That McMansion Next Door May Harken to the Early Days After All, UH Prof Says

The next time you feel the urge to lament how a freshly built stucco McMansion has replaced two cozy bungalows down the street, consider this: You may be at the intersection where old meets new and bearing witness, as generations past have, to a longstanding battle of urban and rural ideals. At least, that's one part of the equation, according to University of Houston Assistant Professor Michelangelo Sabatino.

Sabatino, a historian of 20th-century architecture and urbanism at UH's Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture, has been exploring for several years how vernacular buildings typically found in the Italian countryside have influenced European and North American architecture and urbanism.

He explains that the debate over what rustic or urbane qualities are introduced into our cities has been playing out for the past 150 years – ever since industrialization brought massive changes to the traditional relationship between countryside and city. Today, this conflict is seen in the design of both suburbs and city centers, he says.

Sabatino's expertise on vernacular architecture is being showcased in a three-part lecture series at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, commemorating what would have been the 500th birthday of Italian architect Andrea Palladio. The lecture series, titled “Andrea Palladio Five Hundred Years Later – From the Pastoral Ideal to McMansions,” focuses on America’s changing attitude toward rural and urban values as witnessed through the arts and architecture.

“Palladio’s combination of classical décor and vernacular pragmatism provided Thomas Jefferson, for instance, with a flexible and articulate language to create his working farm at Monticello,” Sabatino notes. Sabatino’s forthcoming book, entitled “The Politics of Ordinary Things: Italian Modernism and the Vernacular,” explores the theme in relationship to Italy.

“I’m interested in how vernacular architecture, typically identified with the peasantry and agrarian life, influenced 20th-century Italian modernism during and after the fascist regime,” he says. “You see tensions developing between the desire for modernity – urban values, new materials and new technologies – and the difficulties of reconciling this desire with traditional agrarian values and identity constructs.”

Vernacular architecture of the past was realized by farmers and craftspeople to meet certain environmental or functional needs and used available building materials – as opposed to a more “designed” approach. Sabatino, who was trained as an architect and architecture historian in Venice and Toronto, calls it “architecture without architects.”

What does all this have to do with stucco McMansions? Well, Sabatino explains, 20th-century architecture and urban planning in America broadly, and Texas specifically, also have struggled to reconcile urban and rural values.

Suburbs, which Houston has plenty of, blend the ideals.

“It is an interesting hybrid of rural world meets urban world," Sabatino says.

“In the suburbs, homeowners aspire to show off verdant lawns as symbols of success. The lawn recalls the agrarian past of the country,” he says. “And yet, if one looks closer, it is more of a simulacrum – just a representation – of this past. Few really want to actually grow vegetables, and few, especially in Texas, seem to want to hang out on the lawn or on porches, preferring the cool of their air-conditioned homes.”

That’s not to say that suburbs leave an entirely bad taste in Sabatino’s mouth.

“Although the job of the historian is to interpret the past – not to tell living people what to do,” Sabatino says, “he or she can influence contemporary decisions by drawing attention to past events that share some relevancy with present-day concerns. For example, vernacular architecture of the past – with its commonsense approach to materials and appropriate building technologies – is the forerunner of `green’ or `sustainable’ architecture of today.”

The influence of Italy’s Palladio, the topic of Sabatino’s lecture series, can be seen in structures throughout the American South. Jefferson's Monticello and the porticoes of the University of Virginia, for instance, embrace the abstract classical ideal alongside vernacular pragmatism, as Palladio's works did.

The paradox of today’s McMansion craze – many of them inspired by Palladian motifs, such as symmetry and classical ornament on their facades – is that they don’t reflect the values that originally inspired them, Sabatino says.

In a way, this underscores that history is never stagnant, he says, yet it also illustrates that the builders and buyers aren’t really aware of what values inspired Palladio’s architecture.

“In some cases, Palladio’s legacy has been reduced to mere ‘style.’”

WHAT: “Andrea Palladio and 20th-Century Houses: From Weekend Villas to McMansions,”
the final part in the series “Andrea Palladio Five Hundred Years Later”
WHEN: 5 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 23
WHERE: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Audrey Jones Beck Building)
American General Conference Room on the mezzanine floor
COST: $27 for museum members and $30 for nonmembers
Register at