As published in Hyperallergic on May 2, 2017
If the current leader of the free world is, as Fran Lebowitz described him in an interview with Vanity Fair last October, “a poor person’s idea of a rich person,” then the houses Kate Wagner dissects in her blog McMansion Hell are a particular sort of middle-class person’s idea of great estates. There are turrets, balconies, grand foyers, wrought iron that isn’t actually wrought, crystal chandeliers that are probably made of glass, and spiral staircases galore. But inside and out, these houses look more like architectural Mad Libs than the products of a well-thought-through, cohesive design.
McMansion Hell is like a snarky DSM-IV for all that ails contemporary over-building in suburban developments, with a particular focus on the visual language of the odd houses it profiles. Though a quick read can give the impression that the blog is about taste in a general sense, Wagner is at heart an architectural grammar scold: She hates ugly chandeliers, but what really fuels the ire of McMansion Hell is the misuse and decontextualization of elements that are supposed to carry architectural meaning. It’s the flagrant disregard for these visual and structural relationships — like, say, the cavalier application of scotch tape to the back of an overly-long necktie — that drives Wagner to share her personal hell with the internet. Her individually annotated photos, drawn mostly from real estate listings, and her amusingly Tumblr-esque article subheadings (to wit: “What Even Is Architectural Theory”) make it an addictive read.
Wagner is a graduate student in acoustics as part of a joint program between Johns Hopkins University and Peabody Conservatory, with prior experience working as a sound engineer. She started McMansion Hell in July 2016 in an effort to elucidate precisely what it is that makes McMansions distinct as a typology (something architects love) and to make readers understand where the critique comes from, both culturally and economically. In this, Wagner is a bit like a modern-day design reformer. Advocates of the Design Reform movement, which emerged from a rapidly industrializing Victorian Britain with Prince Albert as its royal mascot, argued that taste was something one could identify and describe almost scientifically, rather than something derived from the vagaries of personal preference. Things like wallpaper and carpeting that tried too hard to effect three-dimensionality, cheap or ersatz materials imitating good or genuine ones, wacky proportions, and the use of ornamentation to gaudy excess all offended the reformers, who preferred elegant, semi-abstract iterations of natural forms. Their rallying cry to craftsmen and consumers everywhere was “truth to materials.” In his 1868 book Hints on Household Taste, architect and designer Charles Eastlake wrote: “The quasi-fidelity with which the forms of a rose, or a bunch of ribbons, or a ruined castle, can be reproduced on carpets, crockery and wallpapers will always possess a certain kind of charm for the uneducated eye.”
Eastlake, like many in his cohort, was a snob. And Wagner takes pains to distinguish her project from the Design Reform movement in both spirit and tone. If there’s any snobbery to McMansion Hell, it’s not born of wealth inequality, but of the gulf that divides those who acknowledge and adhere to architectural norms and those who do not. Wagner has no interest in denigrating the struggling or the working poor: “It’s unproductive to be condescending to working-class people who can’t afford hand-milled furniture or don’t want to live in machines because they work in machines,” she tells Hyperallergic. “Class politics are at the center of MMH. The irony of today is that the wealthy can’t say, ‘poor dears, they don’t know any better,’ because the wealthy certainly don’t know any better, as proven by McMansions all over the world.” It’s not just any wealthy homeowners that attract the attention of MMH, but the population that Wagner characterizes as “the white-collar working class.” Bluebloods are apt to prefer historic houses filled with well-chosen folk art and heirlooms, or a solidly built fixer-upper with good bones if their money is thin. A McMansion would be anathema to them at any price.
“The great irony of McMansions is it’s all about using architectural symbolism and class symbolism but expressing it in the least expensive way possible,” Wagner says. “Take the tall entryway — the ‘lawyer foyer.’ This is a design trope borrowed from institutions of power, especially banks, but it’s expressed with foam columns and cheap veneer.” In addition to borrowing the visual language of powerful entities by using Palladian windows, columns, and broken pediments with nutty abandon, McMansions also fake it where craftsmanship is concerned. Wagner points to stone-carving as an example that stretches back millennia. The labor required to shape limestone — which, on its own, isn’t especially costly — doesn’t come cheap. Its use in Beaux-Arts buildings, for instance, signified wealth because of the implied skill on display rather than the preciousness of a particular material. Faking it by using marble veneer is peak philistinism.
Which leads to the essential unanswered question about McMansions: Are they folk architecture, like the house equivalents of naïve paintings? Wagner believes they are not. Their origins can be traced to the housing bubble and the proliferation of DIY programs like HGTV’s House Flippers, and McMansions differ from older versions of suburban tract housing such as Levittowns and Sears Catalog Homes because, in those cases, houses came in one of just a few styles, with relatively few options for customization. McMansions are like tract houses on steroids, inflated beyond reason in the pursuit of square footage, bedecked with cheaply made surface decorations and unschooled architectural flourishes designed to evoke refinement. In an interview with the design podcast 99% Invisible, Wagner noted that McMansions were “too ostentatious to be considered folk architecture,” which means that they aren’t vernacular, nor are they part of the architectural firmament in any real sense. Less critical observers might consign them to purgatory; Wagner and her readership have another idea about where McMansions can go.