A McMansion is like obscenity: you know it when you see it.
I often tell interviewers who ask me to define the term “McMansion” that McMansions are like obscenity: you know it when you see it. Like beauty (and obscenity), McMansions seem to be in the eye of the beholder. The simplest way to define a McMansion is: a poorly designed, poorly executed, oversized house. But there’s something more to them than looming entryways, vinyl siding, and mismatched windows that causes the knee-jerk hatred they rouse in so many. In part, the wounds are historical: as the 2008 crash unfolded, McMansions became the symbols of aspirational hubris, of excess, of wanting too much and borrowing too much to get it.
Today, McMansions are no longer quite same symbols of economic hubris and loss. (If the McMansion were truly dead, home size would have never risen to new heights shortly after the recession). What they truly represent, what they’ve always represented, is how under late capitalism, modes of consumption and commodification reach ever-deeper into our daily lives.
Like reality TV and video art installations, McMansions are inherently postmodern. Postmodernism, to paraphrase the philosopher Frederic Jameson in an essay on the subject, involves the commodification of culture, art, and, ultimately, of one’s lifestyle. Postmodernism removes context from subjects, weakens or eliminates historicity, and effaces the divide between high culture and consumer culture, reducing culture to a series of images, the consumption of which becomes a new sort of commodity fetishism.
In a crucial part of Jameson’s essay, Postmodernism’s central effect on architecture is described as “pastiche.” It’s worth quoting in full:
the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusion. … This omnipresence of pastiche is not incompatible with a certain humor, however, nor is it innocent of all passion: it is at the least compatible with addiction — with a whole historically original consumers’ appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for pseudo-events and “spectacles” (the term of the Situationists). It is for such objects that we may reserve Plato’s conception of the “simulacrum,” the identical copy for which no original has ever existed. Appropriately enough, the culture of the simulacrum comes to life in a society where exchange value has been generalized to the point at which the very memory of use value is effaced, a society of which Guy Debord has observed, in an extraordinary phrase, that in it “the image has become the final form of commodity reification”
Postmodern architecture’s invocation of the traditional via the pastiche takes a populist form: the idea that the kinds of architecture people explicitly consume — in places like Disney World, colonial Williamsburg, or Las Vegas — are somehow superior to the so-called “high-minded architecture” of modernism. Ultimately, this can be reduced to “let the market decide what is truly great.”
The separation of individual images from their historical contexts is what leads to the hackneyed, askew aesthetics of McMansions themselves, which can boast, say, three types of windows invoking three types of styles, assembled alongside a collage of details from seventeenth-century French Baroque, eighteenth-century Colonial, and nineteenth-century Victorian, all majestically rendered in architectural foam. The erasure of the professional architect from most residential architecture is an unforeseen result of this attack on “high culture” — after all, who better to design a house than a housewife with a window catalog?