They are large, much too large. Their mix of architectural styles knows no limit. Different roofs and windows clash until geometry collapses. They don‘t care about proportion or symmetry. They have eight bedrooms, four bathrooms, a movie theater and a basement bar. They are very, very beige. They are McMansions, the U.S. mega-houses which spread from the 1990’s onwards.
Since 2016, Kate Wagner has collected the most grotesque among them in her blog McMansionHell, adorned with sarcastic comments, but also expanded with serious analysis. Her blog was so successful that she is now, at 27, a full-time architecture critic.
(C) Kate Wagner / mcmansionhell.com
When was the term McMansion invented, and what is your definition of a McMansion?
People think I invented it, but that’s not true! It was invented the year I came into the world, which was 1993. It was a term used pejoratively to describe houses that were big and ostentatious, but built cheaply, with mass manufactured and cookie-cutter materials. For me, the mission of a McMansion is to collect as many signifiers of wealth as is possible under one roof – the huge foyer, the chandelier, the movie theater room, the home bar. The integration of these signifiers is not entirely architecturally successful and manifests itself in these collage-like inflated buildings that are essentially designed from the inside out. These criteria describe not so much an architectural style but more a process of events and decisions that results in architecture. It’s more a cultural term than an architectural style. The accumulation of everything – land, wealth, space, stuff – is a very American phenomenon.
Most of these mansions are simply “too much” in one way or another (too many styles, too many different windows, arches, garage doors). Is that Trumpesque tastelessness, a symptom of nouveau-riche social mobility signifying “wealth”, or both, or something else entirely?
The nouveau-riche have always designed houses that the elite don’t like. The McMansion is no exception. The difference in America is that the billionaires also build McMansions, they’re just much bigger. Its less a division between big and small bourgeoisie like in Europe, and more of an American phenomenon, which is about how we consume media about houses and homes.
Speaking of consumerism: Where do these people get their interior decoration and furniture ideas from? TV shows, magazines, websites, influencers?
When the McMansion was in its heyday, in the 1990s and early 2000s, culturally, we started consuming home improvement media differently, with the rise of HGTV. HGTV gamified real estate in a very addictive way. It was like an arms race of real estate: you have to have these things in order for your house to be seen as “luxury” and legitimate. It was a cultural and economic phenomenon spurred by changes in financial regulations. It touches so much of that American sense of what it means to “live a good life”, which is to have a lot of stuff. McMansion Hell aims to interrogate some of those ideals or at least to poke fun at them, because they are kind of ridiculous.
So, the heyday of McMansions is already over?
Back in the heyday, people designed and bought houses with the idea of the house as a liquid asset. As something that can be consumed and sold and consumed again. Now post-recession, it’s about reconstruction, renovation, consuming the same thing over and over again. Constant renovation as a transformative act that makes life better. This dream that some beautiful people from HGTV come in and make our lives more glamorous. In reality, renovation is messy and stressful. It’s a huge industry, it makes a lot of money, and it’s incredibly wasteful. A HGTV exec said that the reason why there are so many women with sledgehammers in these shows knocking down walls is because statistically speaking male viewers like that content, so the more walls you knock down, the more viewers you have. And that is why the open plan concept is so popular!
To what degree are McMansions informed by the need to show off their wealth to the neighbors?
They are, but this is a very human thing, and it’s not entirely fair to disparage it. Everyone feels that pressure. When we talk on Zoom, we try to position us in the best parts of our house. When I give lectures, I will have my bookshelf behind me. You feel the pressure as a design critic to have a house that’s Instagram worthy. The thing with McMansions is that this desire is tied up with a dark cultural period.
The houses present a wild and eclectic mix of styles, from English Tudor to French Castles. Which ones are the most popular, and why? Do people want to express something specific with their choice of style, or is it just a random choice?
This mixing of styles is not a new thing. As soon as we were able to mass produce architectural details, in the 19th century, developers and architects started to do this eclectic mash-ups of styles. It was possible to afford detailing which used to take decades to make centuries ago. In the 1920s, Tudor was a fad in America, while churches and universities were going neo-gothic. It is very much the same today. This is why many people, including me, call it neo-eclecticism. You can pick a house from the catalogue. Architecture is no longer dependent on the local climate or current trends.
Are there different styles or clusters of McMansions in the US, or are they evenly distributed nationwide?
There are regional trends. In the South West, there is a lot of Mediterranean styling and stucco, whereas in the South, McMansions tend to Southern Colonial and Greek Revival with massive columns. In the North East they do Tudor or New England colonial. In Montana and Colorado, you have the Log Cabin McMansion. But there are still a lot of McMansions that don’t make any sense wherever.
The McMansions on your blog are also fascinating in their interiors because of this absurd amount of space and the speculation of what the residents do with this excess space - which is often to put an extra set of furniture in, just to fill it.
The thing that struck me most about McMansion floor plans, is that there is always so much square footage between parents and children. When I was 12, our girl scout group leader was a psychologist and very rich, and she lived in a McMansion. I remember her daughter called her mother from the bedroom by phone to ask if dinner was ready. There were rooms in their house that nobody ever used. There were two sun rooms with just random stuff in them. Despite all these so-called common spaces, you were just so separated from everything. Despite all this expensive stuff, the whole house just felt empty and sad. And it was a very unhappy family. Having all this stuff didn’t make it any better for them. Meanwhile, my parents just had a 3-bedroom house, and we were a happier family, because we had to be in proximity to one another. If someone was watching a movie with surround sound, all the others heard the walls rattling. When someone was cooking, you smelled and heard it.
Proximity makes you develop social skills, and not remain a narcissistic baby forever.
Being able to live among other people is a very necessary thing to do. When people who grew up in McMansions come to college, they are completely unprepared, because college life is very communal. So much of McMansions is just about isolation, about getting as far away from people as possible. And it reflects a very isolationist world view. It’s insane to have a fully stacked home bar in the basement or have a movie theater in the house. It’s like you’re recreating these social scenes from urban life where you got out and be with other people, but for your own enjoyment. Going to a movie or a bar are deeply social experiences, and to isolate them in a house is quite strange.
You could say these people construct stages and sets on which they act and perform all the time.
And it’s really quite childish and narcissistic. You are playing pretend like a child. You pretend by having a 2-story entryway you are doing a Gone-with-the-Wind-esque entry. It tracks with American culture which is very performative. Presenting versions of yourself that are different from intimate life. But in McMansions you bring these performances into your home. Psychologically I find it quite strange, this need to reenact.
A recurring feature on McMansion Hell is the “lawyer foyer”. What exactly is it?
The lawyer foyer is a term I invented, and it originates from Charles Jencks’ 1978 book Daydream Houses of Los Angeles, which was the ur-precedent for McMansion Hell. And there was this configuration on many houses where you had an extremely tall door and a transom window, and a chandelier hanging in front of the transom. Jencks called it the “L.A. Door”. He was the first one to attribute that configuration to some criticism. I named it “lawyer foyer” because high-level lawyers represent the sort people who own McMansions, and because it reminded me of the foyers of law firms, which are either super slick and modern or traditionalist with chandeliers. The lawyer foyer symbolizes power and authority. It makes you feel small as a guest. And of course, it’s a nice rhyme!
(C) Kate Wagner / mcmansionhell.com
What was the origin myth of McMansion Hell?
I actually rode the school bus for one year in the morning and I was the first one on the bus. There was always a single seat at the back and I always sat on that one because I never wanted anyone to sit next to me. And I would look out the window at houses and zone out and listen to my CD player. I grew up on the periphery of Pinehurst, NC, which is interesting in terms of architecture because it’s basically the Frank Lloyd Wright -Taliesin of golf course architecture. This kind of resort architecture that forms around them, which goes back to the 19th century, when it was a resort town. Development has been pretty much rapacious and uncontrolled in the last 20 years. Seeing the woods behind our house eviscerated and being replaced with quite terrible McMansions made me quite bitter as a teenager in this teenager-y way, when you feel that nothing in the world is fair. McMansion Hell proper started much later, between college and grad school, when I was about 22-23. So, it’s been a while!
The blog started small but then, there was one post which just went through the roof and you suddenly had thousands of followers.
It was really surreal. Going viral is what happens to you. It’s something that insurance companies call an “act of god”. You never know when or know it happens and I still don’t know how it happened. I was just living in an old warehouse, making weird organ music at night, and studying architectural acoustics in the day. I made the blog as a joke between me and some friends and I never thought anyone would look at it. After my blog went viral, I started writing full time. I’ve had a varied life!
But why is it so popular? And what gave you the idea to use this specific blog format for architecture criticism?
I think McMansion Hell owes a lot to previous internet projects. I grew up with internet culture, and I was exposed to web comics which were very big like 15 years ago, in the mid 2000s. Some of them were influential on me, like Hyperbole and a Half, which combined narrative text with comic books images. And another one called A Softer World, a hippie project with over-burned polaroid photos with typewriter text, and they were always pretty dark. There was a lot of weird stuff back in the day, when the internet was a space where you could have individual projects that would take off in different ways. It was a very millennial thing. McMansion Hell, because of how image-driven it is, is more like a web comic than a blog, and it is surprising that it was so successful. It’s cultural criticism about America basically, in a way that brings a bit of humor into architecture and makes it more approachable. But also, I think the houses are inherently funny. When you look at them, they are quite ridiculous. It wouldn’t be as funny if the houses weren’t like that.
McMansion Hell mixes the fun presentation of absurd houses with serious analysis and long blog posts dedicated to dormers, columns or symmetry. Did that educational aspect come along later or was it always the intention?
When I did these series about basic architectural concepts, it was because I felt it was my duty. As I was making fun of these houses, I had a responsibility to increase the architectural literacy of the general public. I also wanted more people to know about this. But I also did it simply so the jokes would land. You can’t make a joke about dormers if no-one knows what a dormer is.
Many people would probably say: “But these houses are what people want, we should not criticize them for it”. But do these houses really reflect what their owners want? Do you they really enjoy living there?
In some ways they do, as we all do. I am hyper-aware of this myself. I also like the black marble countertops in my kitchen, because they are currently considered attractive, and I do take Instagram pictures of my home and feel good about myself. That’s extremely normal. I often ask myself, what would I do if I had McMansion levels of wealth, and my answer is: I would probably go live in Europe. If I was staying in the US, I would have an apartment in an architecturally significant building, all my furniture would be nice and sculptural. And I’m not saying that’s better than someone else spending their money on a basement bar. There are different signifiers of taste. We all have private desires, and social media drives us to make these desires public. The thing is, most people don’t like to interrogate their desires. That’s what McMansion Hell does: Taking things and interrogating them.
The term of “taste” is interesting, because McMansion Hell is a good counter-argument to the usual “you can’t argue about taste”. Taste is not something you are born with, you have to work on it, and it changes all the time. And also, architects mostly don’t want to touch “taste” and “style” with a 10-ft pole, because they feel this is below them.
This is a debate that philosophers have had forever. We like to believe there is an objective good taste. But these are consensus agreements. And the alternative arguments “all taste is good taste” and “don’t criticize people for what they like because it hurts them” are is extremely childish and stupid to me. Criticism is a part of liking things. People always think that criticism is the opposite of appreciation, when it is really analysis mixed with appreciation mixed with judgement. I think it’s very unhealthy to hold views of things that are so precious that we can’t take criticism of them. Being able to criticize things is essential for a relationship with media and with each other. Seeing the big picture increases the appreciation of things. Good criticism invites people in instead of setting arbitrary limits of taste. This is why McMansions are fascinating. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t like them a little bit.
(published in German in Der Standard, 13/14 March, 2021)