McMansions: A look at some of America's ugliest homes
When someone says "McMansions" to you, what do you imagine? Probably a house made of fried food, right? Well you're not far wrong. But when we think about design, we often neglect to think about architecture, because most of us are largely unaware of what an ugly building looks like. When it comes to fashion, or music, or any number of other aesthetic principles, people can be extraordinarily discerning about their personal tastes. Just think about shoes like Crocs or Ugg boots if you want an example. In the fashion world, these two brands have become the butt of many a cruel joke.
Yet when someone builds an ugly house? Nothing. Nada. Not so much as a peep from Mr and Mrs General public. It's a double standard that's largely down to ignorance. Oh sure, maybe we all give a cheer when a particularly miserable-looking tower block or brutalist shopping centre is forcefully demolished, but by and large, as long as the domicile boasts four walls and a roof, the vast majority of folks who aren't realtors or architects themselves barely seem to notice.
But for those people who do take an active interest: the knowledgeable silent minority, the mistakes made by people who build homes the same way a toddler might construct a clay model are obvious and deeply repugnant. What's worse is that the collapse of the housing market in 2008 has done nothing to stall the seemingly-inexorable rise of low-quality homes, hastily constructed using a clashing medley of materials. If anything, the real-estate crisis has only served to exacerbate the problem. The US now faces a veritable plague of McMansions.
I know you're probably thinking "what the hell is a McMansion?" But believe me, it's got nothing to do with fast food. A McMansion is the architectural equivalent of a mongrel dog boasting all the worst traits of every breed. But what makes them so contemptible to designers is that they try to pass themselves off as being opulent, even though it's plain to see that (although vast in size) they're generic, mass-produced, and invariably gauche.
Estate agents make a brave attempt to disguise these spurious properties through euphemism and innuendo, using terms like "tract mansion" or "executive home". Anyone with a basic understanding of architectural fundamentals refers to these buildings as "Persian palaces", "garage Mahals" or "Hummer houses."
McMansions first started cropping up in California; typically in large, gated suburbs catering to the upper-middle classes, usually on disused lots near a waterfront or golf course. The design is faux-modernist; they superficially resemble Old Worlde mansions and country houses; of a kind built with solid oak timbers and ivy growing up the walls. These homes, by contrast, have all the surface details right, but none of the fundamentals, and come across more like poor facsimiles of the real deal.
But what is it about these houses that makes them such a massive eyesore? As Los Angeles Times writer Greg Goldin once described, "A complete Persian Palace - there are many minor variations and lesser imitations - is distinguished by its exaggerated mouldings, numberless layers of cornices, elaborate grillework and columns galore. A Persian Palace brazenly combines motifs and wantonly disregards proportion and scale."
McMansions are seemingly designed from the inside out and not the outside in, thus while the interior is usually appealing, the house's exterior appearance suffers in due proportion, and features oddly placed Palladian windows, uneven roofs, and in general looks like an unattractive mishmash of several different styles and forms. They have quoins, multiple roof lines, complicated massing, pronounced dormers and wide garages to store multiple SUVs .
Recently a blog entitled McMansion Hell, run by Kate Wagner, has sprung up. It aims to document the various architectural sins committed by these buildings, and has managed to popularise the term online, as well as gain thousands of avid followers. Despite the bad press this blog has given McMansions in general (and threats of legal action from real estate website Zillow), McMansions don't look like they're going anywhere. On the contrary; they're becoming more commonplace across the country. Much of this is to do with the fact that construction companies see the McMansion as a cost-effective way of using the available space.
As Kate herself explains in her blog, "when big building corporations such as Toll Brothers and Pulte Homes, consistently push the 'More House for Your Money!' angle, it’s a safe bet that corners are being cut somewhere ... McMansions tend to use the cheapest materials possible, installed in dubious ways in order to satisfy their builder’s profit margins."
But McMansions aren't just aesthetically unpleasant - they're also bad for the environment, since they tend to be oversized, incongruously designed and poorly insulated, they are notoriously difficult to heat and maintain. They use more materials to construct as well - large quantities of wood, concrete, steel and tile are wasted building utterly pointless features for the various residences.
But ultimately, the most depressing thing about McMansions is how large and lonely they are - filled with interior and exterior voids. They're homes built without heart or passion; as bland as oatmeal and completely lacking in character or charm. They loom large over the landscape like Overlook Hotel in The Shining; with floor plans that defy understanding and geometry that would make your brain bleed just thinking about it. They seem to be representative of a desperate America, one eager to sacrifice decent living space for affordability and profit - representative of a society that seems to be regressing into itself; gradually becoming hermetic and remote. Frankly, the sooner they end up demolished, the better. Maybe then we'll finally realise that size isn't everything.