Kate Wagner is a brilliant satirical writer with a formidable wit. She is also extremely well informed on architectural history and theory. She has for nearly half a decade posted bitingly funny analyses of McMansions, the hypertrophic houses built, bought, and inhabited by people with more money than taste or architectural knowledge.
I teach a class on the essay genre. Yesterday’s assignment: three pages from Wagner’s signature blog McMansion Hell (1, 2, 3). By and large my students are hostages to my taste for the American voice of the mid-20th century. Still, we do visit the monuments (Montaigne, R.L. Stevenson, Orwell) and it’s important to me to have a look at how the genre has evolved: Bronowski’s video essay Knowledge or Certainty, for a start.
In my view, Wagner’s work is a fine example of how the essay form has flexibly evolved to remain relevant. As a budding academic and public intellectual she naturally publishes more formal essays in prominent venues. McMansion Hell, by contrast, is nothing short of operatic in its melodramatic presentation of a story meant to be taken seriously. Wagner’s annotated Zillow photos are soaring arias; the intervening prose a didactic recitativo. It’s opera buffa, to be sure, with humor the sugar that brings the reader back for more.
Wagner’s criticism has a moral thrust which elevates her work above mere memetic riffing or an exploration of camp. Not only are McMansions bad architecture, making them offensive to the educated eye, but they are also objectively bad, for example as investments, or due to their destructive environmental footprint.
One of my students observed that while he had not really thought before about any of this McMansion stuff, after reading Wagner’s work, he could no longer unsee the problems with these houses. I think Wagner would be glad of that. As a tribute, and not attempting in even a minimal way to compete with Wagner’s hip wit, I offer this appalling McMansion near Great Falls, VA (figure 1).
If the house were not a travesty, it would be in the Chateauesque style, i.e., imitating the architecture of French Chateaux of 300-500 years ago. The materials and characteristic slightly flared hipped rooflines show that. Richard Morris Hunt’s Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C. is a monumental example (figure 2).
But Biltmore is precisely that, a monumental example, built moreover when American craftsmanship was still at its height. The Great Falls example, though expensive, has put its effort (or rather its budget) into roominess and location over, say, architectural style and coherence. When you look at the house you probably say to yourself: what on earth is it with that thing on the front obstructing half the windows (figure 3).
The columns are drawn from classical religious architecture; originally they were symbolic of a sacred grove that surrounded a temple. In the neoclassical period they were used to connote ‘sacred’ for ideas like democracy (figure 4):
and, this being America, wealth (figure 5):
and, inevitably, the residences of the wealthy (figure 6).
Have a look at Hunt’s 1892 Marble House in Newport, R.I. It is full-on Neoclassical, not Chateauesque, style, and thus fittingly sports four massive Classical columns that support the porch. The porch is proportional to the scale of the house and harmonizes with its style. The massive columns are put to proper use supporting its considerable mass. It all makes sense.
The Great Falls porch, by contrast, is visibly made up of cheap, mass-produced pieces. The arcuated pediment is visibly made of cheap, lightweight materials, boxed in with a thin wooden framework and coated with sheeting and cheap moldings below, thin metal sheeting atop. Looking closely, one can see two vertical seams in the tympanum (why on earth not spackle over those?) and the irregularly cut arc over it. Instead of genuine classical detailing in the frieze, we get a hilariously outsized Dagwood sandwich of horizontal fascia in the entablature.
Such a porch hardly needs more than matchstick-thin supports—but that would give the rinky-dink ticky-tack architecture away. Instead, the “architect” tries to replace thin, flimsy substance with imposing image.
From top to bottom the columns on the two houses are a study in correctness vs. cost-saving pettiness. The Marble House columns (figure 8) are visibly of stone, with the many flutes characteristic of the Corinthian order. The columns swell as one approaches the third drum up from the base, and there is a necking ring that articulates the column between the top of the shaft and the bottom of the capital, which are the same diameter. Above the capitals rise the three thin layers of the canonical fascia that the Corinthian borrowed from the Ionic Order.
The Great Falls columns (figure 9), by contrast, are hollow foam cylinders that have been assembled to give a more massive look to the thin post within: nothing more is needed structurally to support the flimsy porch. Their fluting is gross and cheap. The capitals are not matched to the columns but are shockingly oversized; no necking rings articulate the line between column and capital.
The “drums” of the shafts are prefabbed and interchangeable: there is no scope here for the swelling entasis of the Marble House (and Greek and Roman) columns that compensate for the eye’s tendency to squeeze the center of two parallel lines together. Entasis requires unique, one-off column drums. These columns were assembled by someone who had been commissioned to strive for an effect at the cheapest possible cost. Bonus points for you if you noticed that the far left column has been installed crookedly.