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McMansions, Ranchburgers, & Architecture

October 11, 2019

“Food, Shelter, and Clothing” – the human necessities. The essentials. It is not enough for us to grub, burrow and have fur. Humans somehow require cuisine, couture and architecture (in that order).

Why do we need more? I think it is because we disdain less.

My clothing is not couture, it is Land’s End or Nike. But my food will never be the peanut butter sandwich dinner or Quarter Pounder (with cheese!) it once was. I make or buy interesting things to eat. And we built our own place to live – 3 projects over 20 years. We want more than easy, we want to live our values in our necessities , not in the way we get away from them.

But food and architecture are mirrors. Unlike the racks at Nike or Land’s End, food and buildings are made in place. Once made they can be resold, but the basis of eating off a menu or making it from scratch is a common split in both gastronomy and construction – and that option is a not often acknowledged in the Real Estate Industry.

Fast Food is cheaper, quicker, has calories and is marketed into desire. Homes are “styled” by the Real Estate Industry to offer a branded lifestyle at a cost certain. But humans want more than Fast Food or Development Homes, they often simply think they can neither afford nor value more than either, But humans still want cuisine and architecture.

In 1973 my freshman design professor, John Shaw was a venerable, thoughtful, mentor to we, the ignorant. He was one of that era’s “Texas Rangers” who went to Cornell in the 1960’s from the University of Texas, along with Colin Rowe (not a Texan, but approaching legendary status.)

“You see architecture is not just Ranchburgers marching along the landscape.” said Professor Shaw. Wow. He just connected Fast Food and architecture, I thought. Well, no. Being from Texas, he knew that “Ranches” were tract homes that were marketed to a fair the well. How they, officially, became “burgers” (not “burghers”) as a part of their marketing is a mystery to me, but it was not commentary, it was part of their branding, like “Ranchettes”.

But reality will out. The common motivation to make a buck building and selling homes was so close to the “Billion and Billions” served marketing had all the strength of lemmings. The instant accessibility in everyday life of one-after-the-other living places was undeniable. So, in the Late 20th Century the connection inadvertently made by John Shaw became a self parody. Someone dubbed the too big, too gross, too thoughtless homes built to sell by ticking off their list of features like a new automobile window sticker in the showroom as “McMansions”.

Ten years ago, the world got indigestion tried to get sustenance out of these “McMansions” and “Ranchburgers” as the body economic tried to digest insane cost, terrible utility, and bogus value. Although stock sizes can fit clothing even to my pathetic body, calculated marketing to hype size and “features” in homes turned out to cause a vomit response in our entire world culture.

A tiny percentage of humans eat esoteric, often insanely priced food, haute cuisine. But no one thinks that a Whopper is much beyond its 5 minute window of edible fat and salt and 800 calories. It is a necessity and has a joyous engorgement for a hook up, then regretted after – like most hook ups.

There are fewer than 1,000,000 new homes being built a year in America. There were close to 3.000.000 fast food homes being launched a dozen years ago. But the new homes made today are not artisanal. Their largest sizes are smaller, their aesthetics are simpler, but, in truth, all eyes are looking to communities rather than castles as the hip future of my children and theirs,

Starbucks and Chic Filet are now the leading fast food restaurants: both have an overlay of attitude and a cultural prescription that is more than “Billions and Billions Served”. Maybe the nutrition is similarly compromised between a “Double Mocha Frappachino” and “Two All Beef Patties, Special Sauce on a Sesame Seed Bun”, But they have about the same calorie count.

Those calories will meet the needs of the day, but I can tell you, at 64, the needs of your body are more than calories. The needs of your home are more than shelter, too.

It is not enough to have a government of some sort, we need an extension of our values. It is not enough to reject or follow any religion, we have to know what we believe and live it. Not for the the moment in a Burning Man Tent, but for the finite total time we have to express and experience.

Distraction in food and what we own is not what any of us would choose for our lives, or those who follow us. But the ease of eating a Quarter Pounder or picking a Style on Zillow betrays our thoughtfulness, sensitivity, our values.

Architecture as a media tool has been one type of the Fine Arts, Haute Couture or Fine Cuisine Deep State – untouchable, mockable, but desired, That desire, to express, to fulfill, to find joy beyond calories is uniquely human.

It is time our culture understood that it is not enough just to sustain life, life is a reason to fulfill our values, see the beauty beyond instant gratification, beyond the safety of branding.

Even if we “Have Fries With That” or “Supersize” our choices, if those choices are based on others’ profits, ideas or values, they betray us. Each of us.

You can make your own dinner, you do not have to be given a number and wait for a bag.

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