Houses with names
January 22, 2020 7:33 PM   Subscribe

Welcome to the first edition of the McMansion Hell Yearbook - a year by year account of how the McMansion came to be. We begin our tour of time in the year 1970.
posted by waving (69 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
 
The usual delightful snark at this proto-McMansion from New Jersey. The hints of what was to come are rife.

I enjoy almost all of what Kate writes, but it's great to see McMansion Hell back.
posted by lhauser at 7:37 PM on January 22 [4 favorites]


an arts ↙ ↘
posted by Foci for Analysis at 8:11 PM on January 22 [15 favorites]


I think I solved the mystery of drying rack or art???: those are the faux-tudor inserts for the non tudored 2/3 of the window
posted by ckape at 8:11 PM on January 22 [26 favorites]


i mean probably??!! *pukes*
posted by Foci for Analysis at 8:13 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]


2big2beige

The pleasure of reading McMansion Hell is a wonderful three-way tie for me between goofy LOLs (above), I-feel-smart vocab (transoms! quoins!), and remarkably sharp observations that I'd never catch (mismatched windows on the back of that house).

Oh, who am I kidding. It's a four-way tie. All that and the schadefreude, knowing my gas bill is what it takes to heat that foyer.
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 9:36 PM on January 22 [9 favorites]


There are some design elements that I really like (eg brick fireplace veneer, I think because my grandparents had one), but overall the snark is fun since no one in my entire extended family could have come close to building a 5600 square foot house in 1970.
posted by Dip Flash at 11:23 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]


The pleasure of reading McMansion Hell is a wonderful three-way tie for me between goofy LOLs (above), I-feel-smart vocab (transoms! quoins!), and remarkably sharp observations that I'd never catch (mismatched windows on the back of that house).

But at the same time, it's subtly educational, like the snark about the Tudor windows.

If you didn't think about it too much, it would be easy to consider them as generically old-timey, which no doubt the designers and owners of this house did, exactly that.

Snarkily pointed out though...LOL @ Tudor windows in a Neoclassical facade and it becomes patently ridiculous.

Since my first encounter with McMansion Hell, I'm acutely aware of primary & secondary masses for example.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:03 AM on January 23 [1 favorite]


I studied architecture, and we used to ride around the swankier parts of town doing a sort of improv live version of this. It was the late 80s so the material wrote itself.
posted by signal at 3:02 AM on January 23 [7 favorites]


I urgently need to know how you pronounce “lawyer foyer” though. Law-yay Faux-yay? law-yurr fuh-yurr?
posted by mhoye at 3:55 AM on January 23 [6 favorites]


LOIA FOIA
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:13 AM on January 23 [45 favorites]


Honestly, reading McMansion Hell has left me with an deep desire for a house with a turret over the garage.
posted by betweenthebars at 4:50 AM on January 23 [8 favorites]


A very similar sad bastardization of styles is what happens to me every time I cut my own hair instead of going to a professional stylist.
posted by waving at 4:54 AM on January 23 [10 favorites]


One of my friends had a house like this in New Jersey, so from seeing the pictures I could remember the smell. They had inherited it, and never really got down to living there, it was just standing there as a remembrance of an other age. Eventually they sold it and built a house somewhere up in the woods, I don't remember where.

As a European who was living in New York at the time, everything about that house seemed so absurdly out of scale, like the living room was so big you had to shout if you were sitting in separate sofas. I thought I had suddenly figured out why Americans have such loud voices.
posted by mumimor at 4:58 AM on January 23 [13 favorites]


I'm pretty sure my entire apartment is smaller than that living room.
posted by Automocar at 5:16 AM on January 23


faux-tudor

The term is plantagenet.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:28 AM on January 23 [22 favorites]


'Lĕh-'nérd 'Skin-'nérd.

Seriously, though - <>
posted by notsnot at 5:35 AM on January 23


Thomas Frank has an interesting discussion of McMansions in Rendevous with Oblivion. He says they are dsigned to look good when first shown by a real estate agent and are meant to be flipped.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:56 AM on January 23


Lo-yay fo-yay, I believe.
posted by gauche at 6:17 AM on January 23


As a European who was living in New York at the time, everything about that house seemed so absurdly out of scale, like the living room was so big you had to shout if you were sitting in separate sofas. I thought I had suddenly figured out why Americans have such loud voices.

It's funny, because I always thought the Giant Rooms thing was a seriously degenerated version of the Very Large Aristocratic Room. Like, the room where she points out the "invisible wall? If you look at photos of aristocratic houses in France or Frenchified ones in England, they have invisible walls/furniture groupings of that same general sort.

I didn't find that particularly bad, actually, and when I lived in my best ever apartment which had a very large main room, I always rearranged to have an invisible wall for parties. Without the invisible wall, you get that situation where one loud talker sort of mesmerizes the whole room and everyone sits in silence looking at him. With furniture groupings and invisible walls, people naturally focus in smaller groups and find it easier to maintain multiple conversations.
posted by Frowner at 6:19 AM on January 23 [9 favorites]


That's what the shag-carpeted conversation pit is for.
posted by poffin boffin at 6:25 AM on January 23 [15 favorites]


The horse shrine might be the goofiest and at the same time the most real thing that I've seen in a McMansion Hell interior, because it seems like an indicator of a real hobby, and not just standard-issue suburbia trappings.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:55 AM on January 23 [23 favorites]


That's what the shag-carpeted conversation pit is for.

There are a few of the bygone architectural oddities that I really like, and one of those is conversation pits, for no purposeful reason. I wouldn't mind someday having a house with one (albeit minus the shag). I've only ever seen them in split-level houses, though, which is a style I don't much like.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:24 AM on January 23 [4 favorites]


Isn't Kate from Baltimore? I imagine with a thick Balmer accent, lawyer and foyer rhyme, right?
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 7:25 AM on January 23


It's funny, because I always thought the Giant Rooms thing was a seriously degenerated version of the Very Large Aristocratic Room. Like, the room where she points out the "invisible wall? If you look at photos of aristocratic houses in France or Frenchified ones in England, they have invisible walls/furniture groupings of that same general sort.

Well yes, but those aristocrats who built those houses were extremely rich. More like Bloomberg than Trump. Even upper class houses in Europe are not normally as over the top as McMansions, or even my friend's house (obviously excluding those of the 1%, but they often live in old stately houses). It's arriving here, via US TV, but it isn't by any means normal.

I've visited some aristocrats who had inherited estates but not much cash, and they were living like squatters in a few small cold rooms in vast palaces; there may have been invisible walls somewhere in the salons, but those were never used. As one of my students who was the sister of such a person said: it isn't him who owns the house, the house owns him.
posted by mumimor at 7:33 AM on January 23


I have always liked McMansion hell as snark, but as an actual house design education not so much.

Like it or not, mcmansion is a style, in the same way that fusion is a food style.

Also, symmetry is way over-rated as different rooms in a house have different purposes, and to say that all the windows should be the same size and same shape gets you houses like this. One of those bay windows is a small bedroom. Or more philosophically, that the exterior of the house (the way it is presented) is more important than what is inside, which has all sorts of questionable implications and leads to terrible interior design decisions, like putting a giant window in a kid's bedroom.

She also has no idea how modern air conditioning systems work (from her other material) and her implication that mcmansions are poorly made runs in direct contrast to the pricing of them and their ubiquity for going on multiple decades now. The roofline thing she rightfully brings up is an example of this. The complexity adds to the cost, and if mcmansions were poorly made, you'd see so many of them decaying due to the cost of replacing the roof. The one in the post - a 1970s house for $1.8million. It's a home only available to approximately the top 5% in the US.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:56 AM on January 23 [4 favorites]


If you built one of these far from a big city you’d have a Rural Juror’s Lawyer Foyer.
posted by fedward at 8:04 AM on January 23 [11 favorites]


I've only ever seen them in split-level houses, though, which is a style I don't much like.

my parents' beach house had one, and the 3 inch deep shag carpet was cream and (of course) harvest gold
posted by poffin boffin at 8:26 AM on January 23 [4 favorites]


her implication that mcmansions are poorly made runs in direct contrast to the pricing of them and their ubiquity for going on multiple decades now.

Are you honestly asserting that they can't be poorly made if they're pricy and people buy them?
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:39 AM on January 23 [21 favorites]


Huh, The_Vegetables, I find her house design information absolutely wonderful. She’s really helped me look at the world in a whole new way. I think she’s very focused on practicality and that’s what makes her takedowns of McMansions so fun for me — she's not just shitting on their poor taste, she’s pointing out a lack of functionality in so many different ways. I absolutely disagree that she's pushing symmetry above function, it’s more that she’s pointing out how absurd it is to have 6 different styles of windows, none of them the same size, and how much that speaks to a lack of planning and skill on the part of the builders.

And there's a ton of examples on her blog of how badly those houses are built! Just because they fetch huge prices has nothing to do with how well they’re crafted.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 11:07 AM on January 23 [10 favorites]


It's only $1.8 million. With about $1 million of extra work you could really turn it into something!
posted by blue_beetle at 11:14 AM on January 23 [1 favorite]


Apparently there are no McMansions in Vermont. Kate never got around to our little state.
posted by leaper at 11:20 AM on January 23


mcmansion is a style, in the same way that fusion is a food style.
Fusion is combining two disparate styles or regions to make something tastier than the some of its parts, like a sushiritto

This the drunken idea to use Flaming-Hot Doritos crumbs as a roe on two-day old sushi.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 12:55 PM on January 23


I can't believe anyone here who lived through the Conversation Pit/Sunken Living Room years is nostalgic. Have you no memory of the stubbed toes, the stumbling in the dark, etc. that made those things such a menace?

I can still feel the exact texture of the brick (Yes! Brick!) edging on the step up going into the dining room from our sunken living room, feel it scrape my innocent bare foot mercilessly while I stumble forward, probably dropping my glass of red kool-aid on the greenish-brown shag.
posted by emjaybee at 12:57 PM on January 23 [3 favorites]


i was 3 and i wanted to be a fire truck
posted by poffin boffin at 1:27 PM on January 23 [6 favorites]


McMansion Hell: the 'I Don't Have a Television & Subscribe to the New Yorker' of design criticism.
posted by 99_ at 1:30 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]


My 1960’s ranch house has a conversation pit! It’s been four years since anyone has fallen in it and needed stitches! And the shag carpet only occasionally ignites when we use the fireplace!
posted by rebeccabeagle at 1:35 PM on January 23 [16 favorites]


I nearly did a double take on seeing the "Queenswood" image at top. When I was in high school, we moved from our tidy, two-story colonial house in the tidewater, Virginia, area to a split-level monstrosity that looked just like it in a northern Virginia suburb. I never got used to the weird two-story foyer with its too-small floor space -- you couldn't put a bench in for removing shoes or snow gear. We spent a lot of time entering through the garage and pelting through the dark and gloomy lower level to the upper one, where all the warmth and activity was.

A few years later, my parents fled to another colonial two-story house.
posted by sobell at 1:55 PM on January 23


McMansion Hell: the 'I Don't Have a Television & Subscribe to the New Yorker' of design criticism.

Look I get that folks might not like McMansion Hell because they don't find it funny and that's fine but I genuinely do not understand this. She's not a snob and her humor is not highbrow. Have you read the image captions?

I live in the suburbs in a house that looks exactly like everyone else's in a cul-de-sac, I watch plenty of TV (my favorite show is GREY'S FUCKING ANATOMY) and I am too stupid to ever find New Yorker cartoons funny because I assume I don’t understand the reference. But McMansion Hell is relatable and educational in a way that doesn’t make me feel uncultured or uneducated. I would love to hear why it comes across as snobby design criticism. I mean that truly!

I mean in addition to all my uncultured ways enumerated above, I did actually go to art & design school for four years, so I know what kind of criticism you’re referencing. She isn't like Dwell magazine for Tumblr.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 2:37 PM on January 23 [19 favorites]


Agreed with the thorn bushes have roses; it is really kind of weird to trot out elitist tropes against someone who is making fun of overpriced, badly-designed shacks for people with too much money.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:53 PM on January 23 [6 favorites]


I mean in addition to all my uncultured ways enumerated above, I did actually go to art & design school for four years, so I know what kind of criticism you’re referencing. She isn't like Dwell magazine for Tumblr.

I have a friend who always threatens to write the definite critique of the implicit (and occasionally explicit) class and race biases both of Wagner's writing, and that traditional she either intentionally or not stumbled into. And I think 'yah, I would like to do that as well' but it never seems worth it because I don't think rendering it accurately would move the needle on anyone's existing opinions.

The simplest way I would couch it is that the language and framing of her critiques just sort of mindlessly inherits the rhetoric of how people talked about Persian Palaces in the 00s. Some of it is just cheap New York Times middlebrow sniffing about standards (which basically reset every generation), and some of it is decidedly darker and more racist.

Overall, when you make broad, glib critical assessments that don't intersect with how monetary policy drives real estate development, or how automation of home materials (and cheap offshoring of manufacturing) impacts builder homes (vs anything actually designed), all you are going to end up doing is retreating into the stance that these uncultured dolts buying these trashy homes (and I mean, I would read a PhD length essay unpacking the deployment of trashy as trope in pop criticism) don't understand how much better their lives could be by either embracing mid-century modernism, a New England saltbox, or a 'brownstone'.

If you do this your first couple years in school, fine. But if you are an adult ostensible engaged in critical thinking and writing, this is just the rhetorical equivalent of 'do you even design, bro?'
posted by 99_ at 3:32 PM on January 23 [3 favorites]


it is really kind of weird to trot out elitist tropes against someone who is making fun of overpriced, badly-designed shacks for people with too much money

I feel like this is the similar to people getting more upset at the calling out of a racist rather than the racism itself.

As a kid, I always wanted to live somewhere with a conversation pit, the idea just looked cool! As an adult, I think I'm fairly thoroughly against single or double-step changes in elevation on the ground floor. Lots of potential for injury and definitely not going to be a friend to the elderly or disabled.
posted by maxwelton at 3:33 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]


Agreed with the thorn bushes have roses; it is really kind of weird to trot out elitist tropes against someone who is making fun of overpriced, badly-designed shacks for people with too much money.

If you don't think that tiny home fetishization doesn't intersect with with, say, judgement of immigrant aspiration, that's cool.
posted by 99_ at 3:35 PM on January 23


Wait. 99_, who do you think is buying McMansions and why do you think people moved to the suburbs? And where on earth has McMansion Hell ever fetishized tiny homes?

It feels like you're talking about something so far off from what McMansion Hell actually that it’s veered into straw man territory.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 3:54 PM on January 23 [10 favorites]


Well, if we're talking Bergen County, some of the following?

5.3 Community diversity
5.3.1 Italian American
5.3.2 Latin American
5.3.3 Western European American
5.3.4 Jewish American
5.3.5 Korean American
5.3.6 Polish American
5.3.7 African American
5.3.8 Indian American
5.3.9 Russian (and other former Soviet) American
5.3.10 Filipino American
5.3.11 Chinese American
5.3.12 Japanese American
5.3.13 Balkan American
5.3.14 Muslim American
5.3.15 Iranian American
posted by 99_ at 4:03 PM on January 23


Are we supposed to guess what that means?
posted by ActingTheGoat at 4:10 PM on January 23 [4 favorites]


who do you think is buying McMansions and why do you think people moved to the suburbs? And where on earth has McMansion Hell ever fetishized tiny homes?

Just answering a question. Bergen County is the location of the house featured in TFA. That's who the US Census thinks is buying houses in Bergen County. I don't have a personal opinion on that issue.

But I do have an opinion that Kate Wagner sounds like someone who wants to lecture you about theater because she saw Hamilton, but never heard of Suzan-Lori Parks.
posted by 99_ at 4:16 PM on January 23


Because naturally all the cultures and ethnicities found in Bergen County are in fact equally and proportionally distributed across all areas and socio-economic divisions within Bergen County (part of the NYC metro area, county seat Hackensack, NJ, and the most populous county in the state), and in particular within the family that designed a certain 1970s suburban McMansion in the area.
posted by Meow Face at 4:19 PM on January 23 [4 favorites]


That house was most likely not 'designed' by anyone, at the very least by the family that bought it. Somewhere between 2-10% of all new residential is 'designed' (meaning the homeowner interacts with an architect before home any construction) - and probably a somewhat higher number engage in conversation where limited choice is available (change in finish, level of quality of fixtures, etc.) but it is highly constrained.

Most of the physical details on the outside of the home that are being ridiculed in TFA were likely outside of the purview homeowners and something they were able to accept or reject in toto when deciding to buy. Most of the intentional, personal decision occur in decoration, over time.

So what is happening on the interior is basically taking cheap shots at the taste of an individual, of whom we can only speculate in very broad terms, but otherwise impacts no one who wasn't invited into the home itself.
posted by 99_ at 4:29 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]


If you don't think that tiny home fetishization doesn't intersect with with, say, judgement of immigrant aspiration, that's cool.

Oh, I'd say that there's some vigorous strawmanning going on here...

I feel like this is the similar to people getting more upset at the calling out of a racist rather than the racism itself.

As the kids like to say, I can't even.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:51 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]


That house was most likely not 'designed' by anyone, at the very least by the family that bought it. Somewhere between 2-10% of all new residential is 'designed' (meaning the homeowner interacts with an architect before home any construction) - and probably a somewhat higher number engage in conversation where limited choice is available (change in finish, level of quality of fixtures, etc.) but it is highly constrained.

Sure, but the 2-10% of houses where a homeowner has design interaction consist primarily of... for example, 5600 square foot, 6 bedroom, 6 bathroom, $1,800,000 houses.

Are you doing some sort of elaborate performance art?
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 4:51 PM on January 23 [3 favorites]


I've now spent most of the day traversing the 50 states, and laughing...

Ahoy Mateys!
posted by Windopaene at 5:23 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]


Are you doing some sort of elaborate performance art?

I think you mean “AN ART.”

For real though, 99_, you’re coming into a thread in a way that seems really fighty and dismissive, I don’t think there’s a way to engage with you in a productive way because it feels like shifting goalposts.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 5:54 PM on January 23 [10 favorites]



So what is happening on the interior is basically taking cheap shots at the taste of an individual, of whom we can only speculate in very broad terms, but otherwise impacts no one who wasn't invited into the home itself.

This has been my irritation with McMansion Hell as well. I've never cared for her making fun of people's taste. Make fun of the taste of celebrities, sure. They are rich enough to hire professional interior designers and their jobs (?) require being in the public eye. I have a design background and an architecture education so it's not like I think she's wrong, I just think she's unkind. Decor isn't architecture anyway.

I'm also not sure why everyone thinks the homes she's critiquing are always those of rich white people. Large swaths of McMansions around here are firmly marketed toward blue collar families. The South Bay is full of pricy McMansion homes owned by people of color- I've done garden design for some. For many immigrants buying a McMansion is a symbol that you've made it here, and you're making a home in the most American of housing types.

Also the predecessor of the house in the article is not a split level or a ranch; it's a colonial revival house that never veered into the single-story design of the ranch home. Here's a tiny one from the Aladdin Kit House catalog of 1940.

Here's a big Sears kit house from 1918.

There was no deviation to ranch and split level in order to get to that big brick McMansion in the blog. It's a direct descendant of these homes. There were ranches and split levels built with colonial revival design details, yes, absolutely- but architectural bones and decorative detailing are not the same thing.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:58 PM on January 23 [3 favorites]


She's not a snob and her humor is not highbrow. Have you read the image captions?
Highbrow, no, snob, absolutely. The undercurrent of a lot of McMansion Hell is that the people who buy and occupy McMansions don't have the right taste to ever make it in the upper class. Often, that they don't even have the right taste to "belong" in the upper-middle class, and that they should downsize and know their place.

There are some perfectly valid criticisms of McMansions: I'd love to see someone, e.g., map out walking patterns and sight lines for day-to-day use, and show places where McMansions make everyday tasks more tedious or dangerous than necessary. I'd love to see an actual explanation for why complex rooflines are "bad," perhaps showing actual wear/drainage patterns and/or the complexity in re-roofing the building. Perhaps some actual research on whether McMansion occupants are more, less, or equally happy compared to their non-McMansion-occupying peers. Given the tendency for McMansions to get built in weirdly-dense-but-isolated subdivisions, I'd be curious to know if they pose a greater fire hazard than smaller buildings.

But no, we get "lol tacky wallpaper" and "the windows are asymmetrical" and "the garage isn't under the same roofline as the rest of the house, rofl, what rubes." Probably because that kind of spiteful crapping-on-taste gets clicks is relatively easy to churn out, where actually explaining deeper problems takes a lot more effort and expertise.
posted by reventlov at 6:25 PM on January 23


I was just about to post her very first post, reventlov, which goes in depth into a lot of the things you're asking in your second paragraph — worth a read if you're interested & haven't already seen it, I think!
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 6:27 PM on January 23 [4 favorites]


And also,“McMansions 101 Revisited: Aesthetics Aside, Why McMansions Are Bad Architecture.” She has a whole series of “McMansions 101” and it’s these type of posts that I really enjoyed.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 6:30 PM on January 23 [7 favorites]


So what I'm taking from _99's comments is sort of that McMansion Hell doesn't get at why people like McMansions, and the why can be political. That is, it's easy to assume either that McMansions are literally some kind of platonic instantiation of bad taste or that the people who like them are all affluent white MAGA hat types who wouldn't know a complex notion if it bit them on the ass, but in actual fact a McMansion might be attractive to someone because its design represented modernity or security or an aesthetic that evolved in, eg, post-Soviet Eastern Europe and seems homelike or a mark of homestyle success.

For instance, I know someone who bought a McMansion because McMansions were modern and contemporary and spacious and made of all new materials and thus in sharp contrast to the poverty this person had known while growing up in a dangerous place [where "tasteful" architecture was colonial architecture, too]. The very newness and blankness and architectural incoherency that we point to as hallmarks of McMansions were what this person wanted.

That's not to say that McMansions are beautiful or well-built or that we have to like them. However, so much criticism of them seems to be "people who like these are either rubes or bad people because only rubes or bad people would like the features of McMansions" and that is demonstrably not the case
posted by Frowner at 6:30 PM on January 23 [4 favorites]


Also those "Persian Palaces" are kind of neat. If they are well built, I wouldn't mind living in one - they have sort of a futuristic/pomo feel that I could get into.

To spitball a bit, I think that there's a lot of "global" architecture that isn't well theorized - the new buildings that I'd see in coastal China in the 90s/early 2000s, for instance, that were sort of a transitional style coming out of communist everyday construction, communist monumental construction, traditional Chinese motifs, global "modernism" and an interest in certain Western modern motifs for their own sakes.
posted by Frowner at 6:37 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]


Okay, I'm going to back off from this thread after this, but in the posts I just linked above, from the very beginning of McMansion Hell it does go into why people like them and consistently discusses the politics surrounding their popularity. In addition, Wagner repeatedly has stated that she's making up characters when she describes the interiors so as not to attack real people because she understands why people buy these. She’s laid out her issues with the McMansion as being about their poor craftsmanship, huge costs to maintain, their environmental effect, the isolating nature of 5000 square feet houses, and how folks duped into thinking the American Dream was owning one got fucked over because no now one is buying them.

I think there's a really great conversation to be had (and that you're brining up now, Frowner) about the classist way that we talk about people who buy McMansions but I also think that many of the criticisms being made by 99_ were not fair specifically to Kate Wagner. Wagner is young and imperfect, despite how much I've stuck up for her. But it does bother me, as someone who has read I think all of her posts, to see criticisms leveled at her contradicting what she's said herself.

At the same time, yes, I totally think there's valid criticism about making fun of the way these homes are decorated. These are million dollar homes (she posts the listing price, these are all homes for sale) and on the whole I think she sticks more closely to making jokes about rooms that are absurdly large, shoddy construction, and how quickly dated the homes look/how much they're stuck in time, but it can still feel mean-spirited or too focused on aesthetic choices.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 6:53 PM on January 23 [10 favorites]


Loy-yer Foy-yer.
posted by lhauser at 7:48 PM on January 23


I've seen the 101 post shared more than once and my response this time is no different to the previous times it's come round. I don't think her critiques which are either valid or useful (to be clear: I agree with her) get air if she doesn't gird them with lots of naked taste shaming. That's not her fault, but so I guess its incumbent on me to clarify: if you gleefully circulate her posts and most of your interest is the frission of laughing at someone else's taste, you are the problem, not her. Sure, there is a subset that does want to further a critique of housing density and accessibility and other issues, but those conversations are happening on their own (in the recent thread about SB50 we covered most of the issues she brings up), and I'm just frankly skeptical that people are reblogging her because those issues are their primary concern.

Think of the discourse around normies from a couple years ago. There is plenty of valid sociological/political critique running through it, but there was plenty of just enjoying running down young women wearing Uggs. And in that case, the target was honestly pretty squarely one that was deserving on many axes, but I'm assuming I don't need to detail why that wasn't exactly a Free Space of Shaming.

Home ownership is much muddier, especially when people aren't posting selfies in their living room. So often on Twitter or elsewhere I see people sharing listings that are OMG LOOKIE AT THIS TRASH and all I think is 'that looks exactly like a first generation wealth home of some Italian/Greek/Armenian, etc.' (I'd extend that circle but I'm not comfortable speaking outside my personal knowledge). If you feel like you have a better command of the social profile of random real estate listings, have at it. But I simply can't see any useful outcome in terms of changing the dynamics of how mass affluent housing is produced, to say nothing of the far more pernicious effects of housing scarcity. To say it another way: making fun of the taste of someone you don't know has no impact one way or another in whatever housing crisis you might be proximate to (and if you live in the US, I know you are proximate to a housing crisis).

tl;dr: her general critique isn't wrong and nothing in the specifics of her posts bother me, but the machinations of virality ultimately become your responsibility once the effects are evident, and she's allowed the glib taste shaming to expand exponentially and has to answer professionally for that.
posted by 99_ at 9:18 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]


I'm confused. I've not seen any McMansions with names, only actual mansions built of something more substantial than chip board and 2x4s. I thought Greystone Manor was a really neat place before it was turned into an "executive retreat," but I have a weird thing for 1960s architecture.

One of my SO's friends in high school lived in a Parkland McMansion, which despite being new build at the time in the 90s had a sunken living room. Come to think of it, so did my SO's parents' house, though it was not a McMansion in any sense except perhaps the assessed value during the worst of the real estate bubble. That's Florida for you, I guess.
posted by wierdo at 11:36 PM on January 23


I agree with some of her points and by and large enjoy reading the articles, but I agree that there is often a mean-spirited aspect in there as well. Also, while I understand and sometimes share the critiques of the poor architectural decisions (eg, a mishmash of window types, shapes, and sizes), at the same time some of those houses at least have visual character and uniqueness unlike the incredibly architecturally-bland housing developments that stretch for miles just north of where I am sitting. I have a soft spot for houses where someone tried hard and put in everything they thought would make it a great-looking house, even if it ends up a visual disaster -- I'll take individuality over bland every time.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:46 AM on January 24


As a trained architect who now teaches a workshop to design students on Identity, I think that while her mean spirited posts are fun, even her more analytic 101 posts revolve around a certain acquired sense of 'good taste' which is in itself classist, eurocentric, academicist, etc., and judges houses and the people who had them built based on abstract received 'design' principles that do not take into account the actual families, their background, their hopes and dreams, and just ridicules them for not conforming to white, rich, educated standard architecture.

She talks about people not respecting 'proper' proportions, massing, etc. Proper according to whom? The overall feel is of one of those shows where they make fun of the way people dress on a red carpet.

I have a serious issue with the idea of 'good' taste, especially when presented as somehow objective or unquestionable.

As a counterpoint, and a palate cleanser, please enjoy the architectural stylings of Freddy Mamani, the most tasteful architect this side of the Río Grande.
posted by signal at 5:14 AM on January 26 [3 favorites]


As a counterpoint, and a palate cleanser, please enjoy the architectural stylings of Freddy Mamani, the most tasteful architect this side of the Río Grande.

I'm not an architect at all but I did read her 101 series and Freddy Mamani's fucking amazing houses (I would love love love to live in one of those) actually follow most of her "good taste" guidance: the houses have balance, there is an easily identifiable primary and secondary mass, the windows match each other and the style of the portion of the house they're in, the roof lines may be complicated but you can see the purpose for the complication, no unnecessary gables, the front facades do not overpower the front door.

So yes, while her snark does come across as classist and etc., I think she is right in that there are certain things humans tend to find pleasing to look at: symmetry, balance, consistency. I think it's the same with fashion: yes there are ways to criticize that are classist and eurocentric, etc. but there are some guidelines that if they aren't followed tend to look bad on everyone (i.e. unbalanced proportions can make people look top/bottom-heavy, people in general tend to match colors, etc.)
posted by LizBoBiz at 12:19 AM on January 27 [2 favorites]


Wow, those Mamani houses are amazing - thank you so much for sharing.

But although the elitism & classism criticisms are completely correct, the McMansions made fun of are honestly the architectural equivalents of The Homer. Just way too much extraneous, pointless frippery going on, all competing for attention.

Sure, it's elitist to point out that a Porsche 356 is more pleasing to the eye than a Homer, but it also just happens to be true.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:01 AM on January 27


This is an interesting debate. The Danish architect, Poul Henningsen, once said that there is only one taste, and it is bad. But after WW2 his PH-5 lamp became the main signifier of good taste in Denmark.
Anyway, it's something I think a lot about at work, where I teach design and architectural history to engineering students. Engineering students are a lot more diverse than architecture students, and since my courses are of minor importance they are very open about their feelings about the content and my comments to their work. I feel I am getting sharper than I was at architecture school, where the students are very aware that their teachers have the power to fail them if they don't adhere to what they see as unwritten and unspoken rules. (It isn't quite true. It's just that it is really hard to get the timing right when you introduce the different aspects of architectural quality).
At this point in life, I am pretty certain that there is a systematic way to determine wether something is good or bad design that goes beyond identity and culture. I acknowledge this is hard to do, but on the other hand, some of us do it all the time because it's our job. We may do it badly because we are blind to our own prejudice, but it's done and it works.

First of all, the most important thing is that a building is consistent within its own rules. That is the most important, but also the hardest part to do well. If you are raised in a culture that very narrowly defines this as good taste, you may find it impossible to see the method in this madness. In my opinion, students (or interested lay-people) have to be exposed to a multitude of works that are successful within their own premises and to analyze the buildings in order to find those different premises (or be guided through an analysis by a person who is good at explaining it). But that has to be an iterative process, over a long time. What you can understand when you are 18 and can't read a drawing is different from what an interested middle-aged client can understand, and again different from what a true master architect can understand. It's far easier to just learn one or two "styles" with rule-books. And a lot of design programs stop at that. Or they have an old history professor like me, who is forced to get them through the entire world history of architecture in 2 X 12 lessons over two years. The architecture school I was at before has even less architectural analysis than we do. Their two styles were "classical" (European architecture before 1920) and "modern" (European and American architecture after 1920), don't ask.

It's important to see and analyze existing architecture as it enables you to see and analyze your own work. But again, it's hard to analyse when the basic premises are shifting all the time. What McMansion Hell is doing is a very snarky version of a classic Vitruvian approach to architectural criticism. In my opinion, that is a fine basic approach, and Vitruvius was a bit snarky too. She is looking for a harmony of firmitas, utilitas, and venustas, or structure, function and beauty, and you can get far with those. They are good. But then something like this turns up, and all your arguments fade away. I'm using it as an example because it is a canonical work of Western Architecture. And it is useless and unsuited to its context and literally blew away the year I went to see it, so it isn't structurally sound, either. But it is amazing. It does have a perfect order and beautiful proportions, though someone in 1850 wouldn't have been able to see that, because we are conditioned by all our esthetic impressions to appreciate things, all the time. We had to have modern art, and the Chicago School of architecture and jazz music before we could have the Farnsworth House.

Look at other cultures with other perceptions of planning and building, and you will have entirely different premises and values. But if you take the time to understand them, they too have an inner logic, and can be more or less perfect within that logic. In a classical Western understanding of architecture, this is just a very weird building. But it is weird and wonderful, and I hope to one day understand its logic. You can clearly sense it is there, even if you don't know its detailed workings. And it is obviously the ancestor of those Persian Palaces mentioned above.

It's interesting to me that, as I read her, the author is very preoccupied with order, though I haven't see her really explicate it. I haven't read all the posts in the blog, though. Order is a wonderful thing that is able to create complex spatial systems, and it is also hard. You can say order is a method, because it is the logic that combines the whole with its parts, geometry with matter and if its good, the structure with its context. And a lot more. It's a building making machine, which is why Vitruvius was so into orders. But even he understood that orders are manifold, that is why he has four instead of one. And not one of his examples of orders has been found in the wild, they were examples, not rules. Order is an aspect of architectural design that is strongly threatened by digitalization, because it seems that you can do almost everything. And in a way you can, I mean we have space shuttles and absurdly tall buildings, and restaurants in the sea. But the lack of order in the McMansions is just wasteful, you could easily make more impressive spaces with less chaos. On the other hand, McMansions aren't the only wasteful structures that serve no meaningful purpose. Some are even designed by famous architects.
posted by mumimor at 8:19 AM on January 27 [6 favorites]


In a classical Western understanding of architecture, this is just a very weird building. But it is weird and wonderful, and I hope to one day understand its logic. You can clearly sense it is there, even if you don't know its detailed workings.

Of course, you probably know it's where the Persian kings used to sit, overlooking the square in Esfahan, including any military parades, public or ceremonial events there, vaguely like the Soviet leaders overlooking May Day at Red Square.

And the square is massive, the "centre of the world", with one of the grandest mosques ever built dominating one end, and a couple of other not-too-shabby smaller mosques to boot along its perimeter.

There's a definite symbolic logic there, that it's the royalty trying to command some kind of attention & presence in that vast, grand space that no person could ever hope to dominate on their own. So that upper pavilion is almost a Trumpesque "look at me, I'm the big thing on show here" piece of vainglory.

So there's that aspect, although it doesn't explain why the symmetry of the building looks so right and so wrong at the same time, but it's definitely to draw attention to the glory of the rulers.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:26 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]


(off topic but Trump even making a threat to bomb these places...fuck that McMansion guy. The Shah mosque in particular brings tears to your eyes, it's so incredibly beautiful & awe-inspiring, perfect from the broadest macro level to the finest detail)
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:31 PM on January 27 [2 favorites]


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