99% Invisible: 232- McMansion Hell
October 19, 2016 11:55 AM - Subscribe

Few forms of contemporary architecture draw as much criticism as the McMansion, a particular type of oversized house that people love to hate. McMansions usually feature 3,000 or more square feet of space and fail to embody a cohesive style or interact with their environment. Kate Wagner, architecture critic and creator of McMansion Hell, is on a mission to illustrate just why these buildings are so terrible.
posted by mama casserole (7 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
So, I deliberately posted and waited because my opinion of this episode was overwhelmingly negative and I didn't want to poison the well right away. But here goes...

This is the first podcast episode where, when it was over, I said "I want my 15 minutes back." I found it almost completely void of substance. The first half-plus was nothing more than "This thing you already know about is bad because I don't like it." Citation: some person who runs a website railing against the thing. Zero attempt to offer any other voice or viewpoint on the houses, why they exist, why they may be good or bad beyond the fact that they incorporate clashing architectural features.

And it didn't really say anything that hasn't already been said a thousand times before on the subject. I thought the point about houses being built for the lowest common denominator rather than to the preferences of the owner was interesting, and that should have been the focus on the episode, but it was just a fleeting mention. Maybe people who didn't know what they are got something out of it? Are there people among 99% Invisible's audience who don't know about (and probably deride) McMansions? The whole thing felt very cliquish and point-and-laugh.
posted by mama casserole at 6:15 AM on October 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

It was definitely not one of the strongest episodes, but I still felt like I learned a bit about the particulars of what makes a McMansion extra awful. Next time I see one I'll have a more concrete idea about _why_ it's ugly.
posted by borsboom at 10:01 AM on October 20, 2016

I haven't listened to this episode yet, but I wanted to point out that this FPP from the summer is some interesting reading (both the links and the comments).

I'm another one who never really instinctively "got" why McMansions were inherently ugly. I understood why shoddy construction/cheap materials made for bad houses, and blocks upon blocks of giant lot-filling houses don't make for the nicest-feeling neighborhoods. But, subjectively, the aesthetics of the individual houses don't necessarily strike me (as someone with zero design sense) as all that bad, so the "McMansions 101" link on the FPP was helpful for and overview of what is objectively "wrong" (according to some people) with them.
posted by sparklemotion at 7:30 AM on October 21, 2016

"I want my 15 minutes back."

My response, too. I fully expected that the interview with Kate Wagner would segue into a thoughtful, interesting discussion about the history of architectural styles in America and their relationship to housing, but... nope. That's exactly what they didn't do. It was a surprisingly thin episode for a show that usually has so much more to say.
posted by the return of the thin white sock at 11:17 AM on October 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yeah it was...underwhelming. I have enjoyed reading McMansion Hell and I think that the author is quite knowledgeable on the subject, but the episode didn't get into anything deeper than that. I didn't hate it quite as much as the rest of you, but definitely not my favorite.
posted by radioamy at 1:20 PM on October 21, 2016

I was also pretty disappointed with the episode.

First of all, letting the guest get away with the statement that something is "too ostentatious to be considered folk art" without any sort of push back made it hard to take the rest of the show seriously. Second, the detailed criticism seems incoherent. Is the problem with McMansions that they've been customized by individual homeowners and fail to present a coherent architectural style, or is the problem that they're built solely for resale and are homogeneous in design and construction? Both may be true, but if so there's a lot of subtlety there to unpack. By failing to even attempt to do so, the speakers make it pretty clear that their real critique is "I don't like it." Which is a fine critique, but hardly a defense of design.

If anything, McMansions seem like a perfect example of careful design based upon terrible premises. If your goals are to (1) maximize resale value in a formulaic and perverse real estate market, (2) create as much interior space as possible since nothing of value exists in your neighborhood except for private homes, and (3) cater to the whims of the individual homeowner, then the McMansion is the ideal solution. Sure, they look silly from the outside and offend people who think carefully about architecture, but that's okay - they're not meant to be viewed from the outside, and they're not designed to appeal to architects. Instead they do a pretty good job of doing what they were designed to do. As a rational design adaption to a bleak world that rewards people for grossly inefficient housing and soul-crushing commutes they're pretty great.

And it's not like world class architects working on hundred-million dollar buildings aren't just as liable to put nonsense columns on everything within sight. Just picking on the ones that are visually unbalanced doesn't go nearly far enough.
posted by eotvos at 12:04 PM on October 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

Agree with the consensus here . . . I was amazed they didn't go anywhere except hyperjudgmental.

Contrast this one with the one that covered lawns, where you got a lot of history (which included aspiring to an estate that you couldn't afford to reproduce full scale, so very similar to McMansions.) Interesting but it also circled back on itself and point out that the rising anti-lawn sentiment was also about telling your neighbor They Are Doing It Wrong.

This sort of thing always seems to walk the edge of criticizing people for not being rich enough. It's faux-populist but also know-your-place, as if you don't have enough money to custom build the whole house you should be happy with what you get. A few times there were convincing cases made that things were gratuitously ugly but usually not.

Like the roof complaints--wanting extra storage space is practical and the non-functional internal stuff like high ceilings doesn't seem that bad. You spend 90% of the time inside your house, not outside, so it makes sense to compromise by sacrificing the outside for an inside you like. Even the mockery of columns felt off--there's a ton of stylistic flourishes descended from functional items.
posted by mark k at 9:56 PM on October 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

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