People can live in modernist glass houses…if they have 6 acres in the woods

I have argued Americans prefer McMansions to modernist homes. Another reason this might be the case: the glass modernist house works better on certain kinds of properties.

But it wasn’t until they found the perfect piece of property in the Lake Minnetonka community of Woodland that they were able to make their glass house dream a reality.

They’d been planning to sell their three-story Arts & Crafts-style home in Orono, and were on the hunt for secluded, wooded acreage in the western suburbs…

In 2012, a 6-acre property with wetlands, a bog and a small lake popped up on the MLS. The land, which was in foreclosure, was in Woodland.

Kathleen was entranced by the tiny woodsy hamlet of twisting and turning roads. So, the couple consulted architect Tim Alt of ALTUS Architecture + Design about the property. He advised them to go for it.

This home holds all kind of appeal to modernists: black, low to the ground, lots of windows, multiple wings for different uses, and utilizes materials that fit with the unique natural setting. Yet, how realistic is it to expect such a home to be located near other homes? Even residents who like such architecture are unlikely to sacrifice all their privacy by living in this home within a traditional neighborhood. Americans like single-family homes partly because of the privacy they tend to offer away from prying eyes of neighbors of the government.

Then, finding the right kind of property – away from other homes, attractive nature views – becomes an extra burden or set of resources required for this kind of modernist home. These requirements likely mean it is outside the reach of many homeowners. The modernist home becomes the elite home.

All this means that it is unlikely such homes will be popular. Perhaps this was already clear since one of the models for the Minnetonka home dates back to 1949 and that design is not exactly all over the place. Such modernist homes will continue as curiosities or give people a home to aspire to even as they continue to buy mass-produced McMansions and ranches.

The missing microwaves and countertop kitchen appliances on HGTV

In watching a recent episode of something or other on HGTV, I realized something: very few of the renovated homes featured on the channel have visible microwaves or other kitchen appliances on surfaces.

I suspect this is similar to the clean, open concept kitchen that has no mess: the aesthetic is modern and minimalist. Appliances beyond the stove, refrigerator, and dishwasher (which are often emphasized in discussions and visual shots because of their size and finishes) should be out of sight and avoid cluttering the beautiful surfaces. To some degree, this is common when showing houses that are for sale: the thinking is that people do not want to see the clutter of everyday life.

Yet, I would guess that most American kitchens have plenty of countertop appliances that they regularly use. How many home cooks can survive without a toaster or toaster oven, blender, food processor, mixer, coffee makers, crockpot, and so on? And that does not even include the microwave, an indispensable tool for decades.

I suspect that clearing the countertops for the final reveal of homes is akin to the sketchy before and after shots provided by weight loss products. The difference might look substantial but the image is misleading. Is a clear surface that few people can actually live with really desirable versus a kitchen that displays where people can keep some of the stuff they regularly use? The countertops should not be full of junk but a well-placed appliance can both recognize the realities of most American kitchens and hint to the viewer what is possible in the kitchen.

Open floor plan, hide the kitchen mess

One downside of an open floor plan is that it also exposes all the work that goes into daily life:

That is why one company, Schumacher Homes of Akron, Ohio, has a fresh new design on offer: a house with an open floor plan, with its kitchen, dining area, and living room all flowing into one another. But then, behind the first kitchen, lies another. A “messy” kitchen. There, the preparation for or remainders from a meal or party can be deposited for later cleanup, out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

That this is “necessary” at all is a consequence of the rise of the open floor plan in the first place. On the next block or on HGTV, remodels blow out walls, enlarge kitchens, and couple them to the surrounding space. In new construction, enormous great rooms combine hundreds of square feet of living space into singular, cavernous voids, punctuated only by the granite or marble outcropping of a kitchen island. This amorphous, multipurpose space has become the center of domestic life.

It hasn’t always been this way. These layouts first became popular in pre-war modernist architecture, but their origins stretch back earlier, to the turn of the 20th century at least. Then, as now, they promised to tear down obstruction and facilitate connection. But that promise was aspirational from the start: It assumed an equality in the home that has never come to pass. In practice, open-plan design has always been a stage to a quiet struggle between freedom and servitude. That struggle continues today, and messy kitchens won’t put an end to it. It’s just hard to notice when the experience has been sold, universally, as “great for entertaining.”…

In this respect, the open plan might represent the most distinctly American home design possible: to labor in vain against ever-rising demands, imposed mostly by our own choices, all the while insisting that, actually, we love it. It’s a prison, but at least it’s one without walls.

I wonder if another trend truly explains the move to all this open space with kitchens. Americans are eating less at home as they spend more money spent at restaurants than at home. Yet, homeowners, particularly those on HGTV, regularly suggest that the kitchen is the heart of the home. But, could this heart be more of a showpiece or an aspiration than a regularly messy kitchen? Perhaps the open, gleaming kitchen of today is more like the formal living room (now less common in newer houses) of the past: it is a showpiece, is not necessarily used often, and the typical homeowner should be skilled at using the items in the room (even if they do not use it often). The open floor plan is then a selling point, status symbol, and entertaining space but not always a messy space.

The discussion here of modernism is also interesting. I have argued before that American homeowners are not fans of modernist homes but they may be more inclined toward modernism in their kitchens and open spaces. Again, these are showpieces of the new home and as I see these spaces regularly on HGTV I wonder how families actually live in them.

“10 anti-McMansion design commandments”

Looking to avoid constructing or buying a McMansion? Here are four of “10 anti-McMansion design commandments”:

1. Thou shalt not build a house with turrets, as it is unlikely to be attacked by hostiles or provide shelter for a damsel in distress…

3. Thou shalt not build a house with a three-car garage as the dominant street-facing feature…

7. Thou shalt not build a house with seven gables when two would be more than enough.

8. Thou shalt not build a big, big house on a small, small lot.

There are two related themes in each of these commandments that goes beyond just avoiding features that are now associated with McMansions. Many of these commandments address two key issues: (1) proportionality and (2) unnecessary features. Regarding the first, specific features – windows, gables, garages – should not appear oversized compared to other features. (I supposed you could have a house where everything is outsized but then it could be criticized as cartoonish compared to normal-sized homes.) Additionally, certain features are not required such as turrets, tall columns, and expansive foyers.

The proposed solution to these McMansion sins is this: “good housing design really means keeping it simple, be the house big or small.” If this is followed to the letter, the simple counter to McMansions would be modernist houses or ranch homes. From the outside, these are simply boxes with limited ornamentation. But, for many, these homes may be too simple. They do not invoke traditional styles. Or, these simpler designs may be viewed as lacking character. They were built in large numbers during the postwar era and came to be associated with suburban sprawl. While McMansions are derided for their construction in more traditional neighborhoods, imagine a typical ranch plopped down in a neighborhood of Victorian homes or a modernist home within the typical suburban subdivision. Even with more reasonable sizes compared to McMansions, I would guess the neighbors would still have concerns.

Thoughts on “The rise of the McModern” McMansion

Kate Wagner of McMansionHell fame analyzes a subset of McMansions dubbed McModerns:

What makes the McModern a fascinating case study in residential architectural history is its two separate lineages: its foundation as a McMansion, and its origins within the greater historical context of popular modernism—that is, modernism for everyday families…

In the grand taxonomy of residential architecture, the McModern is a genus within the McMansion family. This is not to say that the “modern” part isn’t as important as the “Mc,” because the McModern as we know it derives from a source not often touched upon: the everyday modern houses not designed by famous architects, but by builders, or from pattern books…

The socioeconomic and technological development of the 21st-century McModern is strongly tied to the relentless pursuit of minimalism, beginning with industrial design: At the turn of the millennium, we entered the iPod age. Even more importantly, we fully embraced the internet age, and then subsequently the mobile age. These shifts triggered the beginning of the McModern….

Are old modernist houses definitively better than McModerns? Perhaps not—all styles have their duds, after all. However, it is the indulgent, inefficient, and architecturally botched nature of the McMansion that lies beneath the sleek surface of the McModern. In the eyes of McMansion builders, modern architecture is perceived by potential buyers as the culturally significant, high-brow form of architecture, revered by the educated and glossy magazines. To see something only for its superficial attributes or financial potential and execute it carelessly is perhaps the most “Mc” thing anyone can do.

Borrowing from earlier styles of architecture was intended to give McMansions a sense of permanence and power, even if they were mass produced starting in the 1980s. But, what is the aesthetic appeal of modernist architecture? Wagner suggests it is minimalism and a certain kind of cultural cachet but this seems tricky with how modernist architecture has often been treated in the United States. Modernist architecture may be good for skyscrapers but is more suspect for homes where many residents want an appeal to family and traditional neighborhoods (even though modernism is now roughly a century old). Additionally, it is less clear how minimalism works when the house is over 3,000 square feet – not exactly a minimalist amount of space.

I have argued previously that Americans, if given a choice, would prefer McMansions over modernist homes. See earlier posts here and here. Wagner hints at these dynamics in her piece as well; the modernist McMansions may primarily appeal to those who (1) are aware of what high-brow architecture and care to associate with it; (2) those who are choosing to locate in rapidly hip gentrifying neighborhoods; and (3) those with a tech-savvy lifestyle.

Now, we just need some data to back this all up and demonstrate some patterns.

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.