R.J. Snell pays a visit to the little town on the Canadian prairie where he was raised, and is shocked to find how much has changed — and not for the better. The town’s architecture — it’s houses, especially — used to exemplify modesty, what he considers a very Canadian virtue. It’s now all about the McMansions. Excerpt:

Modesty is not prudishness, it is (1) having a moderate estimate of one’s merits and importance, (2) a freedom from extravagance, (3) a regard for decency or decorum. It is, then, fundamentally opposed to vulgarity and boorishness. And all around I observed (or thought I did) a change in character from modesty to vulgarity, and among Canadians, thought to be among the most mannerly people.

A family member in the construction business told me that when young couples come in to plan the homes, she often tells them to list absolute musts from relative wants, but reports being told several times that “whatever there is, is a need.” Moreover, not just a need, a demand, a right.

At the same time as the palaces multiply, the civic centres collapse. The town halls, source of community life—dances, movies, card parties, club meetings—were unpainted, poorly maintained, and not updated. Schools and churches were closing at rapid pace, businesses shuttered, main streets deserted as the homes became opulent, appointed, odes to entertainment. I’ll admit to some distress at how shabby the towns had become, even as the homes became incredible.

I could be wrong, but I suspect the modesty that Snell esteems was a virtue developed as a response to scarcity. If the prairie people had had the kind of money in 1900 that they have in 2013, would they have built that era’s version of McMansions? Or would there have been something within their contemporary culture restraining them? The question is, did money cause this cultural revolution in domestic architecture, or did the arrival of wealth happen to coincide with a cultural revolution in the way people thought about themselves and their desires, causing them to build their houses in a certain way now as opposed to then?