Mansionism 1: Building-Milieu Fit

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Mansionism

In politically turbulent times, when it is not clear which way the arc of history will bend, it is useful to reframe the question of political futures in terms of built-environment futures. Instead of asking, what kind of milieu will we inhabit, you ask the potentially easier question, what sort of built environment will we inhabit? You then try to infer the future of the milieu from that. The question can also be asked in more specific ways, such as what sorts of futures contain mansions? Besides allowing you to focus materially on what you likely really care about, such questions allow you to finesse more fraught political questions.

Loosely speaking, the reframe turns a scenario-planning question into a design-fiction question. The underlying hypothesis is that the medium is the message. If you can forecast something about the medium, you can forecast something about the message. Here, the medium is the built environment, and the message is the range of milieus that might thrive or wither within it. This gives us the idea of a building-milieu fit (BMF), by analogy to the product-market-fit idea used in the startup world.

I’ve illustrated the BMF idea in the matrix above, with types of milieus in the rows, and types of buildings in the columns. The number in each cell is my subjective estimate of the stability of the particular fit. Note that this is only a partial view, since it covers only residential buildings.

  • Green (4) means a particular kind of structure is a perfect fit for a milieu, and highly stable within it
  • Red (1) means it is actively unstable, and likely to be physically threatened by hostile attention
  • Yellow (3) is a moderate fit. Perhaps the building can be recoded for adaptive reuse. A mansion might be repurposed as a hotel. A tenement might be repurposed as a refugee camp. A royal palace might be turned into a communist history museum.
  • Orange (2) means it could go either way — either recoded and repurposed, or destroyed.

The primary question of interest in relation to BMF is stability, and we can think in terms of two kinds of stability: the stability of a building across milieus (column sums), and the stability of a milieu across building types (row sums). Let’s see an example.

Stability and Metonymy

To illustrate how to read the BMF matrix, let’s zoom in on a question that interests me, the central question of this new blogchain: mansion futures. I’m particularly interested in futures that contain forbidding evil-villain mansions, like this snazzy one I sketched, because I want to write a science fiction novel about such futures.

But let’s consider mansions broadly.

According to my wild estimates as shown in the matrix, mansions are the second-most stable kind of structure across milieus (column score of 29) and fit well with the top 3 most stable milieus across residential building types: oligarchies, republics, and monarchies. The only more stable type of building is the tenement (defined functionally as any sort of robust, low-cost, dense, functional urban housing for the poorer working classes).

Mansions are strongly associated with a particular sort of oligarchic milieu, to the point that the term for the prototype of such milieus, manorialism, derives from estates built around manors. Manors are basically rural mansions with diversified real-estate portfolios attached.

When I tweet about mansions, as has been my wont lately, people often assume I’m talking about feudalism or manorialism. I’m not.

Mansions as metonymy isn’t what I’m going on about. I’m interested in literal mansions. Physical residential buildings that conform to certain loose standards of undeniable opulence, inviolable autonomy, and conspicuous consumption. Buildings that petit-bourgie schmoes like me aspire to own, but are unlikely to.

That said, the degree of metonymy (metonymic harmony?) between a type of building and a type of milieu can be considered an indicator of stability of BMF. Green cells coded ‘4’ are likely candidates for strong metonymy. Mansions suggest manorialism. Palaces suggest monarchies. Fortresses suggest feudalism. Ugly public housing suggests socialism.

Of course, milieu stability estimates will change if you add other kinds of buildings to the mix, like commercial and industrial. But my suspicion is that residential buildings are a good subset to consider for estimating total milieu stability across all types of buildings, because residences are perhaps the most complete microcosms of milieus.

For example, airports are non-residential structures, but mansions might include helipads or even small landing strips, thereby gesturing at an advanced aerospace aspect to the milieu, and implying things like the existence of public airports.

These things are funny. I once lived in an apartment complex that was six apartment buildings and one single family home arranged in an odd spaced-out pattern along the sides of a long road-like strip down the middle of the property. Turned out, the property originally belonged to a rich aviator. The strip was a landing strip. But the property had enough functional elasticity to adapt to an apartment-centric future. It had a good apartment-world(s) BMF.

In linear algebra terms, residential buildings are the eigenvectors of the built environment. Entire classes of futures are defined by the subspaces spanned by subsets of these vectors.

Built Environments and Climate

BMF lenses on futures are particularly powerful right now, for a historically specific reason: climate risk. When it comes to decarbonization, possibly the biggest and most resistant chunk of the civilizational stack is the built environment. Heating and cooling homes accounts for a large fraction of both energy use and the carbon footprint worldwide (in the US, on the order of 40% iirc).

Densification is currently the simplest and most obvious approach to reducing both energy use and carbon emissions, to the point that sustainability and density have become synonymous for the more doctrinaire climate activist types. But the connection is not a necessary one. The more technology you can inject into the problem, the greater the variety of buildings — and range of built-environment densities — that will be well-adapted to milieus shaped by climate action. Well-designed high-tech mansions could potentially be greener than poorly designed highrises.

Mansions as currently conceived, however, are obviously lousy for decarbonizing any milieu. They stand for the exact opposite of low-carbon lifestyles. A world full of mansions is likely the least-dense built environment possible. A mansion-monoculture world would be like Solara, the most extreme of Asimov’s fictional Spacer worlds. A climate worst-case scenario, for certain values of “mansion.”

There is good reason to explore variety and density range, since buildings designed with carbon footprint as the overwhelming consideration (with densification as the dominant lever to lower it) are likely to create a fragile built-environment monoculture. The pandemic is already providing a glimpse of the fragility trade-offs related to high density.

Of course, I’m not about mansionist monocultures either. Those would simply exhibit different fragilities at the low-density end of the spectrum. I’d just like to see mansions — nice, sustainable, green mansions with helipads, skullduggery rooms, and underground Bond-villain lairs — in the architectural mix. And I’d especially like one for myself.

But if you’re all about high density, you’re of course welcome to aspire to a slum, tenement, or premium-mediocre urban high-rise lifestyle. Just stay away from my mansion.

No palaces though. My inclusive, pluralist build-environment visions top out at mansions. I do not like palace-consistent milieus. Palaces are bad news. I’ll explain why in a future post.

Kidding aside, I suspect with the right kind of construction and heating/cooling technology, mansions can be made greener and more sustainable than typical dense sorts of built environments favored by climate activists. They can also likely be imagined in forms that have high BMF with milieus that are very far from manorialism. After all, even Soviet leaders had their dachas on the Black Sea. So perhaps even a future crafted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t preclude a mansion for me.

A world that is only about density — low or high — is a sad world. Whether urban or rural, mansions add a certain je ne sais quoi to a built environment that would be a pity to lose. I’d like mansions in the world even if I can’t have one. I think worlds containing mansions are better worlds.

Here Be Mansions

Tracking overall macro shifts in the built environment in terms of evolving building-milieu-fit of structures within it is a daunting task. But you can get quite far just thinking about specific pieces of the built environment. Indicator species if you will.

In this new blogchain, as I mentioned, I’ll be focusing on mansions as the indicator species. The basic futures question I will explore is the one I already mentioned: Will there be mansions?

There are several obvious follow-on questions. How many people live in mansions now? How many will have mansions in the future? Will I have a mansion? If I don’t, how will I feel towards those who do? And vice versa? Who do you have to kill to get a mansion? How modest or opulent will the median mansion be? How materially and economically independent will they be? Will they be able to resist zombies? Will they be safe spaces for vampires? Will-they be drone proof? Will Black Lives Matter in a mansionist world? Are mansions fashy? Can the existence of mansions be reconciled with climate action? Is densification consistent with mansionification given sufficiently advanced technology?

This general set of concerns and questions is what I call mansionism. It is a futurism eigenvector rather than a practical aspiration or an ideology (though I won’t say no to an actual mansion).

There is a veil of ignorance aspect to mansionist futures. If you had to choose between mansionist and non-mansionist futures to be born into, without knowing what sort of building you’d be born into, which would you pick? Mansionist futures present the obvious upside possibility of being born into a well-mansioned family, but what about the downside? Could it be that futures with mansions are systematically more likely to undergo a climate apocalypse? I hope not, but I plan to stan mansions in either case. A world that has no room for mansions is not worth saving.

Such are the questions I am mulling these days, even as on a more practical level, I go apartment hunting for the 22nd apartment of my life, which will definitely not be anywhere near mansion-class. I’m only aspirationally a high-carbon enmansioned jerk. In practice, I live a noble high-density, low-carbon life.

If you’re interested, besides following this blogchain, you can also follow my new @basicmansion twitter account. I also just contributed a mansion-themed piece to the New Old Home report by the Yak Collective, which you may want to browse.

Series NavigationMansionism 2: Bungalows >>

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Love your new theme!
    You should rent a manson for a weekend with a couple of friends.
    It is quite affordable if you split it by 15 or 20.
    We once rented one half of a smallish castle with a big group.

    How would a yacht be ranked in your matrix?

  2. I’m a longtime follower of your writings. But I have several problems with the view presented in this piece. First, the word ‘republic’ refers to a vague and meaningless category. It’s literal definition is simply all forms of government that aren’t monarchies. A more narrow definition is a representative democracy, but history shows us that to the degree a democracy is merely representative (or claims to be in theory) it ends up as a banana republic. In either case, the wide variety of ‘republics’ should be put into one of the other categories, either democracy or otherwise. Also, in the past, republics like the Basque, an inspiration of John Adams, were republic simply in the sense that they maintained local autonomy by fighting off empires; whereas many countries that identify as or get called ‘republics’ today essentially have become empires. Even the heavily authoritarian Chinese government correctly refers to itself as a republic.

    That brings us to the next issue. It’s not clear what you think is democracy. The fact of the matter we don’t have many good examples of healthy, functioning democracy in the modern world. The United States is a perfect case of banana republic with its high inequality that is a defining characteristic of banana republics, something that was understood earlier last century but seems to have been forgotten since. Even the Scandinavian social democracies are imperfect examples, as they also have extremely limited direct democracy such as mostly lacking local self-governance (e.g., townhall meetings). Many of the beneficial ‘democratic’ reforms actually were originally pushed by radical left-wingers and only later did social democrats take credit for them. So, such social democracy was only made possible by there existing or once having existed strong leftist movements that forced governments and ruling elites to comply with democratic reforms, often involving nation-wide strikes as seen in the Scandinavian countries during the early 20th century.

    The last point I’ll mention I find most troubling of all. Your adulation of mansions makes me realize that we exist in entirely different worlds, not only ideologically but in terms of political and economic interests. You’re living the bourgeois lifestyle aspiring to be part of economic elite who could afford a mansion. I was raised upper middle class and found it distasteful and have chosen to prioritize other things over conspicuous spending and class privileges of wealth — it just didn’t motivate me and inspire me, quite the opposite. To me, the very concept of a mansion is depressing, in that it represents the extreme inequality that is so destructive to any society but especially to a free society or one hopefully moving in that direction. If a society is genuinely free for all and not just some (i.e., democratic), there won’t be mansions. So, mansions are a clear sign of a failure of freedom. That is because democracy is inherently and inevitably inseparable from socialism, the ultimate expression of local self-governance such as workers owning and operating the businesses they work in (e.g., Mondragon Corporation where workers vote on company leaders and decisions).

    • anonomous says

      Furthermore in the context provided, the assertion that resource consumption is not directly proportional to environmental degradation is blatantly incorrect.

      A succinct framing of the issue might be with the simple question of whether it is more “green” to have a single person living in a mansion, or 50 people living in that same mansion. Roughly translatable to whether an apartment building the size of a mansion (or a single-occupancy house the size of an apartment building) should really not broadly consume the same net resources, ceteris paribus, but vastly different on a per capita basis..

      It’s worth noting that the lifetime energy utilization of a product generally has more to do with the energy inputs for its manufacture, than with the energy necessarily used by the product itself. To say nothing of the transportation or supply chain energy inputs that also must be accounted for. For example, a Tesla burns more carbon during its lifetime than does a cheap petrol-powered car (such as a Ford Focus, Nissan Versa, etc), even though the Tesla does not combust gasoline for its locomotion, nor will it ever require an oil change. But the embedded energy inputs for the manufacture of the Tesla are much higher than for the Focus/Versa/whatever, so much so that a lifetime of fuel consumption cannot make up for those input costs. To be obvious, the Tesla is an allusion to the energy-efficient mansion – a product designed to appear to be ecologically conscious, but whose cost belies this claim. After all, if a mansion did not lay claim to exorbitant claims on energy “production”, then all mansions would be cheap, as money is really not much more than a claim on energy (if you think about it).

      There really has been a lot written about what I’ve outlined above, familiarizing yourself with the broad thrusts of the related arguments might be something you’d find illuminating in your future writings.

      The counter argument to the claim that “mansions are the most likely built environment to survive” is of course that they will not – because, by virtue of their big-ness, their future claim to resources (for things like upkeep) are the most tenuous. Case in point, most mansions that have ever existed have since been lost/destroyed/etc, even during a long-history of increasingly abundant resource availability to society.

      • I can think of other examples similar to what you describe with the Tesla. Environmentalism has been used to greenwash corporate interests and branding, in many ways. This has been seen with how corporations are seeking to co-opt the symbolic activism of veganism through environmentalist front organizations.

        But if one calculates the actual costs, veganism is actually not the least environmentally destructive diet, much less being environmentally sustainable. That is because veganism in the Western world and in most of the world is inevitably dependent on industrial agriculture with large-scale monoculture, petroleum-based farm chemicals. mass transportation, and a neoliberal global trade system.

        So, a bourgois yuppy could own an energy efficient mansion and Tesla while being vegan and supporting environmentalist organizations. Yet their lifestyle would be a net loss for society and could only maintained over the long term through the continued subsidization of privatized resources and externalized costs. This is the kind of thing that our capitalist society has yet to come to terms with.

  3. Some in the audience may appreciate this one:

    Some viewers may see the following article as interesting, so posting here:

  4. Mansions have a difficult stand, so to speak. It is not only that greens, socialists, syndicalists and other sour grapes are against them but as asset prices have climbed steeply, mansions at the best locations are wiped out by investors, who figured that building apartment houses on the same ground is a better investment. Capital eats mansions for breakfast and I expect classical mansion districts to be shrinking. This trend could only be reversed if the upper middle class grows back, for which I see little indications.

  5. Hey Venkat sure others have observed this but there are a couple of baked in assumptions that might make this not only off the mark but actively misleading. (Of no consequence of course because it’s a fun thought experiment.) The first is that the survival advantage is unweighted and the second is that the likelihood of each milieu is equal. Thanks for all you do.

  6. I know this is a thought experiment, but in real life, my housemates and I cooperatively own a mansion, with nine adults and one child.

    We see the repurposing of large-scale homes as a form of gentle density that provides residents with a high quality of life while also making the best use of space.

    Although we aren’t socialist/community/anarchist, we borrow practices and points of reference from these discourses. For instance, we practice mutual aid with relief funds for individuals who experience a crisis. We also equally distribute the cost of shared food and shared spaces, as well as the time-cost of chores.

  7. anonymous says

    I’d suggest a closer inspection of mansions (either manors or palaces) in the past would show they were more densely populated than you might think, in that the manpower required to run and maintain a property of that size required onsite, or super-local, boarding of a significant number of underlings. Mansions as we think of them today—the permanent abode of no more than a small nuclear family with perhaps some employed staff who travel from afar to service the site on regular schedules (cleaners, gardeners, etc)—would have been impossible in previous centuries, and I can only expect will become impossible again in the future as resource constriction will set inherent limits to both ability to travel and the infrastructure required to support high-tech ‘autonomous’ mansion living. Manorialism will again be the most feasible setting for mansions to exist in the distant future, and they won’t be low density.

    • Oh yeah, totally. They were dense in a different spatial pattern, and more built around the aesthetics of a single individual or family. Especially rural mansions anchoring manorial estates. Servants, slaves, and serfs and sharecroppers and town freemen etc. George Washington’s house at Mt. Vernon is a good example. It’s 20% stately house, 50% hotel for an endless parade of visitors, and 30% slave/servant prison. A modernized descendant of the concept would of course be imagined around free opt-in roles.

  8. In what way are apartments incompatible with democracy?

    Also, the objection to republics as a class also holds for monarchies: a set that includes polities as different as Canada, Japan, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Tonga, and Lesotho isn’t a very informative one. Further, it doesn’t say much that monarchies and republics together are the top two categories of states seeing as they can be taken to include 100 per cent of states.

  9. That’s hilarious. Since veil of ignorance makes it clear you won’t have a mansion with a solid 99% probability — there is no society under which more than 1% of the population controls a mansion — and it’s not a great deal living as a servant in most mansions — I’m not sure why you want to live in a society with mansions.

    I pick futures with rowhouses, which are just really nice to be in or near. If your future doesn’t have rowhouses, I don’t like it. (I don’t see why you consider them unlikely to be compatible with democracy though; most were built in democracies or in the feudal period. And they don’t get built under communism, historically. I think your number ratings are wrong.)

  10. BadThinker says

    This seems to suffer from the same problems ‘the political compass’ suffers from. It assumes hierarchy is not the natural order. No matter the name of the political system, there is always a hierarchy. The only ones that matter in the list are Oligarchy, Monarchy, and Democracy, and even then, they are really just words to describe how those at the top of the hierarchy are officially organized.