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The Literal Hell of McMansions

The suburban monstrosities fit in a long American tradition of unnatural, ill-constructed, haunted houses.

What is it that so unnerves us about McMansions? Why are they so ugly, why do we hate them, and why—despite their atrociousness—do builders keep building them? These are the questions that the blog Worst of McMansions (aka McMansion Hell, per its URL) sets out to answer. Authored by an architect who calls herself “Kate,” the Tumblr has been around only since late July but has spread across the web faster than a subdevelopment through a vacant tract of suburbia. The site catalogs the most egregious examples of terrible overbuilt architecture, delivering ridicule to these behemoths—along with a series of McMansions 101 posts, which explain patiently everything that’s wrong with them, architecturally speaking.

The site’s fans seemed to have flocked to it not just for its ability to put words to that uneasy disgust that so many have when facing these gargantuan homes. We’ve always known they were ugly, but until now we didn’t know why, exactly. A normal house, for example, is made up of a “primary mass” (the central architectural shape of the building) and a few key “secondary masses,” building-block shapes that complement and highlight that primary mass. A McMansion, on the other hand, will have so many secondary masses—gables, garages, entryways, and so on—“that the primary mass is reduced to a role of filling in gaps between the secondary masses.” Nor is the McMansion balanced; unlike a Victorian, its individual pieces don’t have equal visual weight. It is often out of scale with its small lot and out of proportion with itself: inconsistent window sizes, dormers, and gables of contrasting style.

What emerges in Kate’s McMansions 101 posts in particular is that nearly all of the sins of McMansions often boil down to the same thing: violations of order, harmony, and symmetry. What makes a normal house successful is a sense of balance, with equally weighted elements and an overall sense of aesthetic cohesion. What makes a McMansion an eyesore is its jumble of eaves, columns, oversized garages, and other compounded fiascos.

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