Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
The houses that are eating our future
It’s not snobbish to hate the suburban mansions, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
The stoush over architecture and politics sparked by Glenn Murcutt’s National Trust speech the other week is the debate we had to have. Have yet to have, in fact, since most of the rants and counter-rants to date have been so hackneyed, shallow and downright dopey as to deserve neglect as much as a riposte.
The general argument, if that’s not too strong a word, goes like this: McMansion-ophiles are Howard voters: not your blue-ribbon tories but the new aspirational middle-classes, our own belated, multi-ethnic, westie version of Margaret Thatcher’s “property-owning democracy”. Or, in Miranda Devine’s words, “suburban troglodytes with no aesthetic taste, a habit of churchgoing and too many family values … greedy, materialistic, selfish, almost American, for gosh sakes”. She said it.
This breathtaking elision can be summarised as: westies = McMansionophiles = Howard voters = moral majority = evangelicals = loyal subjects of the American empire.
The Americanisation of our westburbs, though, far from being a bad thing, merits our heartfelt applause (here Greg Sheridan takes up the baton), manifesting as it does the democratic right of “ordinary, successful people” to live in “beautiful homes” with “a lock-up garage and plenty of bathrooms and bedrooms for everyone” (Devine again), straight out of a ’50s American sitcom. The smirchless virtue of these houses and their inhabitants is further evinced by the strong McMansionville presence of “Bible-based, evangelical Christianity” (Sheridan) and the proud fact that 40 per cent are air-conditioned. Long live the bubble, and all who sail in her.
It follows, therefore, that anyone with the temerity to criticise the McMansion is a leftie eastburbian aesthete with a water view, a weekender in Bowral and a “spitting, blinding rage” at the election result.
And there’s more. While the columnists stoutly defended the aspirationals’ right to ugliness (which, incidentally, wasn’t under attack in the first place), the letters page bulged with the people’s defence of the people’s right to constrain architectural aesthetics. If only architects could be trusted to make the neighbourhood better, not worse, was the general gist, the need for rules and regulations would be less urgent. As things are, though, “Who knows when another Blues Point Tower will spring up?” Who indeed?
But pretty well all of it, entertaining though it was, missed the point (and indeed Blues Point which, though recently voted Sydney’s ugliest, should have been caught not by anti-ugly rules but by height-and-bulk rules).
First, ugliness is not a class issue. While ugliness may be liberated by wealth, new or old, the bloated and botoxed specials of Balmoral and Bellevue Hill are every bit as disgusting visually as – and perhaps worse morally than – the McMansions that ape them.
Second, ugliness is not a political indicator, much less a religious one. Like beauty, ugliness is a perception thing; a curious mix of the subjective and the consensual. I think your house is ugly; you return the compliment.
How did this sloppy elision come about in the first place? How is it that “family values”, of all things, have equated themselves with the most wildly future-eating housing type in history? Surely the mums and dads of McMansionville (and everywhere else for that matter) see that supplies of clean air, water and energy are immeasurably more important to their children’s future than all the bedrooms and games rooms in the cosmos? Where are Parents for the Planet? Why aren’t the planners and politicians shouting this stuff from the ballot boxes?
Ugliness, in other words, isn’t the main game any more – if it ever was. My position is not that ugliness doesn’t matter, but that it cannot be defined, and is therefore incapable of regulation. It’s not that we shouldn’t strive for beauty, but that achieving beauty on an urban scale requires time and cultural change, and that can’t be achieved through rule-making. (Otherwise architecture would be easy, and it clearly isn’t that.)
My position is not that architecture should be unregulated, far from it. But if we had half a collective brain we would focus our regulatory attentions on things that are (a) measurable and (b) demonstrably in the public interest. Luckily for us, the things that will determine our survival fall into this category.
Good things are finally beginning to happen: over 10 years, new plot sizes have halved. They need to halve again, of course, if we are to have a future on this fragile continent, but it’s a start. Over the same period, however, new house sizes have doubled. This makes the house-to-garden ratio a quarter of its former self and puts your house a metre, maybe two, from the neighbours – ironic, considering that the whole point of suburbia, if you remember, was that you could feel the space, run the kids and grow the broccoli.
That was then. Now we drive the kids to sport, creating all-day Sydney-wide traffic jams so they can have an hour’s exercise (with breaks) before collapsing in front of a screen in the fourth upstairs games room for the rest of the week. We pay someone else to grow expensive clean-earth broccoli in some far non-GM corner of the hemisphere and truck it to the local air-conditioned, energy-guzzling, neighbourhood-destroying supermarket whence we can collect it – by car – during the same Saturday-long traffic jam. Then we wonder why our kids get fat and depressed, why they get asthma, attention deficit disorder and diabetes.
Which brings us back to McMansionville. Sure, it’s ugly – not exclusively, but on the whole. And not demonstrably, but in my opinion. Greg Sheridan thinks it’s beautiful. He probably thinks Redfern is ugly. That’s fine.
The problem with McMansionville is much more serious than that. The problem is that on your typical project home you can have eaves, but most people choose air-con instead. You can have insulation, but most go with the granite benchtop. You can reorganise the plan to take account of sun-access and orientation, but it takes thought and money, and most people prefer the extra ensuite with designer accessories. You can have rainwater tanks and stormwater sinks, but most people don’t bother. You can catch a bus, if you have an hour or so to wait, but most people drive.
It comes down to the old choice between present pleasure and future pleasure, and the need to see beyond our immediate family and community to a broader future. Project homes can be rendered sustainable, up to a point, but on the whole their buyers care more for the here-and-now point-at-ables than anything as remote and abstract and invisible as a breathable future.
So the Family Firsters, whose website promotes books such as The Irreducible Needs of Children – What Every Child Must Have to Grow, Learn and Flourish, seem to count private bedrooms and double garages among those needs, but not climatic stability or ecodiversity or 1000-year-old forests. They seem to count living some Americo-plastic dream-bubble, but not engaging with this place, here, now.
So, where does it leave the mansions and McMansions? I have wanted to argue that size is not the problem. That big houses are fine, if often ugly. But now I wonder: if plot-size has halved while house-size has doubled, perhaps the net effect is that the good burghers of Balmoral and Kellyville can no longer see any horizon, but only into each others’ marbleised, gold-plated ensuites?
PHOTO: Ugliness is a matter of opinion … but the environmental effects of building huge houses that use a vast amount of energy are measurable and alarming. Photo: Rob Homer