Make McMansion's people happier 1
American monster villas: "It was like an arms race"
They are way too big. They mix architectural styles until there is no stopping them. They let roof shapes and windows collide until the geometry surrenders. They don't care about proportion and symmetry. You have eight bedrooms, four bathrooms and a home theater. They are very, very beige. They are McMansions - the giant American mansions that began to expand in the 1990s.
Kate Wagner has been selecting the most grotesque among them in her blog McMansion Hell since 2016 and comments on them, very funny, but also serious. Because it also explains the architectural rules that are violated here in rows. Her blog became so successful that the 27-year-old is now a full-time architecture critic. She explains to STANDARD what McMansions have to do with the American soul and what a "lawyer lounge" is.
DEFAULT: Where did the term McMansion come from and what is your definition of it?
Kate Wagner: Many think I invented it, but that's not true! He was born in the same year as me, 1993. Back then, it was a derogatory term for houses that were big and flashy but cheaply built. For me, a McMansion is a house that brings together as many symbols of wealth as possible under one roof. Gigantic foyers, home cinema, house bar. The combination of these symbols is not always successful, and that results in these collage-like inflated structures designed from the inside out. It's a cultural rather than an architectural term. And this piling up of everything, be it land, wealth, space or things, is very American.
DEFAULT: Is this piling up and showing off something typically nouveau riche? Are McMansions the single-family version of Donald Trump?
Wagner: As early as the 19th century, the nouveau riche preferred houses that the elite looked down on with disdain. McMansions are no exception. The difference is that there is no difference between the upper class and the petty bourgeoisie in the US as there is in Europe. The billionaires here also live in McMansions, only in bigger ones.
DEFAULT: When you look at the interiors, one wonders where on earth the residents get these ideas from. From television, from magazines, from influencers?
Wagner: At the height of the McMansions, in the 1990s and early 2000s, the cultural consumption of home furnishings changed. Back then, a new trend emerged with HGTV that turned home ownership into addicting entertainment. It was like an arms race: if your home is to be considered a luxury, you have to own these and that things. It showed what Americans understand as "the good life": owning a lot of stuff.
DEFAULT: Does that mean the heyday of the McMansions is over?
Wagner: Back then, people planned and bought houses as liquid capital, things that could be consumed, sold, and resold. Since the financial crisis it has been about rebuilding, i.e. consuming the same thing over and over again. A permanent transformation that is magically intended to make life better, when the truth is, renovating is a dirty and stressful thing. The media has adapted, HGTV keeps showing women pounding walls with sledgehammers, and do you know why? Because men like to watch. The more walls are demolished by women, the higher the audience ratings. And that's why open floor plans are so popular in the U.S. today.
DEFAULT: The photos of the houses show a wild mix of styles from French chateaus to Tudor half-timbered houses. Do the owners want to express something with their choice, or is it just off-the-peg decor?
Wagner: This mix of styles has existed since we began mass producing architectural details, i.e. since the 19th century. This meant that you could afford components and ornaments that used to take decades to produce. In the 1920s, there was already a Tudor fashion in the USA, while churches and universities turned to Gothic. That's why many, including myself, refer to the McMansions as neo-eclecticism. Houses from the catalog.
DEFAULT: You have dedicated a post to almost every US state on McMansion Hell. Are the styles evenly distributed across the country, or are there regional differences?
Wagner: There are differences. In the southwest, the Mediterranean dominates, in the southern states Southern Colonial and Greek Revival, often with mighty pillars. In the Northeast, they pretend to be "European", and in the Rocky Mountains they have log cabin McMansions. But besides that there are still very many that don't really make sense anywhere.
DEFAULT: The interiors are fascinating, and they are often so absurdly large that they fill their space with additional furniture that nobody needs so that it doesn't look empty.
Wagner: What struck me again and again is the enormous distance between parents and children. When I was 12, I visited a friend whose family lived in a McMansion. Whenever she wanted something from her mother, she called her on the phone. In the same house! All family members were what felt like miles apart. There were rooms that no one used, just stuck around with stuff. The house was filled with things but felt empty and sad. It was a very unhappy family too. While we lived in a house with three rooms and were happy because we were physically close.
DEFAULT: Because being close leads you to develop social skills?
Wagner: And that is also vital! When people who grew up in McMansions go to college, they are completely overwhelmed because life there is very communal, but McMansions always want to create the greatest possible distance from other people. Hence the house bars and home cinemas, with which a kind of social, urban life is simulated. Going to a bar or the cinema is a very social experience, I find it very strange to recreate something like that in your own four walls.
DEFAULT: They are like stages on which you portray an ideal life.
Wagner: And that's narcissistic and childish, like role-playing games in kindergarten. You play Scarlett O’Hara when you unlock the door to the two-story foyer under the archway. It's very American to play versions of yourself that are different from the version you are at home. But in the McMansions you are always an actor at home. Psychologically questionable.
DEFAULT: Speaking of the foyer: A recurring feature on McMansion Hell is the "lawyer foyer". What is it exactly?
Wagner: This term has its model in the "L.A. Door", which the architecture theorist Charles Jencks described in 1978 in his book "Daydream Houses of Los Angeles". A very tall door with a window above it and a chandelier behind it. I called it the "Lawyer Foyer", partly because top-class lawyers are typical McMansions residents, and partly because the foyers of their law firms often look the same. The lawyer's foyer symbolizes power and authority, and as a visitor you feel small. Besides, "Lawyer foyer" is just a pretty rhyme.
DEFAULT: So is the main purpose of these houses to show wealth to the outside world and impress the neighbors?
Wagner: Yes, but that's something very human that shouldn't be dismissed. Everyone wants to look good on the outside. When I zoom in, I of course also sit in front of the bookshelf, and anyone who sees himself as a design expert needs an apartment that is suitable for Instagram today. The only thing about the McMansions is that they came into being in a very dark cultural period.
DEFAULT: What was your first experience with McMansions? Is there a founding myth?
Wagner: I used to be the first on the school bus and sat in the back of the single seat because I wanted to be alone. I looked out the window and listened to CDs - back then you still had CD players - and these houses passed by outside. I grew up in North Carolina, an area full of golf courses and some kind of special affluent summer house architecture around it since the 19th century. In the last 20 years this trend has increased dramatically, and the forests behind our house have been eaten away by these huge houses. As a teenager, it made me very bitter, as is common with teenagers when you think that there is no justice in the world. I didn't have the idea for the blog until much later, when I was 22. A long time ago!
DEFAULT: The blog started out as a private joke, but then came the moment when your subscriber numbers skyrocketed overnight.
Wagner: Yeah, I "went viral" as they say, that was very surreal. Something like that just happens to you, I still don't know how. Insurance companies call this a "natural event". I lived in a shared apartment, composed strange organ music at night and studied acoustics during the day. The blog was just a fun way to pass time between friends, but after it went viral I became a full-time writer.
DEFAULT: Part of the success was certainly due to the fact that there had hardly been any blogs with this kind of architectural criticism before.
Wagner: I grew up with the internet. I was very fascinated by web comics, which were so popular around 2005, and which combined texts with images. Some were just funny, others literary or weird. It was a real millennial thing! McMansion Hell is basically more of a web comic than a blog. It's cultural criticism of America and brings some humor into architecture and makes it more tangible. Still, it would never have worked so well if the houses themselves weren't so fun and ridiculous.
DEFAULT: In addition to the presentation of absurd houses, McMansion Hell also seriously deals with architectural rules and explains symmetry, column arrangements and dormers. Was this educational assignment planned from the start?
Wagner: I do this out of a kind of sense of duty. While making fun of these houses, I also have a responsibility to improve the public's basic architectural knowledge. A second reason is simply that the jokes on the site work better that way. You can't make a joke about dormers if nobody knows what a dormer is.
DEFAULT: Now many would say not to make fun of people if they want to live like that. Do you think the residents really want these houses?
Wagner: In a way, yes. I also love the black marble countertop in my kitchen, because black marble is generally considered to be attractive in the kitchen. I often wonder what I would do if I had that kind of money to buy a McMansion. I would probably live in an architecturally significant apartment with designer furniture. That doesn't automatically make me better than someone who puts a house bar in the basement. They are just different symbols of taste. The only question is whether we should critically question our tastes every now and then, and that is exactly what McMansion Hell does.
DEFAULT: That makes McMansion Hell a good argument against the claim that taste is beyond arguing, as if taste is something you're born with that never changes.
Wagner: The question of whether there is objective good taste has preoccupied philosophers since the time of Plato. And there are arguments that all taste is good taste and you shouldn't criticize people for what they like because otherwise they will be hurt. I think that's stupid and childish. Many think that criticism is the opposite of appreciation, but criticism always has to do with liking something. It is appreciation plus criticism plus judgment. Criticism is essential to a society because it helps us see the big picture. Good review does not draw arbitrary limits on taste, but is inclusive. And that's why McMansions are fascinating. I wouldn't bother with McMansions if I didn't like them a little too! (Maik Novotny, March 14th, 2021)
Kate Wagner, born 1993 in Pinehurst, North Carolina, studied violin at the conservatory and graduated with a degree in acoustics. In 2016 she started "McMansion Hell", today she writes about architecture for "New Republic" and other media.
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