Who Doesn’t Just Love McMansion Hell ?
You know it— McMansion Hell, Kate Wagner’s smart, funny, pointed, and insightful blog-website about what’s wrong (and occasionally right) with architecture, urbanism, and the environment. It’s most well-known for her “comedy-oriented takedowns of individual houses”, in which she shows, in her clear-eyed opinion, some of the most egregious “McMansions” and hilariously points out what’s false, ostentatious-without-taste or sense, or just dumb about them.
Hmmmm. Maybe the only people who don’t like McMansion Hell are those who market such pretentious flab. If you aren’t a regular visitor to McMansion Hell, we recommend you do so—it is a constant eye-opener—and if you want a rich education, also explore the site’s archive.
More Than Satirical
Yes, via her sharpshooter aim at flatulent architecture (and its boosters), she does evoke hilarity (tho’ one that has an authentically public-spirited purpose). But it’s really worth underlining that she’s a penetrating and careful (and caring) thinker—one of the most articulate on the scene today. Her writings take on vital issues, and she readily and clearly (with delightful power) points out what’s full of pretension, hypocrisy, obscuring and inflated language, or just muddy thinking.
An Approach to Brutalism—One That’s Needed, NOW
Here at the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation, it got our attention when Kate Wagner announced that she was commending a 5-part blog series on Brutalism. That term— “Brutalism”—has been used against Paul Rudolph like a demolition battering ram—and, less frequently, as a term of praise (tho’ sometimes bafflingly, to those outside intricacies of the debate.)
She explains the need for a thoughtful approach to the phenomenon (and built works) of Brutalism, explaining:
I’ve been a spectator to this debate since I first lurked in the Skyscraper City forums as a high school freshman, ten years ago, when Brutalism itself sparked the interest in architecture that brings me here today. I have, as they say, heard both sides, and when asked to pick one, my response is unsatisfying. Though my personal aesthetic tastes fall on the side of “Brutalism is good,” I think the actual answer is it’s deeply, deeply complicated.
And insightfully adds (and questions):
Brutalism has a special way of inspiring us to ask big and difficult questions about architecture. “Is Brutalism good?” is really a question of “is any kind of architecture good?” - is architecture itself good? And what do we mean by good? Are we talking about mere aesthetic merits? Or is it more whether or not a given work of architecture satisfies the purpose for which it was built? Can architecture be morally good? Is there a right or wrong way to make, or interpret, a building?
She declares the need to approach this topic with the subtlety it deserves—and the urgency it demands::
I have bad news for you: the answers to all of these questions are complicated, nuanced, and unsatisfying. In today’s polemical and deeply divided world of woke and cancelled, nuance has gotten a bad rap, having been frequently misused by those acting in bad faith to create blurred lines in situations where answers to questions of morality are, in reality, crystal clear. This is not my intention here.
Existential questions aside, there are other reasons to write about Brutalism. First, while we’ve been hemming and hawing about it online, we’ve lost priceless examples of the style to either demolition or cannibalistic renovation, including Paul Rudolph’s elegant Orange County Government Center, Bertrand Goldberg’s dynamic Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, and the iconic Trinity Square, Gateshead complex, famous for the role it played in the movie Get Carter. My hope is that by bringing up the nuances of Brutalism before a broad and diverse audience, other buildings on the chopping block might be spared.
This is a series on Brutalism, but Brutalism itself demands a level of inquiry that goes beyond defining a style. Really, this is a series about architecture, and its relationship to the world in which it exists. Architects, as workers, artists, and ideologues, may dream up a building on paper and, with the help of laborers, erect it in the material world, but this is only the first part of the story. The rest is written by us, the people who interact with architecture as shelter; as monetary, cultural, and political capital; as labor; as an art; and, most broadly, as that which makes up the backdrop of our beautiful, complicated human lives.
Yes, this series is going to be an absorbing adventure. Kate Wagner is not only examining Brutalism, but also taking-on some of the most vital questions around architecture—and we look forward to future installments!