The Fountainhead: McMansion Hell

McMansion

The Fountainhead, part 1, chapter 3

Peter Keating shows up for his first day of work at Francon & Heyer, the prestigious New York architectural firm. At first he’s impressed by the well-dressed people and the lavish office (its walls decorated with “etchings of Greek temples”, naturally – damn those evil Greeks).

When he sits down at a drafting table, he fears the plans he’s been given to work on are “someone’s tremendous achievement which he could neither question nor equal”. But he soon notices that the quality of the work isn’t as good as he had thought:

When he glanced at his plans again, he noticed the flaws glaring at him from the masterpiece. It was the floor of a private residence, and he noted the twisted hallways that sliced great hunks of space for no apparent reason, the long, rectangular sausages of rooms doomed to darkness. Jesus, he thought, they’d have flunked me for this in the first term. After which, he proceeded with his work swiftly, easily, expertly — and happily.

Popular and personable as always, Keating soon makes friends among his coworkers. He gleans from office gossip that Guy Francon, the famous head of the firm, hasn’t designed a building in years. He devotes himself to attending black-tie parties and wining and dining potential clients, letting underlings do all the actual work.

Keating stores that bit of knowledge away, but he finds a way to make use of it when he’s given some sketches by a senior draftsman and told to take them to Francon for approval:

He carried the cardboard on the tips of his ten fingers, up the crimson-plushed stairway to Guy Francon’s office. The cardboard displayed a water-color perspective of a gray granite mansion with three tiers of dormers, five balconies, four bays, twelve columns, one flagpole and two lions at the entrance. In the corner, neatly printed by hand, stood: “Residence of Mr. and Mrs. James S. Whattles. Francon & Heyer, Architects.”

Keating makes some small talk with Francon, who remembers him from his graduation speech. Then he employs the time-tested strategy of buttering up the boss by suggesting he make some pointless changes just to show who’s in charge:

“Not bad,” said Francon. “Not bad at all… Well… perhaps… it would have been more distinguished, you know, but… well, the drawing is done so neatly… What do you think, Keating?”

Keating thought that four of the windows faced four mammoth granite columns. But he looked at Francon’s fingers playing with a petunia-mauve necktie, and decided not to mention it. He said instead:

“If I may make a suggestion, sir, it seems to me that the cartouches between the fourth and fifth floors are somewhat too modest for so imposing a building. It would appear that an ornamented stringcourse would be so much more appropriate.”

“That’s it. I was just going to say it. An ornamented stringcourse…”

The text calls Francon and Keating “two men who could understand each other”. The implication is that Francon’s love for civic banquets and champagne toasts, and Keating’s desire to be liked and admired, are shameful traits and ought to make them the objects of our contempt. Rand dismisses out of hand the idea that these qualities could play any role in a successful businessman, even though her own narrative offers hints to the contrary.

After all, despite the scorn that the text pours on him, it seems that Guy Francon makes a good ambassador for his firm. Those banquets and brunches he attends serve the purpose of drumming up business and keeping Francon & Heyer’s brand in the minds of the rich and successful. It’s just basic networking. Meanwhile, as we’ll soon see, Peter Keating is an expert in reading the public mood and gauging what kind of buildings people want – something that Howard Roark decidedly isn’t.

Ayn Rand’s idea of running a business is stubbornly making only the product you want to sell, and sitting behind a desk and waiting, forever if necessary, until customers decide that they want to buy it. Roark does pretty much exactly this in the upcoming chapters. Things like sales departments, advertising, market research, publicity, promotion and lobbying – things that are essential to all real businesses – play no role, in her mind.

There’s something else about this chapter that I wanted to comment on. The giant, garish house Keating takes in to Francon for approval, the one with windows stuck behind granite columns, is clearly an early version of a McMansion.

While the rich and tasteless have always been with us, the McMansion trend began in earnest in America in the 1980s (a decade Ayn Rand would have found much to appreciate about, I’m sure, if she had lived through all of it). Classically, a McMansion is a huge, ostentatious house built to flaunt the owner’s wealth. McMansions are usually designed in a mishmash of styles, with little attention paid to basic architectural principles or consistency of fine details. They’re often the handiwork of builders who cut corners and use shoddy materials, requiring major repairs just a few years after being built. And they’re always inefficient and wasteful, designed to impress rather than to live in.

Although McMansions often incorporate classical elements, they’re not defined by adherence to any particular architectural style. On the contrary, a well-designed mansion can be of any style or era. It can either evoke the future or nod to the past. It’s the chaotic jumble of elements, thrown together to look “fancy” but lacking an overarching theme or purpose, that’s characteristic of the McMansion blight.

I learned all this and more from Kate Wagner’s McMansion Hell site, an excellent resource that’s taught me a lot about architecture (as well as the feat of being immensely entertaining about what I’d always thought was a dry subject). I’ll be referring to it again in this series.

You might wonder what this all has to do with Ayn Rand and The Fountainhead, since her characters are true architects, not slap-it-together-on-the-cheap builders. The answer lies in Rand’s championing an ideology of laissez-faire and unfettered greed, where charity is for the weak-minded and people have no moral obligation to help or care about each other. She imagined that this would lead to creative geniuses like Howard Roark being unleashed to put their stamp on the world. What it actually leads to is skyrocketing inequality, an ever-increasing accumulation of wealth at the very top, and inevitably, a society where people compete to show it off. Ergo, McMansions.

As Thomas Frank puts it:

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….

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.

Ayn Rand never foresaw this vulgar trend because her heroes, even the ones with no formal education, are philosopher-kings with impeccable taste. Although she believed that some people deserve to be rich, she disdained the idea of bragging about it and assumed that actual rich people would agree. It shows a poor understanding of human nature, to believe that those who’ve got it won’t feel the temptation to flaunt it.

Image: Trying way too hard to impress the neighbors. Via TheTurducken, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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