Invasion of the McMansions

Aldinga, Maslin, Hallett Cove, Brighton, Glenelg, Henley, Semaphore, Largs. These are the main beaches running along Adelaide’s metropolitan coastline from the South to the North. Granted the names aren’t as evocative or as famous as Bondi, Waikiki, or Ipanema, but these beaches still provide Adelaideans with waves, sand, seaweed and the occasional nude sunbather — just what you’d expect from any of the world’s top sand belts — although South Australia’s sunbathers aren’t topless babes so much as leathery pensioners.

Like so many other island nations, much of Australia’s identity is defined by its beach culture. My own particular stretch of beach (from West Lakes through to Semaphore and Largs) has always been at the background to family days out. I remember being pushed by my Nan down Semaphore jetty in a pram on cold days, being smothered in sticky suncream by adults while waiting impatiently to go for a swim, hurling hot chips into flocks of hungry white seagulls, tasting the sea by sucking the dripping ends of my pigtails. Now that I’m all grown up I still live a brisk five minutes walk from the coast, go swimming on boiling hot Christmas Day afternoons, and take my dog for a walk there every day in the hope that he will one day come back when I call him.

Because we inhabit the driest state in the driest continent, and because we find it so easy to forget the sea even though we owe so much to it, the good people of Adelaide have flocked to live at the edges of the city’s coastline, or, like my family, as near to it as possible. Toiling under the hot southern sun, we have erected houses, followed by blocks of flats, then units, homettes and neo-Georgian townhouses. Most recently introduced into the delicate ecosystem that exists between the outer dunes of our beaches and the esplanade, is a creature not as alien to its surroundings as perhaps it should be: the beachside McMansion. Doubtless this breed is not native to South Australia. I have seen variants of the species in Melbourne and on the Gold Coast, and I am sure they span bays and coves around the globe, give or take a few environmental adaptations. I am confident, though, that this is the first definitive article written about the beachside McMansion, or Rendered Shoebox, and how its seemingly innocuous establishment in Adelaide has brought with it seeds of a more modern, complicated world.

Both ‘Beachside McMansion’ and ‘Rendered Shoebox’ refer to any houses that are carton-like in structure, flat of roof, smooth of texture, neutral in colour — except for the occasional feature wall in aubergine or cobalt, or a balcony highlighted by black wrought-iron work. Related to the esoteric inland McMansion, first introduced into the bigger cities of Australia by the US, these sea-side versions are pretty typical examples of modern architecture. So typical, in fact, that they look like they’ve been punched out of the same cardboard in the same factory by the same machinist, as goes the evolution of all fashion trends and fast food hamburgers. First appearing en masse like a display of wedding cakes after Glenelg’s redevelopment, the beachside McMansions have began their spread to not-so-trendy areas of Adelaide’s coastline, gleaming through the gloom cast by the Norfolk Island pines along the foreshore, taking the place of the quirky ’50s brick bungalows, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the heritage bluestone villas that look, thankfully, like nothing will ever disturb them.

A McMansion Under Construction
photo by Kathryn Hummel

Beachside McMansions may not be without their own unique benefits. Although aesthetically unadventurous, these houses look small but may be more spacious than they seem, and while they seem to have been glazed with more windows to take advantage of the horizon, being of new construction, they may have been designed with energy efficiency in mind. Certainly they are not often more heinously ugly than the blocks of liver-coloured ’70s flats they often replace. In fact, with the exception of a group of grey and black townhouses locally known as the Transformers (robots in disguise), the beachside McMansions are not entirely unattractive. They’re simply inorganic — their boxiness is incongruent with the rolling dunes and waves they overlook — and sadly ubiquitous.

Although they are erected in place of a bunch of dated misfit buildings, beachside McMansions also carry with them a particular aura of cultural and architectural misplacement. They don’t belong to my beach, or my mother’s. Certainly they don’t belong to my grandmother’s beach of foreshore carnivals and the art deco dance hall she used to go to on Saturday nights, the shops she worked in before the war that have now changed hands so many times she has trouble remembering what used to be where. Yet as soon as a sleek white box with a security gate rises from the waste of demolition, the environment around it starts to change, too: beginning with its inhabitants.

McMansions are normally owned by the Bright Young Things of the millennium generation, the movers and shakers of the dot com world, or in the case of those closest to me, AFL footballers and their simultaneously slender-but-pregnant girlfriends. And while it’s always pleasant to look upon beautiful, well-groomed, and stylishly-dressed people, whether it be while walking their pedigree dogs or shopping for organic produce, one can’t help thinking that they must all be the stars of a new beachside soap opera, and wonder when the cameras will stop rolling and the real people — those who have been living on the shore for so long they have sand ingrained in the creases of their hands — will be let out of their homes.

An influx of McMansions and those people with enough money to buy them also signifies a rapid arrival of chrome-and-concrete cafes offering nouveau cuisine in snack-sized portions, wheat grass-infested juice bars, and homeware boutiques selling overpriced kitchen gadgets and scented candles. It means a homogenised, white-tiled shopping precinct in place of a row of locally-owned and managed bakeries, butchers, delis, and grocers. The merchants of old know your name and what footy team you barrack for, and they will gladly fill you in on the latest gossip about the dentist. The merchants of new signify money pouring into these beachside councils and the subsequent setting-in of a different, if not lesser, quality of character.

I have an idea that the Pre-McMansion inhabitants of these places, particularly the elderly and the soup van customers who fill the rest homes north of Semaphore, will drift through streets that have become, like them, watered down; their original character diminished. Like the residents of a city flooded by tourists and the unavoidable franchise businesses that follow in their wake, these people will not have the means to resist but will simply learn to exist around the McMansion culture before slowly being sucked (I won’t stay integrated) into it. It was hard enough to watch the closing of Semaphore’s beachside bookshop, the local artists’ studio, the bijoux restaurant near the cinema — but it will be harder still to walk down a street without seeing the same old man who tirelessly trawls the sand with his metal detector, or the chatty fishermen on the jetty, or the old ladies with their old-fashioned vinyl shopping trolleys stepping slowly down the road to the supermarket.

I tell myself it’s narrow-minded not to acknowledge the excitement that worthwhile innovation brings, or to deny perceiving a certain lyricism in the unfolding changes and developments in one’s own community. Yet the invasion of the beachside McMansions is not made any less scary because it seems to be happening slowly on a domestic scale. Like everything to do with the world’s evolution, the situation is tricky: the McMansions symbolise progress as well as regress, and always seem to cost the same non-negotiable price of originality. That is why I can’t help but think that soon there won’t be any locals heading down to their grungy fish and chip shop for Friday night tea, or cooling themselves beneath the jetty on a hot day, or taking the kids down to the ice creamery for a famous Big Lick, or stopping off at the RSL for a schooner, or chewing the fat outside the council library, any more. Most of all, I fear that there will end up being no places left on the beachfront, crowded as it is by McMansions, for a certain PopMatters columnist loping alongside her little red dog and observing the slow deterioration of the site of so much personal history.

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