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.

A fortified skyscraper to house telecommunications hub, shield NSA spying

AT&T owns a unique skyscraper in Manhattan that may also serve as a key node in the government’s snooping into phone calls:

They called it Project X. It was an unusually audacious, highly sensitive assignment: to build a massive skyscraper, capable of withstanding an atomic blast, in the middle of New York City. It would have no windows, 29 floors with three basement levels, and enough food to last 1,500 people two weeks in the event of a catastrophe.

But the building’s primary purpose would not be to protect humans from toxic radiation amid nuclear war. Rather, the fortified skyscraper would safeguard powerful computers, cables, and switchboards. It would house one of the most important telecommunications hubs in the United States — the world’s largest center for processing long-distance phone calls, operated by the New York Telephone Company, a subsidiary of AT&T.

The building was designed by the architectural firm John Carl Warnecke & Associates, whose grand vision was to create a communication nerve center like a “20th century fortress, with spears and arrows replaced by protons and neutrons laying quiet siege to an army of machines within.”…

It is not uncommon to keep the public in the dark about a site containing vital telecommunications equipment. But 33 Thomas Street is different: An investigation by The Intercept indicates that the skyscraper is more than a mere nerve center for long-distance phone calls. It also appears to be one of the most important National Security Agency surveillance sites on U.S. soil — a covert monitoring hub that is used to tap into phone calls, faxes, and internet data.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. Telecommunications equipment and other vital infrastructure has to go somewhere in major cities. It is often covered up in a variety of ways. But, a 500+ foot building is difficult to disguise completely.
  2. Americans tend not to spend much time thinking about how many features of modern life happen. That such a large building is needed to house a “large international ‘gateway switch'” hints at what is needed behind the scenes when people use a phone to dial people outside the country.
  3. The article may be suggesting that the architecture of the building matches its sinister use. This sounds like post hoc theorizing. When construction started in 1969, the architecture fit what was needed: a protected building. I don’t know if it is possible to make such structures more beautiful or appealing. On the other hand, perhaps some can see past the functional approach used in the design of many infrastructure housings and admire such particular designs. Chic infrastructure?

Architecture based comedy: “McMansions have taken all of the Australianness out of the burbs”

An Australian comedian has several complaints about the McMansions of his country:

“They don’t work with the site, they’re too big on the block of land so you lose all your outdoor space. They’re too close to the neighbours and the real sadness is they’re also not great from an energy point of view,” Ross explains.

Ross says McMansions have taken all of the Australianness out of the burbs — “you could be driving down the streets of America” — and that the fashion for driving into the carport and walking into the house disconnects people from their neighbourhoods…

You might consider a comedian telling people how to live is some sort of joke. But Ross has corned a gap in the entertainment market — architecture based comedy — and it’s taken him around the world from London to Venice…

Ross’s two part series Streets of Your Town is about the contrast between the classic, well designed mid-century modernist homes and the not-so-great McMansions of today.

The TV series is coming up in a few days. As I’ve discussed before (see the most recent example here), I’m skeptical of the claim that modernist homes would entice more buyers or admirers in the United States. They may please the architectural community but not necessarily homeowners.

I am, however, very intrigued by the idea of “architecture based comedy.” I don’t know if this will be present much on the TV show – it sounds more documentary like – but seeing a standup routine based around architecture would be fascinating. For my money, one of the better architecture and urban planning based routines I have seen is James Howard Kunstler’s TED talk “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs.” On the other hand, another attempt at this – the film Radiant City – didn’t quite work as well.

Would homeowners prefer a McMansion or a home with quirky angles?

A New York City architecture firm recently designed a home intended to be “a rejoinder to the McMansion.” However, the new home is itself unusual:

Instead of building today’s typical “McMansion” of several thousand square feet, a single house of 918 ft2 is placed in the center of the site. A compressed form intersected by three spherical voids, the house has a kitchen at its center and is realized as one large room on three levels.

Instead of fossil fuel, the house is heated geothermally.

Instead of grid power, the house has electricity from the sun.

Two pictures help provide a sense of the home’s uniqueness:

I still contend that more Americans would choose the McMansion over the modernist design. Even with the McMansion’s complicated to garish architecture, it reminds more people of home. In contrast, the modernist designs seem clean but foreign, interesting but unwelcoming.

Interestingly, even the architecture firm seems to think this design is a ways from reaching the masses:

To gradually form an architecture / sculpture landscape as a nonprofit extension of “T” Space art gallery in Rhinebeck

At this point, it has a different purpose.