Friday photo: Globalization and the architecture of “triple echo McMansions”

Zilicun fields

Teardowns have recently been making the news in Arcadia, the suburb of Los Angeles where my aunt and uncle have lived for many years. Chris Hawthorne, the architectural critic for the LA Times, wrote that the new mansions are a curious simulacrum of grandiose European houses, carrying on a tradition as old as Southern California itself:

Yet to dismiss [the mansions] as mere eyesores would be to miss a larger story about immigration and architecture in Southern California in an age of globalization. The houses Tong and Chan design represent a triple echo. First, European architectural styles were widely copied in American suburbia, producing thousands of so-called McMansions. Then those styles began appearing in Chinese subdivisions, many of them designed and built by American firms… Their architecture is reassuring to Chinese buyers not just because it suggests American suburban plenty. It also reminds them of newly built and highly sought-after residential architecture on the outskirts of Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou…

In the late 1870s, Elias “Lucky” Baldwin, the city’s founder and one of Southern California’s great land barons, hired architect Arthur A. Bennett to design a guest cottage for his sprawling ranch. Bennett’s eclectic design mixed the English Queen Anne and American “stick” styles with elements of Swiss chalet architecture and references to Moorish landmarks and Chinese pagodas. The budget for the house, now part of the Los Angeles County Arboretum, was vast, making it a cottage in name only. With its high ceilings and exterior dripping with filigree, it is as much the product of eclectic architectural influence — and showy new money —- as even the flashiest Arcadia houses by Tong and Chan.

This description brought to mind the most curious buildings that I saw in China, the “diaolou” of Kaiping — the county my father (and his cousin in Arcadia) hails from. Like Arcadia’s new mansions, they look fantastically out of scale, and their mish-mash of architectural revivals certainly don’t match any classical notions of Good Architecture. But sometimes, globetrotting capital manifests itself in less-than-serious ways, and today the diaolou are considered global treasures. From their UNESCO World Heritage Site designation:

covered porch

The main towers, with their settings and through their flamboyant display of wealth, are a type of building that reflects the significant role played by émigré Kaiping people in the development of several countries in South Asia, Australasia, and North America, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the continuing links between the Kaiping community and Chinese communities in these parts of the world.

The big difference between fin-de-siecle Kaiping and 21st-century Arcadia, though, is zoning. America might be “a free country” in many respects, but not when it comes to building houses, as a recent LA Times article by Frank Shyong reveals.

In yet another display of what Mike Davis called “slow-growth Know-Nothingism,” Anglos are using their superior access to the machinery of zoning and local elections to write into law their feelings about “those” people — in particular, changing the zoning code to severely restrict new houses. The people who vote today get to write laws affecting the people who will live there tomorrow, without even knowing or caring who they’ll be.

I used to live in another American neighborhood that’s filled with ostentatious mansions built by immigrants who earned their keep in questionable trades. These days, of course, those buildings are considered local treasures. I’m glad that the Yankee settlers who lived lived there in the 1870s and 1880s, farming and building simple cottages, didn’t have zoning — and thus couldn’t legislate into the built environment their sublimated panic about immigration and social change.

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