Okay, go ahead and call me mean and a scold for singling out the above-pictured home, which sits oh-so conspiciousy on top of a ridge above an elementary school playing field in unincorporated Walnut Creek; Or for calling it "ugly." But, hey, that's my opinion, and whoever built, bought, and/or currently resides in this house was obviously eager to be the center of their neighbors' gaze. Given the home's visually prominent position--you cannot miss it if you drive around certain parts of town--the builder and/or homeowner very much wanted it to be seen, and to even make a community-wide statement that says, "Look at my house!"
Also, if there is anyone out there who disagrees with me essentially calling this house an eyesore--who wants to argue that this home is appropriately sized, aesthetically pleasing, artfully designed, and Architectural Digest-ready--please do so.
I know the neighborhood association wasn't happy about it being built, but there wasn't a lot they could do. Because the home was to be built in an unincorporated part of Walnut Creek, the association had to deal with the county, not the city, and the county seems more willing than the local city government to rubber-stamp horrific looking residential developments. (We're all familiar with those homes above the Stone Valley Road exit of Interstate 680 in Alamo; they're planned to be subjects for future posts.)
My interest is shall we say, more academic, and I'm going to start photographing and searching for other local "big, ugly" houses to display and to contemplate. (If you have any photos you'd like to share, please do. Don't give me names and addresses, just towns.) Anyway, I am really fascinated by the motives and tastes of the developers, architects, land owners, real estate agents, and home buyers who push these Super McMansions into our neighborhoods. What's going on here?
I imagine all the excess cash (or, in these days, the illusion of excess cash) involved in the construction and sales of these homes, as well as the inflated egos, bad taste, hubris, and general lack of consideration for the sensibilities of neighbors, communities, and, in some cases, the local environment. Of course, there is something particularly American about all this--in holding homes like these to be some kind of pinnacle of the American dream. At the same time, it just doesn't register to all involved in building these "dream homes" that these ostentatious displays of real estate just don't fit in, at least visually, into the surrounding landscape.
And why does the proliferation of Super McMansions seem to be a particularly suburban phenomenon? Well, most probably because, unlike in a city, there is more land on which to spread out. And settling in the suburbs: that's very much in the usual narrative of the American dream, including for builders and owners of Super McMansions.
I've dubbed this house "Xanadu." That name applies, first, to the the massive, gilded fortress built by Charles Foster Kane, the melagomanical protagonist of Orson Welles' classic 1941 film Citizen Kane (and a character based on fabled newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst). I have no idea who built or owns this above-pictured Xanadu, so I don't know what their motives were in erecting the house in this location and in this very distinctive "style." But like this Xanadu, Kane built his atop a hill, in a spot that afforded him 360-degree views. And in Kane's case, he built his fortress to show off his power and to make people admire and love him. He also used his fortress as a way to escape the sorrows of his rich but lonely, disappointed life.
Xanadu also refers to Shangdu, the fabled summer palace built by the 13th Mongol emperor Kublai Khan west of Beijing. More to the point, Xanadu refers to Kublai Khan's opulent, dreamy palace as envisioned by the great English romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his poem, "Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment."
The poem begins:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree
(These lines, by the way, are recited in Citizen Kane.) In his poem, which Coleridge claimed was inspired by an opium-induced dream, the poet goes on to describe Kubla Khan as desperately power hungry, and crazed for his subjects,and the rest of the known world, to believe that he was glorified by the divine power of God. Coleridge ends his poem with this description of the maniacal master of Xanadu:
his flashing eyes! his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
and close your eyes with holy dread!
for he on honey-dew hath fed,
and drunk the milk of Paradise
Not to get too literary on you, but after re-visiting Coleridge's poem, I have to wonder how many Kublai Khans we have out here in Walnut Creek and the surrounding suburbs, how many have felt driven to build their own Xanadus, not just to impress their neighbors, but to prove something to themselves: that somehow, because they can manage to afford to build and/or to own an overwhelmingly big, opulent, gaudy house, that they have seized for themselves universal respect, power, admiration, awe, and, most illusively, love.
Of course, with the recession, many local Kublai Khans might have lost a fair share of their millions. So, maybe construction plans for their new Super McMansions might be put on hold. That would be one small silver lining in this economic crisis: a slowdown in the local Super McMansion construction industry. Then again, that means that many ordinary construction workers won't have jobs--men and women who have rental or mortgage payments on their own much more modest homes to pay and families to clothe and feed.