And in hindsight, through the peaks and valleys of the American economy, it also has taken on the significant role of driver of the very economy it represents. There are three interesting terms that, in the course of America's economic peaks, have shone a spotlight on that national economic success.
The first term: in the 1880s, ads for houses gloated the mysterious acronym AMI. AMI stood for fancy living; it suggested wealth and arrival. It stood for All Modern Improvements, referring to a furnace and indoor plumbing, both rare at the time. If you were a girl being courted by a guy with an AMI house, you were shark and he was bait.
Seventy years later America was enjoying The Good Life of the 50s. The French derisively (or enviously?) called it Le Good Life, as Gwendolyn Wright brings up in a recent article in The Washington Post. The baby boom was on; and families were buying TVs, and being inspired by ads on those TVs to buy things. The economy rocked. We'd beaten the Fascists, and we were developing space technology as well as technology that allowed a housewife to make her house sparkle–and fast. The French likely felt it lacked heritage, or that it often was a focus rather than a scene to inspire the intellectual or artistic. But it meant and bred means.
The third term of interest is the McMansion, or the Hummer House. If the French derided Le Good Life, Americans themselves have looked down their noses with disgust at these sprawling residences. They're energy inefficient in an energy crisis; they're located in the suburbs, forcing the use of a car to arrive anywhere; and their frequent existence on lots devoid of trees, or recently razed of trees, renders them glaringly not photogenic and anti-cozy. They are accused of screaming "rich"; not "beautiful".
In the new, not-yet-named era of a post-confetti Wall Street with tumbleweeds and abandoned neckties, the McMansion may be obliged to become one of two symbols, or a vanilla-and-fudge swirl of both. Meaning one: the symbol of the irresponsible flaunter of fortune who puts it all–and then some–on the line to look as wealthy or more wealthy as he/she really is. Meaning two: the symbol of a healthy economy–like AMI and The Good Life. For a house means the employment of a lot of people: it puts to work the developers, the designers, the construction workers, and the shops they frequent. It lassos in the real estate agents, their assistants and the shops that sell them their cappuccinos. It invokes the businesses selling home appliances and furnishings, garden equipment and food. The bigger the house is, one could argue, the more stuff is needed to fill that house; and, by extension, the more people are employed in order to make and market and sell that stuff. In terms of the crisp green dollar–when actually paid for with real dollars–it's a veritable Green Giant. Environmentally green, however, it's quite unfortunately not.
Perhaps the fourth reincarnation of the house as indicator of economic wealth will be the home that is truly sustainable: run on renewable energy and constructed with renewable or recycled sources, and dependent on the innovation, execution, labor and marketing of many. Many see the sustainable boom as the next tech boom. Let's cross our fingers that it ushers in the next Good Life.
After starting in design journalism at House & Garden and CNN, Jamie runs the International Design Awards festival, which rewards visionary international design. One University of Southern California MFA later, she maintains a steady fiction and dramatic writing habit.