For quite a few years now, anybody who gets to write about them, has consistently demonised these oversized single family homes as not just individually ugly, ill designed and unsustainable, but as also adding up to suburbs where life must by definition, be isolated and destructive of community.
Thus, in an otherwise admirable reminder of just how ingrained the aspiration for a freestanding house is in the Australian psyche and polity, Peter McNeil, Professor of Design History at Sydney's UTS writes in The Conversation:
And that is mild compared to the vitriol of Elisabeth Farrelly, Australia's only successful populist newspaper architecture critic. Farrelly masks her unalloyed condemnation of their design with a long, consistent, but remarkably axiomatic stance against their over-consumption of land and resources. See her 2004 "The houses that are eating our future" and google anything she has written on the subject since.
"Apart from warehouse conversions and architect-designed homes, many Australian dwellings are McMansions that do not relate to the scale of the houses around them or have anything to do with their environment. It is possible that as in North America, we are retreating into our homes more and more, meeting lovers online, watching our video on home entertainment systems, cooking on industrial quality ovens and holding parties with enormous BBQs that would once have provided a catering company. Perhaps we need to think a bit more about whether we are part of communities and networks or if we are heading towards an atomized existence?"
If there is noneed for even a pretense of objectivity, the condemnation can be brutal. On the Things Bogans Like web site, '#76 McMansions' concludes :
"In order to put a 43 square house within reach of the financially impulsive bogan, builders take phenomenal amounts of shortcuts on the shoddily fitted out McMansion. Once the flashy silver oven breaks, and the paper thin feature wall cracks, it becomes clear that the housing estate is 10 years away from being a generic and unserviced bogan ghetto. It’s the great Australian dream come true."
I am not going to try to mount an opposing case here, but I do want to look at the issues, perhaps over several future posts . What all this MacMansion bashing has in common, is a set of assumptions that are ill founded. If you care to look more carefully, striking anomalies present themselves all the time.
The first is the convenient lie that MacMansions are the opposite of architect crafted paragons of good design. This is easiest dealt with by visiting somewhere like Kellyville, the amazing display village west of Sydney. Talk to the sales people, and the names of some of our better known mid-career architects are volunteered as the designers of a surprising number of models. You can see it, too. The story from the sales people is always the same: the “plans are not quite as the architect did them, we had to clean them up a bit to be buildable”. It’s remarkable how everyone feels they have to play the game.
The second is that a surprising proportion of available models are bloody good design. They make the most of small sites, with great connections between informal living areas and well sheltered outdoor ‘patios’. They have around 20% glazing ratios yet look light and airy, where architect designed houses have typically double that proportion of glass, or more. They often have exemplary internal zoning for parents and growing kids. They have admirably rational construction, in materials no different to those employed for much more expensive houses. True, some don’t have any of these worthy attributes, and all of them are too big.
The third? Well, Prof. Patrick Troy, foundation member of the long gone and much lamented ANU Urban Studies Unit , and still gathering huge amounts of data on the sustainability indicators of suburbia, points out that free standing suburban houses are the lowest energy consumers per occupant of the major housing types, they actually consume less water per occupant than contemporary flats, and a couple of other embarrassingly inconvenient comparisons. That is data. Troy also suggests such 'sprawl' may be actually more resilient as a form of urbanisation if climate change ever forces us back to a higher degree of local food production, than the concrete jungles of urban consolidation. That is speculative, but a potent challenge to stereotype.
Hey, in the end, I come down on the side of the argument that suggests we have MacMansions because they are a symbol of success, not because we actually need them. And the bad MacMansions do spoil it for me, in spite of my admiration for the good ones. But to be clear: I don’t hate them just because I am supposed to.