Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Are McMansions Classical or Vernacular?

In architecture there is a distinction often made between the classical, made by the most highly educated architects, and the vernacular, the common stuff built by ordinary people.  This distinction is understood most correctly as a spectrum between the two extremes rather than a simple dichotomy.  However one has a problem when trying to place particular buildings in this spectrum, especially where the building in question is a typical American suburban home, or "McMansion."

The typically overblown details in a suburban "McMansion"
The suburban house hardly fits in the realm of the classical, as it is often badly proportioned and badly detailed.  It has little thought put into its design, rarely are architects involved in designing such houses.  Nor does it seem to fall in the vernacular, as the suburban house doesn't follow any local building traditions.  Rather it picks and chooses from a number of different marketed styles.  The typical suburban house then seems to fall somewhere outside of the spectrum of the classical to the vernacular in architecture.  This is because the classical and vernacular are products of the same thing, high and low culture, and the suburban house, is a product of another thing entirely, that of mass culture.  

Folk culture, and its corresponding art, the vernacular, is the simplest expression of a culture, and its principles.  Folk culture is the expression of belonging, of home, of a sense of identity that is carried through a common understanding of the basic principles of life, those of love, family, justice and order and beauty.   Filtered filtered through generations of tradition, folk culture takes on a particular identity that is tied with a people and the places they live.   

High culture and its corresponding art, the classical, is an expression of that same folk culture, but one that is informed by an education and deliberation.   High culture is one trained in philosophy and history, and therefore is able to push the bounds of the principles of the culture.   High culture and folk culture both are reciprocally is informed and educated by the other.  One can see this in the common use of themes from folk music in the works of classical composers.  The composer takes the folk melody and expands it, makes it more complex and intricate and intellectual, but all the while still works within the culture of the folk.  Thus the classical and the vernacular fall in the same spectrum, precisely because they are expressions of the same culture, though it is the understanding by different degrees of that shared culture.

Mass culture on the other hand is concerned primarily with the market.  Mass culture often takes things from both the folk and the high culture but it jumbles them together in a mass of confusion.    In folk and high culture, the cultural artifacts that belong to the culture, that are valued by the culture, are those that are shaped by tradition in folk culture, and by reason and tradition in high culture.  In mass culture the cultural artifacts that are most valued are those that sell the most.   What sells most is usually what is marketed and advertised most, and is mass produced not by a culture interested in preserving its roots, but a company interested in its profits.

Mass culture produces products that essentially have no cultural reference, as they neither come from nor are marketed towards a culture as a culture, but as a market.  And since markets exist all around the globe, each is treated essentially the same.  This is the great problem of globalization, the marketing of products that drown out a local culture by the influx of cheap products, a local cuisine drowned out by the burgers and fries of McDonald's.  It is not folk or high culture that is globalized but mass culture.

McDonalds in Florence. 
Mass culture in the center of high culture
The McMansion is like the burger stand, it does not arise from a culture, either high or low, but arises instead from a marketing strategy.  It appeals in some ways to cultural relevancy, but not in any way that refers to a true cultural identity.  The typical suburban house is not cultural, and therefore not classical or vernacular, but is anti-cultural.  Art of this sort could pop up anywhere just like a McDonald's, as we see now in China, where American style suburbs are sprouting everywhere, but nowhere does it have any relation to its cultural or architectural surroundings.

This is the fundamental problem of kitsch.  Kitsch an art which is out of place in its surroundings, this is art produced by the mass culture.   This is art purely for the market, and mass culture is anti-culture, kitsch is anti-art.  And as kitsch is anti-art and anti culture, so too is the avante-garde.   I want to take a bit of time to talk about the avante-garde in relation to kitsch, so I will come back to this in the next post.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoy these posts; you're helping me get sharper with definitions and concepts. Thanks, T.