, President Obama made his famous turn to austerity. The One Percent got the best of both policies: not only were they bailed out; they chalked up some of their best years ever under Barack Obama, taking home 95 percent of the nation’s income growth during the recovery. Meanwhile, the “New Affordability” in housing went the way of the “Keynesian resurgence.” In 2011, average square footage in houses resumed its upward swing; in 2012 the Wall Street Journal launched a new weekly section called “Mansion”; in 2013 average house sizes surpassed the pre-collapse record set in 2008.

5.

Of course there was something different this time around. In the 2008 collapse, the real-estate bust wasn’t the result of some larger economic trend but the cause of it. Although we are accustomed to blaming it all on subprime loans, about half of the disaster was attributable to the less-well-known fiasco in Alt-A instruments which fed the McMansion market, the “liar’s loans” which were securitized and sold off stamped with a big Triple-A. The worst recession of our lifetimes, in other words, was in large part the result of our superiors’ longing to get themselves a piece of the grandiose.

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That astounding reversal of the usual chain of cause and effect changed the way I thought about the McMansion. I once believed it would be amusing to track stylistic change in the tract-mansion form—how, say, the fake French simplicity of Newt Gingrich’s 1987 McMansion gave way to the complex multigabled fakery of Michele Bachmann’s 2007 McMansion, with maybe a stop in between to contemplate Ricky Bobby’s McMansion in "Talladega Nights."

But what I discovered is that the form doesn’t really change. Yes, the houses get bigger every year, gables and gazebos come and go, but what is really striking about the McMansion is its vapid consistency as the decades pass.

What stays the same, and what always gets me when I walk through one of these houses, are the vacuous spaces. The vast stretches of painted sheet-rock. The gaping rooms that are simply too tall to decorate. The billowing industrial roof. The windowless walls.

There’s something else, too. Stand in the street when the sun hits the McMansion from the right angle and its glare obliterates the fake muntins in the windows and suddenly you grasp the truth about this form: It is staring at you with those blank featureless eyes, those empty holes in that vast, unadorned wall, demanding to be fed. This house doesn’t serve humans, we serve it.

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This is not some absurdity at the fringe of our way of life. This is civilization’s very center, the only thing that really makes sense in “clusterfuck nation,” the tawdry telos at which all our economic policies aim. Everything we do seems designed to make this thing possible. Cities must sprawl to accommodate its bulk, eight-lane roads must be constructed, gasoline must be kept cheap, coal must be hauled in from Wyoming on mile-long trains. Middle-class taxes must be higher to make up for the deductions given to McMansion owners, lending standards must be diluted so more suckers can purchase them, banks must be propped up, bonuses must go out, stock prices must ascend. Every one of us must work ever longer hours so that this millionaire’s folly can remain viable, can be sold successfully to the next one on the list. This stupendous, staring banality is the final outcome for which we have sacrificed everything else.


Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank is a Salon politics and culture columnist. His many books include "What's The Matter With Kansas," "Pity the Billionaire" and "One Market Under God." He is the founding editor of The Baffler magazine.

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