McMansion contraction?

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More news that the “great room” is dying.

Great rooms are the spaces that absorb living room, dining room and kitchen, to create a large, open room on the main floor of the home. Pasanella calls these rooms the “signature space” of the McMansion and he suggests that they are as “cavernous and appealing as airport lounges.”

Pasanella says the problem is that as a room becomes ‘too giant, it loses its connection with its inhabitants.” This means that the NYT is now prepared to join the apostasy started by Susanka’s “Not so big house” movement.

This revolt has happened once before in living memory. Some families rushed to embrace the wide open split level homes built after World War II. But for some the sheer scale of this space began finally to tell.

One occupant of the mid-century modernist home put it this way.

“The major lack that we have begun to feel…is some place to retreat to from the very openness that we like so much. We need a small cozy, den-like room to sit in sometimes as a change of pace.”

Another said:

“We like the open planning, but there are times when human beings have a need to feel closed in and comfortable. As such times we use the library.”

Modernism demanded big, open spaces. They created the scopic regime, the way of seeing, that modernism believed in. They let in the pure light of reason, science and technology that were the future’s hope. They “made room” for individuals and families committed to new kinds of social and existential mobility. When people took refuge in the den or the library, they were not simply declaring a feeling for coziness. They were “voting with their feet,” and repudiating if only for a moment the terrible demands that modernism made on individuals and families.

So if we are now once more refusing big, open spaces, the question is what part of post modernism, McMansion grandeur, or middle class striving is under challenge. I am, for one, a little stunned. I give the floor to the reader: what factors, social, cultural, demographic, economic, aesthetic or other, are responsible for the death of the great room and the rebirth of coziness?


Creighton, Thomas H. and Katherine M. Ford. 1961. Contemporary Houses Evaluated by their Owners. New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation, pp. 219, 195.

McCracken. Trend Watch: the great room Oct. 19, 2004.

McCracken, Grant. 2005. More on great rooms. February 3, 2005

McCracken, Grant. 2005. Great rooms and wee spaces, February 10, 2005.

Pasanella, Marco. 2005. Taming Spaces: Living Large. New York Times. February 17, 2005, p. F1.

Susanka, Sarah 1998. The Not So Big House. Taunton Press.

Sorry about the absence of hyperlinks, something is screwed up at MT.

4 thoughts on “McMansion contraction?

  1. ken

    Well, the lack of great space will come as quite a surprise to the developers from Providence to Portland who are changing old warehouses into BIG open spaces (urban versions of the suburban great rooms) I’m skeptical.
    Still, the other point, that size matters is interesting in that it ties into the trend of “accounting culture” ala Douglas. The argument you are making doesn’t change ‘size matters;’ it is just that the FAD, as opposed to TREND, is that smaller is bigger.
    Now looking at a trend like the return to the urban, as opposed to the suburban,has also been under foot for about 10 years. Since this is particular true not just for the young/hip but also those who are aging/retiring, now that is kind of cool.

  2. Tom Guarriello

    When I first read the piece, its last word was the one that struck me, “coziness.” I just typed the word as “cosiness,” which was me getting ahead of myself in trying to make my point.

    “Coziness” is experiential, a function of lived-reality. “Cosi-ness,” (my contribution to the language this lovely Sunday morning, with apologies to Mozart fans) would be “so-ness,” and not be experiential, but prescriptive, an a priori judgment based on characteristics. As in, “It is this, so it is that”; “It is small, so it is cozy.”

    These two do not necessarily map perfectly, however, as Pasanella notes:

    When a room gets too giant, it loses its connection with its inhabitants. The goal is to make it at once intimate and grand. One of my favorite examples is the Linonia and Brothers in Unity Reading Room at Yale. With its ornate plaster ceiling and massive stone fireplace, the two-story room is awesome, until you sink into one of the dozens of leather club chairs parked in its alcoves. The L&B, as students call it, is a monster space that lulls. [emphasis added]

    But, while it is possible to create a “monster space that lulls,” it takes a masterful grasp of the dynamics of space and lived-experience to do so. In that regard, I highly recommend Christopher Alexander’s wonderful book, A Pattern Language in which these matters are described masterfully. (I would have made the title a link, but Moveable Type considers the contiguous usage of the letters h-t-t-p to be pornographic.)

    I believe the challenge for us will be creating human-scale spaces (feeding our need for intimacy, protection and coziness) in oversized homes (feeding our needs for power, self-aggrandizement and immortality).

    Hence, interior designers and decorators become the true psychoanalysts, or better, “spacoanalysts,” of the future, enabling us to resolve these conflicts, in ways that still permit us to buy great furniture!

  3. steve

    I happen to like a great room (we have one now), but the most important construction trend that creates a feeling of space is HIGH CEILINGS. The split-level I grew up in never felt spacious because the ceilings always hovered oppressively. Eight, ten-foot (or even higher) ceilings can make even a smaller room feel spacious and pleasant, especially with lots of light. Builders figured this out in the 1980s and have never really looked back.

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