Saturday, March 31, 2007

More food and space for thought

Mile High Guy, my husband and intrepid sports fan, showed me this article a few days ago:

Apparently, the Cleveland Cavaliers' wunderkind star LeBron James is building a 35,000+ square foot house that will hold a two-story walk-in closet, a bowling alley, a theater, a casino, and a barber shop. Allow me to give you some perspective: my Wheatlands Hospital has two operating rooms, tweleve patient rooms, a full radiology department, a full physical therapy deparment, an emergency department, and a 20-exam room clinic in 67,000 square feet. The property on which he is building this already had an 11-bedroom house on it.

Think: what the hell is a single man in his twenties going to do with all that space? Seriously! His plan, the article says, is to become the world's first billionaire athlete. Did anyone tell him you don't do that by spending shitloads of cash on an oversized Disneyland of a house?

Now, granted that this is McMansionism to the extreme. McMansions, for the uninitiated, are super-large houses for not that many people (usually) built inside upper-crust gated communities. usually, McMansions in the same development are strikingly similar. I'm betting there are a great deal of McMansions over in the housing development at which Wide Lawns Subservient Worker is employed. McMansion developments offend many architect, including me, for a couple of reasons, the first of which being that they take up way too many resources for too few people. It's harmful to the earth, for sure.

But the bigger problem is this. The gated, insular communities that go along with McMansions deny people a right to being part of public life. Why should Mr. and Mrs. Finkley care about how run-down their local community center, YMCA, public pool, or downtown street are if they never have to go there? Why should they? They can do all their socializing at their gated community's pool, tennis club, raquetball court, etc. And why should they worry about the condition or safety of the local mall if they don't have to take their kids there to go to the arcade or food court? Nowadays, it appears that the trend is to give kids not their own room but their own suite. A recent article in the Denver Post ( ) says that in the past thirty years, due to increased home size (1,695 sf in 1974 up to 2,400+ now ) plus decreased family size (3.1 peeps in 1974 down to 2.4 now) means that more square footage is going to fewer kids. This is the same problem as McMansions on a smaller scale: if kids never have to leave their bedroom/bathroom/office/play area with mini-fridge suite in order to mix and mingle with the family, how do they ever make a connection with these people who gave them life? How do the parents know?

Part of being in a family--and in a civilization--is coming into regular contact with one another. We know that a particular intersection is dangerous because we drive through it every Saturday on the way home from yoga or the grocery store. So, when the local city council has a meeting about improving our roads and making them safer, we go, stand up, and speak about how many wrecks and near-wrecks we've seen at Park Hill and Holly. By seeing the condition of our downtown, we know that the one cent per grocery purchase tax is needed to revitalize businesses and relandscape to provide on-street parking for the merchants. And so it goes. Being out in the world allows us to know what the hell is going on with each other and to figure out how to improve our lives and our surroundings.

Ah, but what of LeBron James buildng a mall in his Super-Sized McMansion? I can hear some of you now: "Look, Pixie, he's famous. He needs to be able to hang out and do stuff with his friends without the public bugging him for autographs." That's all good and well, say I, but let me point you to another basketball star, one to which LeBron is often compared: Michael Jordan. Jordan is arguably the most influential sports star of the past twenty-five years. He has incredible wealth, amazing accomplishments in basketball on the court, and a wildly successful marketing campaign that will leave him with financial security even if he decides to stop managing the NBA franchise of the Washington Wizards. He leaves also a legacy of reinvigorating the NBA with young boys striving to play basektball and be "just like Mike."


Jordan has, for some reason, chosen to remain silent on social issues and, though he has been involved with a couple of charitable organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club and the United Negro College Fund, he is hardly much of a spokesperson. (I was only able to find the above info on his charitable activities buried in a long litany of his accomplishments on Jordan's considerable influence on helping youth, advancing race relations, speaking up for the environment or any other social cause has gone unused. It would appear that Jordan's main interest is...Jordan.

Which brings me back to Lebron James. I hate to see James build his behemoth house not just for its unnecessary size and scope, but most of all because it removes a very important face and influence from the public sphere and good. Think with me for a moment: even if James decides to rent out a bowling alley for the afternoon for a private party, he still has to drive or sit in a limo and be at least somewhat exposed to the city streets around him, to see daily life, to see single moms struggle to catch a bus with two children in tow, to see a disturbed homeless man pushing a cart and talking to himself, to see just how dangerous that intersection is at Park Hill and Holly. And if he goes into public and gets mobbed for autographs? He should take a second and thank his lucky stars that he's in a position to be of so much influence, to say to a kid as he signs a jersey, "So how's school? Well, keep studyin', man!"

The damage is done, and his house will be done any day now, so in the words of Austin Powers, "that train has sailed." Here's what I hope: I hope that LeBron takes some of that square footage and periodically turns it into what Michael Jackson's Neverland shoulda been. I hope he brings some at-risk kids to the house and takes them bowling and hoops shooting and how to play blackjack--wait, maybe not blackjack, maybe no-limit Texas Hold 'Em instead. I hope he treats them to a nice dinner at his long, white-clothed table and teaches them to use silverware correctly and how to order at a nice restaurant and shake hands and say please and thank you and make eye contact and carry on a conversation without profanity or slang. I hope he uses that space to help others. If he will not go to the public sphere, I hope he brings the public sphere to himself. Because no one or two or even twelve people can use a 35,000 square-foot house. That size of building must be used for the betterment of society. If you're going to kill that many trees to feed your ego, it's the least you can do.


faded said...

Pixie, a big house is about power, nothing else. People build 'em because they can. All that tells me is people with big houses are vain, selfish and feel inadequate about themselves. It is a bit harsh sounding I know.

My twin boys are 18 years old today and my 20 year old daughter has moved out and is in college. We have lived in 3 bedroom 1825 sq ft house for 26 years. We think it is to big for us now that the kids are moving out. We would like to find something around 800 to 1000 sq. ft. I agree with you completely about house size. Your comments about society and civilization are especially important.

Have you seen a book called Little House on a Small Plant by Shay Solomon? This site has information on it:
They talk about energy and resources but the stand out parts are about community and relationships.

There was a time I could have afforded a mc mansion but we decided not to get one. We stayed in our current house. Times change and we came to a place where we could not have afforded a mc mansion but we could still afford our current house. It was nice being able to shrink financially and not have to go thru the pain of loosing all the bits of vanity that normally would have accumulated had I made the more typical decisions.

Here is a site about building restoration. These folks train people to do building restorations and they provide Bachelor and Master degrees in architectural stone work, carpentry, masonry, plaster and timber framing Check them out here:
It nice to see organizations that are collecting and creating knowledge about restoring and reusing buildings.

My daughter has a 4 year scholarship there, she loves the place and what she is doing. Part of the curriculum requires that she participate in the restoration of a plantation house near the college. She has also been to New Orleans with the college to do restoration work there.

Mile High Pixie said...

True, ture, true, Faded. Sometimes I think a big house is supposed to fill the void in a super-rich person's self-esteem. James is one of the kids who went into the NBA with only a year (if that) of college ball on his resume. Perhaps the house is supposed to supplement his missing maturity? Or is he actually trying to sabotage himself by spending a bunch of money he doesn't think he deserves?

Great links, by the way. I'm glad to see a fellow architect practice what s/he preaches when it comes to using only as much space as needed. I'll have to check out the little house on a small planet concept.

I appreciate your postings--you always give *me* food for thought!

Miss Kitty said...

Whaddya want to bet that LeBron gets hurt next season and spends the rest of his career in Waltonesque comeback attempts? That big-ass house will seem like a waste once he's broke.

Tom Harper said...

I think McMansions suck for the most part. Not because of class rage or anything, but because like you said, most of them look the same.

2 and a half years ago we moved from California to Washington, and last year we went back and visited our old neighborhood for the first time. It had been a quaint neighborhood of 1-story houses, and now it has 3 of those 3-story McMansions crammed into what used to be people's yards. It wouldn't be quite so glaring if they at least had some sort of shape or design, but all 3 of them just looked like giant cinderblocks towering over the neighborhood. Ugly as sin.