Welcome (back) to Hell
Kate Wagner—legendarily cranky champion of the pure, the sensible, the stylistically consistent and appropriate; possessor of a wit most ferocious, and a disdain most withering; hater of all things postmodern; destroyer of worlds made by yuppies and taste-deficient nouveau riche suburbanites with too much money; advocate for the basic human right of housing, as long as it is not ugly housing made with fake materials; meticulous scrutinizer, with precise and fearsome opinions on every possible aspect of home design—is, after spending most of the past year writing about bicycle racing in Europe, pointing and laughing at big, ugly houses again. In other words, McMansion Hell is back in business, and Wagner has picked up right where she left off, as if she had never been gone.
If you’ve never heard of Kate Wagner, let me enlighten you. She is the architecture critic for The New Republic, and since 2016, she has been writing an enormously entertaining blog where she criticizes the design choices of modern suburban homes. You know the kind—the huge, hulking monstrosities barely fitting in their lots, full of bizarre architectural details that don’t go together. The blog is called McMansion Hell. It peaked in popularity in June of 2017, and has been going strong ever since (except for that aforementioned break involving cycling). Wagner’s blog epitomizes what seemed to be, along with the slightly-earlier Awkward Family Photos blog, a curious moment where satire and ridicule seemed almost legitimized in our culture; a dangerous place, to be sure, because there is a very thin line between good honest fun and mean-spirited hate. As it is, Wagner’s tone is something I haven’t noticed an architecture critic use since Tom Wolfe wrote From Bauhaus to Our House, and it’s also something that seems akin to the biting wit used by such 19th-century authors as Mark Twain (in Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences), or even the pricklier pieces by Fyodor Dostoevsky (for example Winter Notes on Summer Impressions).
Kate Wagner’s method consists of finding an ugly house on a real estate site such as Zillow and marking up the pictures with her satirical commentary. Here are some samples:
She uses a bewildering amount of architectural jargon, like “muntins” and “dormers” above; she also deploys her own homemade vocabulary (“Roofline Soup”; she also likes to talk about “lawyer foyers” and “nubs”, and designates some houses “Certified Dank™”). For no extra charge, she also ridicules the decorating choices that happen inside the house, for instance:
. . . you get the idea. The whole thing is hilarious, but in a dirty-joke kind of way; deep down we agree that yes, this is funny, but it doesn’t feel right to admit that we think so. Kate Wagner is vitriolic in her disdain for the houses she dumps on. As an architecture critic, I suppose she has a right to her professional opinion, but the whole thing seems to cross the line into the not-charitable territory.
Approximately half of the content on McMansion Hell is like this, but she has also written quite a lot of well-considered informative posts which take her method and apply it to architecture in general, pointing out how things like gables, entryways, and roofs can be used correctly or incorrectly. She also wrote a very useful series of articles describing the architectural history of the twentieth century, of which “What the Hell is Postmodernism?” is a must-read, detailing why contemporary buildings are sometimes so horribly ugly, and why people hate them. I’m serious that you should read it—open it up in a new tab and read it when you’re done with this.
Kate Wagner makes a valuable and necessary contribution to the discourse about the built environment; in a chatty, conversational style, she explains, and therefore popularizes, the arcane and seemingly arbitrary precepts of architectural theory. It’s a subject that doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves (a surprising thing, considering that we are inside houses and buildings for ~90% of our lives). I think she really, truly believes that the houses she criticizes are ugly. But the plain truth is that, for the past forty years, people have been making—and buying—houses of the type she condemns. Since beauty (and therefore ugliness) is just a matter of personal preference, what standing does she have to castigate the McMansions as she does? In a classic motte-and-bailey argument, she sometimes retreats from her claims of ugliness and declares McMansions to be “unlivable”, “wasteful”, and “cheap”. Now these claims are much more easily defended . . . but doing so is not nearly as much fun.
Which is unfortunate, because her points about sustainability, wastefulness, and unlivability are always spot-on. In an uncharacteristically personal essay from this past July, she describes living in an apartment that was really just an architect’s showpiece and not actually meant to be lived in, and how much she hated it. Another essay from a few years back discusses how there is something of interest in every building, even things like strip malls and fast food restaurants—what is commonly called “vernacular architecture”.
But in claiming that “even strip malls can be interesting”, Wagner reveals her true allegiance to the elitist idea that there is “high” architecture, and there is “low” architecture. She regularly slips into the tone of a cultural gatekeeper, dismissing the choices of the vulgar masses with the written equivalent of the who-farted face. All critics face the temptation to consider their professional group as the guardians of all that is virtuous, nobly holding the line against the rampant forces of philistinism. And I agree that the houses Wagner hates are, almost every time, obnoxiously nonsensical. But this does not mean that they are wrong. And this isn’t even a symptom of late-twentieth-century suburbanism; rich people have been making their architectural follies into reality for a long time, and this has nothing to do with the late 90’s-early 00s housing bubble. Case in point: the Samuel Mercer House, in my hometown of Omaha, was built in 1885, and I don’t know why it wouldn’t count as the sort of thing Wagner loves to hate:
Am I happy that Kate Wagner is posting on McMansion Hell again? Yes. Competent architecture critics, like Wagner, are a necessity. Indeed, there ought to be critics of all the arts. Intellectual engagement is always good, and it is not respectful of the arts, of artists, or of the public when we treat artistic creations as just there to be consumed passively. People ought to get mad at bad houses, bad paintings, bad novels, bad movies, bad music. But . . . there’s so much hate in the world nowadays; can’t we try to be a little less fierce than Kate Wagner when we get mad?