The operative end-of-the-century motto for much suburban home building might be "Bigger is better" and, for many home buyers, "If you've got it, flaunt it!" Apparently, size really does matter as we enter the next millennium.
Grand houses with high ceilings, multiple fireplaces, garages for at least three cars and a swimming pool in the back yard proliferate. And so what if the lot on which all this is built is too small?
Feelings of inadequacy may arise in some of us if our abode contains only 2,000, 3,000 or even 4,000 square feet of space. Today the average American residence, at slightly less than 2,000 square feet, suddenly seems appallingly below average.
Such feelings are intensified by the media's continuing interest in extremes.
In August, "The Eminence of Excess," a memorable Sunday New York Times Magazine article by Nina Munk, focused on French-born, New York architect Thierry Despont and the palatial houses he has designed for clients for whom money is no object.
Despont's houses, in places such as Palm Beach and the Long Island shoreline, cost tens of millions of dollars, encompass tens of thousands of square feet and several dozen rooms and are styled to suit the aesthetic tastes of the owner, no matter what they may be.
But Despont's work represents the infinitesimal tip of the socioeconomic pyramid of American home building. If all you can afford to spend is a few million dollars, then check out the hundreds of glossy full-color pages of the September-October 1999 edition of Home & Design, a new bimonthly magazine focusing on luxury homes in Washington, Maryland and Virginia.
Home & Design presents images of houses for sale plus countless display ads illustrating what your house and home furnishings should aspire to be. Classical and neoclassical styling, borrowed from 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century European and American architecture, dominates. Mutant replicants of Palladian villas, Renaissance chateaus, baroque palaces and colonial town houses can be had for less than $2 million.
Exterior views in photos and renderings show large, usually grandiose homes clad in brick, stone, stucco and occasionally wood clapboards. Interior views reveal ornately detailed, elaborately decorated and lavishly furnished rooms.
No house intended to impress is without a grand entry. A typical entrance foyer is a two-story space encompassing a curving stairway, graced by a stylish banister, leading up to the second floor. A crystal chandelier hangs over a patterned marble floor. Potted plants, wall art, pieces of sculpture and a polished wood or marble-top table complete the picture. This is the introductory spatial and aesthetic statement, and it has to be big.
Yet in some of these modern-day mansions, formal living and dining rooms have shrunk in relative size when compared with their antecedents. Spending less time engaged in civilized conversation at the dinner table or seated in front of a fireplace, homeowners are instead hanging out in capacious "great rooms" encompassing diverse household activities--eating, socializing, recreation and entertainment. The giant-screen TV has replaced the traditional hearth.
Kitchens adjoining great rooms are themselves immense and extensively equipped. Many look like commercial kitchens with wider-than-normal ranges and refrigerators sheathed in stainless steel, multiple sinks, expansive food preparation islands, suspended exhaust hoods, walk-in pantries and cabinets galore. Forget plastic laminate counter tops--stone is the material du jour. Some kitchens include a desk and counter top eating area.
Master bedrooms have become grander master suites. The master bathroom can be as large as the bedroom. Indeed it has to be to accommodate a whirlpool tub--frequently dubbed a "spa"--big enough for at least one couple; a two-person shower and steam compartment; a vanity with two lavatories and make-up area; a separate compartment for toilet and bidet; a storage closet for bath linens; and ample space to navigate between all these elements.
And don't forget separate his-and-hers walk-in closets, often positioned between the master bedroom and master bathroom.
Such houses have central vacuum systems; audio and telecommunication wiring throughout; state-of-the-art security and life-safety systems; top-quality brass hardware; costly millwork and cabinetry; well-insulated windows, walls and attics; and expensive light fixtures.
Outside are manicured lawns and gardens, terraces and decks, fountains and pools, ornamental trees and clipped hedges. Wrought-iron fences or walls of stone or brick are likely to surround these luxury landscapes to keep out errant deer and human beings.
Does your house have all of this?
Aspiring to own and live in a luxurious residence is neither new nor unique to the 1990s. Mansion building has occurred throughout American history, especially with the nation's industrialization during the 19th century. The late 1800s and early 1900s are especially notable for the number, size and opulence of houses constructed by families with newly acquired wealth.
Investing significant resources in one's house persists because people of means always have sought both to maximize convenience and comfort and to exhibit their wealth, taste and individuality.
The 1990s is a decade marked by dramatic increases in the number of millionaires and billionaires enriched by the stock market run-up, the Internet and high-technology businesses. Like their predecessors enriched by the industrial revolution a century ago, the newly rich are simply exercising their traditional right to live in a manner to which few can become accustomed. It may be a tradition of excess and questionable taste, but nevertheless it's an American tradition.
Deal with it.
Roger Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.