Beyond Buildings


Bin Laden's Crib: Terror McMansion

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Osama bin Laden's compound. Courtesy: The Huffington Post


We all knew that overgrown, heavily fortified suburban McMansions were evil, but we thought it was because of the combination of their waste of natural resources, their reliance on complete isolation from both other human beings and their surroundings, and their sheer ugliness. Now we know that they can also be lairs of our modern devils, places where someone like the ultimate terrorist mastermind can hide in plain sight. If only he hadn’t insisted on burning all his trash, instead of relying on overburdened public trash collection, Osama bin Laden might still be plugged into television, air conditioning, and jihad networks.


The journey from ground zero to Abbottabad is in some ways a fitting arc. It moves from the destruction of a symbol of a society based on massive and centralized technology as the solution to everything, represented by the faceless grids of the Twin Towers, to the raid on a suburban compound where the perpetrator managed to live in the same neighborhood as respected professionals and even an army-training facility. Power and evil are both becoming dispersed. Form is disappearing, faceless and placeless evil lurks. Osama bin Laden and his ability to seemingly strike anywhere at will had become the dark other of sprawl and globalization, in which you are in danger wherever you come out in public to use shared space or transportation.


It may be unfair to tar your typical New Jersey Neo-Colonial with the brush of a Pakistani compound, especially since bin Laden’s crib seemed to be home to a multigeneration community of interest and family. It made better use of sprawling space than most nuclear family–inhabited American homes, and I hate to say that it looks from the photographs to be more honestly modern than most of our fake palazzos and palaces.


The bin Laden compound was also not like a true McMansion because it was not about flash. There were no fancy cars in evidence, no landscaping that was put in place every spring and ripped up again in the winter, no garish colors. There was, for heaven's sake, not even an Internet connection–how did they play games? How did they get onto Groupon?


We have made Osama bin Laden everything we are afraid of. It is fitting that evil turns out not to lurk in caves, which would be so last millennium, or live in a tent, which would be so the millennium before that. It lives in the suburbs. It turns out that our fear of cities and our distaste of others was something he shared while fostering the paranoia that we might be in danger if we leave our cocoon through his and his cohorts’ murderous programs. So we, or at least the government that many of us do not want to pay for, swooped in, surgically extracting the emblem of that fear. I note that, unlike in so many other operations against our enemies, we left the McMansion standing.



Comments (2 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:06 PM Monday, May 16, 2011

    This is one of the most unnecessary essays I've ever read. The author, who obviously thinks highly of himself, uses sarcasm and utter pablum to make light of a very serious event to attack American suburbs, where most people want to live by choice, to raise their kids in truly the last bastion of freedom on earth. Mr. Betsky is arrogant to his own wisdom and it shows.

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  • Posted by: whosband | Time: 6:47 PM Friday, May 13, 2011

    After disposing the porn collection, patching the bullet holes, and splashing on a few buckets of Red, Blue, Yellow and Black it just might challenge the Schroder House as the Essential De Stijl-ian masterpiece! :)

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.