Unreal Estate: A Reading List About Our Shifting Vision of Home

Does anyone still remember Unhappy Hipsters, a Tumblr blog born in 2010, just months after the Great Recession officially ended? The concept was simple and irresistible. Each post contained a photo of a domestic interior from a Dwell-like magazine (or, just as often, from Dwell itself), and the photo had to include a person: a teenager lounging with a book on a nordic-looking wooden bed, a couple having a silent breakfast in a vast, concrete-floor kitchen. A caption accompanied each image, projecting a mix of smugness and existential angst onto the people occupying these impossibly streamlined spaces (“So focused on erecting a structure that would be impervious to atmospheric whims, he’d forgotten the obvious: an exit,” read a caption below an image of a man standing on a balcony of a glass-and-steel stilt house).

There’s nothing new about wanting to catch a glimpse of other people’s (nicer-than-yours) houses; what Unhappy Hipsters deftly added was an extra layer of vindictiveness to an otherwise common, aspirational voyeurism. Revisiting some of these old posts today, they feel at once naive and prophetic. In the intervening years, owning a house and designing one’s own space haven’t lost their allure as class markers and so-called #lifegoals. But they’ve also acquired a tinge of bitterness: you either can’t afford it (millennials, meet avocado toast!), can’t do it right (unlike everyone on Pinterest, Instagram, et al.), or risk trying too hard (at which point: surprise! You’re the Unhappy Hipster — in 2017, when both “unhappiness” and “hipsterism” have lost just about all meaning).

The way we organize and reshape our living quarters has always reflected, in some way, desires, hopes, and anxieties that transcended individuals. It was true when married couples started sharing the same bedroom and outhouses began to disappear in favor of indoor plumbing; it’s true today when we buy a vintage lamp or encounter a luxury bathroom almost the size of the bedroom it adjoins. Where does the current unease around the spaces we inhabit come from? What is unique about our attitude toward a supposedly universal concept like “home”? Here are four recent reads that try to address these questions.

“McMansion, USA” (Kate Wagner, Jacobin Magazine, November 9, 2017)

The Great Recession was supposed to cure Americans of their appetite for huge, showy, aesthetically confused houses — entire neighborhoods full of foreclosed specimens stood empty and dilapidated less than a decade ago. And yet, McMansions are still with us. Kate Wagner, whose own (addictive) blog, McMansion Hell, has been deconstructing the architectural horror of this style for more than a year, makes some eye-opening points in her essay. Perhaps the most intriguing is her observation that these supposed emblems of economic achievement — if one owns a turret, one must’ve arrived — actually represent the failure of consumption to satisfy.

In previous eras, people remodeled when needed, replacing worn items, structures and appliances. The idea of total home transformation essentially emerged alongside mass production, which brought down costs. Even so, whole-home redecorating was mostly a pastime for wealthy families. The growth of specialized electronic media was key in fostering today’s remodeling culture. HGTV is one example, but internet sites like Pinterest, Houzz, and Dwell keep people transfixed with the consumption of home improvement and decoration as a permanent hobby and pastime, regardless of whether individuals plan to sell their home. Home decorating trends, which were seen in the twentieth century as changing on a decade-by-decade basis (a relatively rapid pace, thanks to mass media), have been changing in today’s era of hyper-consumption at an observable rate of every two to four years.

This rate of consumption is, of course wasteful and unsustainable, as is the McMansion itself — isolated from public life, requiring long commutes by car (with an interior plan that isolates members of the household from each other), large quantities of natural resources to build, and energy to heat and cool. Apart for the Hummer, there are few clearer examples of conspicuous consumption.

“‘Tiny House Hunters’ and the shrinking American dream” (Roxane Gay, Curbed, October 25, 2017)

If McMansions’ giant footprints occupy one end of the contemporary housing spectrum, the opposite end seems to be taken by tiny houses — the environmentally aware, millennial-friendly answer to the excesses of decades past. Analyzing this recent phenomenon through the lens of HGTV’s Tiny House Hunters, Gay shows how the picture is more complicated than that — in fact, “people with tiny house budgets often have McMansion dreams.” You also leave her piece feeling ever more aware of the short life-cycle of cultural trends: within the span of a couple of years, tiny houses have morphed from joyful expressions of self-sufficiency and self-control into yet another symptom of a broken American dream.

There is no shame in any of this, none at all, but when we talk about the American dream, we never talk about what that dream costs. We never talk about how so many Americans are one financial crisis away from losing their savings or their homes. And we don’t talk about how the American dream should not be grounded in material things like large homes or fancy cars rather than, say, single-payer health care, subsidized child care, or a robust Social Security system.

“Beware the Open-Plan Kitchen (Caitlin Flanagan, Vulture, September 20, 2017)

McMansions and tiny houses have another thing in common besides a complicated relation to post-subprime-crisis real estate. They’re both being pushed and aggressively branded as aspirational by HGTV. Flanagan patiently pieces together the channel’s paradoxical worldview — reproducible authenticity at all costs! — and focuses on the narrative and aesthetic elements that make shows like Fixer Upper so binge-able. She also draws our attention to the ways in which the channel’s obsession with endless cycles of renovation triggers the very instincts that created the housing-market mess last time.

We are supposed to be in rehab from our housing binge of ten years ago, the one that nearly bankrupted the country. We are supposed to be in a state of contrition. But our national love of HGTV suggests that the dream won’t die. The longing it addresses is impervious to market corrections, or personal financial realities, and as economists continue to explore the true causes of the 2008 financial crisis, they are beginning to suspect that some speculative Americans acting on that longing got us into that mess as much as — or more than — unscrupulous bankers or Wall Street. In fact, the network may now be tempting its millions of fans to dip their toes back into the most dangerous waters of the past crisis: flipping.

“Welcome to Airspace” (Kyle Chayka, The Verge, August 3, 2016)

Around the same time that the financial crisis hit the markets in the summer of 2008, a new startup was launched in San Francisco, one that would soon transform the ways some of us travel, homeowners monetize their property, and — perhaps most insidiously — interior spaces are designed. Airbnb now provides its users with an opportunity to inhabit spaces that would previously only be accessible to them in magazines (or the blogs that lampoon them) — an aspirational voyeur’s dream. In the process, however, Chayka suggests that something may have gone terribly (or at least disappointingly) wrong. Everything has started to look the same — like one HGTV-inspired design project after the other.

In 2011, a New York artist and designer named Laurel Schwulst started perusing Airbnb listings across the world in part to find design inspiration for her own apartment. “I viewed it almost as Google Street View for inside homes,” she says. Schwulst began saving images that appealed to her and posting them on a Tumblr called “Modern Life Space.” But she had a creeping feeling something was happening across the platform. “The Airbnb experience is supposed to be about real people and authenticity,” Schwulst says. “But so many of them were similar,” whether in Brooklyn, Osaka, Rio de Janeiro, Seoul, or Santiago.