An award-winning redesigned McMansion entry inspired by baskets

Can you redeem a McMansion with redesigned spaces? Here is one such example from Juneau:

A Juneau McMansion’s redesigned entryway was recently celebrated at the 17th Annual Northwest Design Awards in Seattle. Juneau’s Bauer/Clifton Interiors took first place for most innovative design for their work. The entire home’s remodel was inspired by something you might not expect…

But the biggest influence for the entryway might surprise you.

“Looking at the bottom of a woven basket,” said Bauer. “It was something that the owner collected and was very fond of and we had one of them that we took as an inspirational piece that we had laying here on our island in our studio. That was the piece that we turned over and looked at, and it was when the light went off and went, ‘OK, let’s try doing this — let’s try creating a woven wood floor,’” said Bauer.

With farmhouse chic in mind, the designers found reclaimed 150-year-old American chestnut wood flooring from an old farm in West Virginia. The reuse factor is something the designers like, too.

We might imagine an odd scenario: those McMansions that critics say are so garish on the outside, such an ugly mishmash of styles, may just have beautifully designed interiors. Much of the architectural critique of McMansions emphasizes the outside and this makes some sense; they are easier to view and the exteriors are part of how the home presents itself to the world and thus influences social interactions. On the other hand, the prime private space that the McMansion has – thousands of square feet – is hidden from public view and is primarily meant for the residents. Granted, many McMansions may have problems on both the outside and inside but it is much harder to summarize their interiors.

Put differently, can McMansions be redeemed by designing them better from the inside out?

McMansions as the base for futuristic enclaves

A new futuristic book written by an architect makes use of McMansions:

But what if the McMansion could be put in the service of urbanism instead? In his new book Atlas of Another America: An Architectural Fiction (Park Books, $49), the architect Keith Krumwiede, who teaches at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, envisions an alternative reality in which McMansions are used as building blocks to create small communities not unlike medieval villages or 19th-century communes. These “estates,” aggregated from real house plans used by big homebuilders such as Toll Brothers and Pulte, are set in Krumwiede’s fictional domain of Freedomland.

Across the Atlas’s richly colored pages, Krumwiede offers dozens of variations on the idea of the tract home as a module in a much larger dwelling. His estates have up to 200 bedrooms and 100 bathrooms each. Some are cruciform or X-shaped in plan; in others, the McMansions pinwheel around a fountain, lock together in tight Tetris-esque combinations, or link up delicately like daisy chains.

And the author discusses some of his thinking:

I think we do ourselves a disservice as architects dismissing all of these houses out of hand as aesthetically impoverished dreck, because they are really smart plans. That’s not to say that they have architectural values in a traditional sense. What I think they do effectively is they are able to deliver on the idea of every house being that individual’s palace…

I’ve had certain architects affiliated with the New Urbanist movement who’d say, “These individual estates are really great. You need to find a way to build these.” There are other friends, who see themselves more as avant-gardists, who are like, “How can you be mucking around with these shitty houses?” They see it as selling out.

These plans may make use of the physical structures known as McMansions but they certainly play with one of the object’s central features: a private space separate from neighbors. This is both a feature and a big: homeowners seem to want to get away from neighbors and society (with lots of interior space, sometimes a sizable lawn, and architectural features that impress but don’t necessarily expose the inside activity to outsiders) while critics suggest these home privilege private lives over robust community interaction (with sizable and prominent garages, plenty of interior space, and often imposing exteriors that discourage neighborly activity). Would a McMansion intentionally created as part of an enclave cease to be a McMansion?

Another idea: imagine you could move existing McMansions to create these new enclaves. It would be difficult to move large structures like these but then new McMansions don’t have to be constructed and it frees up other locations for new uses.

Hasn’t architecture always been political?

The committee that selected the most recent Pritzker Prize winners makes note of the political statement made by the architects:

Historically, the Pritzker Prize, founded in 1979 and sponsored by the Hyatt Foundation, veers away from tough issues and towards celebrity. Often referred to as the Nobel Prize for architecture, the award honors a body of work over any singular building. That means it typically goes to high-profile designers, like Shigeru Ban, Jean Nouvel, and Zaha Hadid. Last year’s award was almost an exception. Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, known for clever work on low-income housing, won. But fame preceded the award: he had already done the TED talk circuit and hosted the Venice Biennale.

It’s not the job of the Pritzker Prize jury to make identity politics out of the award. But right now, it’s hard not to. Here’s part of the jury’s citation, explaining the choice to award RCR Arquitectes:

“In this day and age, there is an important question that people all over the world are asking, and it is not just about architecture; it is about law, politics, and government as well. We live in a globalized world where we must rely on international influences, trade, discussion, transactions, etc. But more and more people fear that, because of this international influence, we will lose our local values, our local art, and our local customs. They are concerned and sometimes frightened. Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta tell us that it may be possible to have both. They help us to see, in a most beautiful and poetic way, that the answer to the question is not ‘either/or’ and that we can, at least in architecture, aspire to have both; our roots firmly in place and our arms outstretched to the rest of the world. And that is such a wonderfully reassuring answer, particularly if it applies in other areas of modern human life as well.”

With this, the jury has landed on a remarkably safe political statement, one that straddles the schism between protectionist and inclusive ideologies. Consider RCR Arquitectes’ choice to run its shop in a town of 30,000 people, instead of the nearby metropolis Barcelona. It’s quaint in that way—practically mom-and-pop. Yet, the firm’s three architects work collaboratively, building open structures that anyone can enjoy, the jury says. It’s a much lighter declaration than choosing, say, a woman like Jeanne Gang or an Iranian practice like Admun Studio.

Maybe it is noteworthy that this particular prize made a note of politics but architecture has arguably always been political. Those colossal buildings of ancient times, the Great Pyramids or the Colosseum, were intended to project power. (Some authoritarian leaders of recent centuries have pursued similar projects. See the altering of Paris in the 1800s as just one example.) Or, Jeanne Halgren Kilde explains how religious buildings demonstrate and reflect power. Even the imitation of more traditional architecture in McMansions is intended to project something about the owners.

This does not mean that the average resident recognizes all of this. Indeed, some architecture might be intended to avoid connection to politics. But, we shouldn’t be surprised that the construction of edifices – critical to social life – both reflect and enact political dynamics.

(To read more of how this might play out with religious, read my co-authored piece titled “When Bricks Matter.”

Making a McMansion worse with an underground garage?

One new teardown McMansion in Los Angeles is singled out for criticism for a unique feature:

The problem with one particular McMansion currently being built in Sherman Oaks is not that it towers head and shoulders above the houses to its north, the ones to its south, and all the houses across from it on the west side of the street except for one equally obese McMansion.

The problem is that its garage also reaches far lower into the ground because it is subterranean, accessed by a deeply sloping driveway. (Photo above) This is a singularly unique feature when compared to a concentric circle of the 500 nearest single family homes.

Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz, who authored the city’s porous and ineffective moratorium on McMansions, refused to personally answer direct questions about the property, but denied through a staffer any responsibility for its permit because at the time it was issued, this address was not yet covered by the moratorium. It originally only insulated some communities, including several in the San Fernando Valley…but not this one.

McMansions are often known for their large garages, whether they have oversized doors to accommodate extra-large vehicles or the big garages dominate the exterior (helping to earn some home the nickname “snout houses”). I thought the underground garage would help make a large house more palatable, particularly if some of the aboveground bulk or facade was smaller because space had been moved. Such a move echoes those of wealthy homeowners in London.

Perhaps the issue is that going underground might affect nearby properties? Presumably, it takes some significant extra work to create such a garage under a house and I was under the impression that few homes in southern California. But, I’m guessing that someone who could afford this property at a high price and the new home could also ensure that the subterranean garage is stable.

Defining a McMansion, Trait #3: Architecture and design

When I tell people that I have published about McMansions, the same question almost always arises: “What exactly is a McMansion?” My paper defining the McMansion answers this but in a series of posts here, I want to update the definition based on what I have seen in the last five years.
The size of the McMansion – whether absolute or relative – is important but not all large houses are McMansions. Another key trait is the architecture and design of the home. At the least, McMansions are considered to have a mish-mash of architectural styles, an architectural incongruence where the individual pieces don’t seem to go together. One guide to American houses described this as an eclectic style. More negatively, this may be described as garish or buffonish or unrefined. The particular design may have a purpose – to impress viewers – but the architectural purity is dubious or just plain wrong.
The recent Tumblr McMansionHell has great visuals explaining the architectural difficulties McMansions pose. I won’t repeat what is there (see a 2014 post about possibly the ugliest new build McMansion) but considering the design of McMansions leads me to several different areas of thought:
1. If McMansions are not acceptable architecture, what exactly is? American homes display a variety of styles involving historical periods as well as regional designs. (See some of these on one handy poster.) Of course, one of the oddities of McMansion designs is that they tend to colonize both older and regional designs into some new combination. Take, as one example, the ranch home of the postwar era. Are such homes beautiful or functional? Are they the result of mass production processes after World War Two? And yet, with the passage of time, some now find them worth celebrating and preserving.
2. Many Americans may not mind the architecture and design of McMansions. This could be for multiple reasons: Americans prefer other features of homes (such as their size or their location) over the architecture; Americans aren’t well educated in architecture (where exactly is this subject taught?); Americans don’t mind novelty and bricolage. As one Australian architect suggested, perhaps more residents would reject McMansions if their architectural awareness increased.
3. For good reason, including that it is easy to view from the street (whether from passing vehicles or Google Street View), the exterior (particularly the facade) of McMansions gets a lot of attention. Yet, the interior is a bit neglected. I’ve asked in earlier posts whether a home could be not bad by exterior McMansion standards but the interior is McMansion-like (see here and here).
4. I’m fairly convinced that if given a choice between modernist homes (a favorite of some architects and designers) and McMansions, more Americans would choose the McMansion. See earlier posts here and here.
5. I would guess that much of the architectural critique of McMansions is related to education levels. People with more money tend to live in nicer places regardless but think about the stereotypical image of who lives in McMansions or who you have seen or heard criticize McMansions. Additionally, if architects criticize McMansions, are they doing so partly due to self interest? A relatively small percent of American homes are designed by architects and criticizing bad designs could lead to more business.
6. Finally, I’m still waiting to find the builders and architects who would admit to designing and constructing McMansions. There are a variety of ways to get around the term (think “executive home” or “estate homes“) even if the architecture and design of the home clearly signals a McMansion.

What are the criteria for choosing the most beautiful religious buildings?

I saw this list of 25 stunning churches, mosques, and temples around the world and wondered: how do people decide on a list like this? Even the introduction of the article seems to recognize this:

The architecture of houses of worship varies according to time and place, ranging from hilltop chapels built in the 10th century to geometric modernist designs of glass and steel…

A tour around the world in search of the most beautiful houses of worship shows that despite the immense differences in architecture, the ability of humans to create beautiful, holy places transcends geographical and sectarian boundaries. Behold, 25 of the world’s prettiest churches, mosques, and temples.

I would be interested in reading more about how each of these buildings lead visitors to feelings of beauty and holiness. Is it because of the exterior? (Clearly marked as a religious building, difference from or convergence with the surrounding landscape, it took a long time to build.) Is it because of the interior? (A number of these captions mention that the buildings invoke certain feelings inside.) It is because it is old and/or cultural important? Ultimately: is there a common feature across religious buildings of different faiths and times that generally moves humans toward feelings of transcendence?

(This isn’t exactly what my coauthor Bob Brenneman and I were getting at in a recent Sociology of Religion article titled “When Bricks Matter: Fourt Arguments for the Sociological Study of Religious Buildings” but this would be interesting to consider alongside our thesis that we should pay more attention to how religious buildings affect the people within.)

Asking again: who buys McMansions?

Given the negative connotations of the term McMansion, who exactly purchases such homes? The A.V. Club takes a quick shot:

It doesn’t seem likely that McMansion Hell will make these kinds of houses disappear from the landscape. Not as long as there are orthodontists and hedge-fund managers with money to burn.

This is a standard claim: the people who move into McMansions are the nouveau riche and they want the home to impress others. They are not concerned with architectural purity; they just want neighbors and people to drive by and be wowed by the grandiosity and features. But, is this actually true? We don’t know some fairly basic information, such as who lives in McMansions or what they actually think about domestic architecture.

For me, the basic question is this: if McMansions are so unquestionably bad, whether due to architecture or excessive consumption or contributing to suburban sprawl, why do people continue to move into them or live in them? There is something in the McMansion that appeals to a good number of Americans with the means to afford them (and before the housing bubble burst, more of those who maybe couldn’t afford them). And if you oppose McMansions, I’m guessing the architecture criticism simply doesn’t register with many Americans. The postwar era is littered with bad housing (I know ranch homes get some love today but they aren’t special) and aesthetics may not matter much compared to other factors (like the quest for more space or being in certain desirable locations) when purchasing a home.