Tuesday, June 23, 2009


“McMansion” is one of the glib slang words I would like to see retired. Not only is it overused, it is wrongly used to the point that it has lost any meaning.

Someone clever coined the word at least a decade ago. When first introduced it was apt and funny. McMansion does not appear in my American Heritage dictionary. But if it did, the definition (as originally intended) would be something like this:

McMansion (mik man’shen) n. 1. A large mass-produced house meant to imitate the stately features of expensive custom homes. 2. A pretentious tract house. 3. A house built from stock plans that ineptly mimics custom home details.

This was worth a chuckle because it poked fun at our ready acceptance of mass-produced schlock by linking bad architecture to the most recognized icon of mass-produced food. In both instances, we know it is not good for us, but we gobble it up anyway. Probably for the same reasons: we perceive it as a good deal and it satisfies our hunger for something meaty. It takes a higher level of awareness to recognize the empty calories in one and the bankrupt esthetics in the other.

We have long ago departed from that definition, applying the word in ways that have left it devoid of meaning. It is like the phrase “luxury apartment”. That is applied to rental units of every size and quality. I have seen the words on large banners affixed to the balconies of the most ordinary apartment buildings. It seems that running water and fresh paint are sufficient amenities to qualify an apartment as luxurious.

Likewise, McMansion is devalued by overuse and misapplication. I have heard it used to describe any of the following structures:

a) Large houses we simply do not like (maybe we are feuding with the owners)
b) Any house bigger than its immediate neighbors
c) Homes bigger than a prescribed square footage deemed acceptable for the number of people living in it (a moving target depending on the notions of the people
setting the standards)
d) Beautiful homes that legitimately are mansions but hated because they are larger than we can afford

Used in these ways McMansion has moved from a witty gibe about architecture to a dismissive insult that is so broad there is no room for debate. Do you still beat your wife? Is your house still too big? There is no thought behind the remark and no acceptable response. McMansion has absorbed all the venal qualities of jealousy, social engineering, and avarice without retaining the redeeming quality of humor.

This is not just a rant about grammar. Words have consequences. The McMansion jeer is used in public meetings to sway politicians and set policy. It comes up all the time in zoning discussions. There is an ongoing debate in many cities over what constitutes appropriate infill projects or replacement housing. In Denver some older neighborhoods are battlegrounds over this issue. Andrew Hyatt, a real estate appraiser and broker, countered in the North Denver Tribune that “these McMansions… help create a better neighborhood and local economy. Scraping an old, functionally obsolete bungalow is truly not the nightmare down zoning critics would have you believe.” His article goes on to describe how new, larger homes provide choices and value to buyers and how older homes are often inadequate with their head-ducking basements, inefficient furnaces, crumbling foundations, and substandard plumbing and wiring.

I wish Mr. Hyatt had not accepted McMansions as a broad description of infill development. But he is correct in defending head on the phenomenon of new development in existing neighborhoods. In the community he was describing, some people find new development a positive evolution and others want it anywhere but in their own backyards. There are legitimate differences of opinion based on adequacy of infrastructure, solar access, and density. That is where the debate should turn, not on the style of the houses. Nevertheless, opponents of change have latched onto the McMansion phrase as a substitute for rigorous exchange and clear thinking.

Perhaps the real problem is simply that some (many?) houses truly are ugly. This can happen anywhere, but it is most obvious (and becomes most contentious) with infill projects that loom above more diminutive and quainter old homes. It’s a sad fact that a lot of things we don’t like do get built. But so do a lot of good things. If everything had to look like what is around it, how would great architecture ever emerge? By definition, no radical advance in architecture, from the Renaissance to the modern movement, ever came about by architects trying to match their surroundings. I get nervous when I hear phrases like “form based zoning” and “neighborhoods of stability” used to control architectural design. Often the McMansion word is used to “objectively” back up such ideas. But at what point does change move from good to bad? Was Manhattan a better place in pre-skyscraper days? Say, 1880? Or maybe skyscrapers were good until about 1970, but became bad when they simply got too big? Has New York changed for the better since 1970 or is it a worse place to live? We could debate such questions for a long time. I don’t know when we should freeze-dry a neighborhood or a town and say, “That’s it. That’s the best this place will ever be.” I do not feel qualified to make that pronouncement. When in doubt I will argue for the maximum latitude in personal expression, not the least. Let the McMansions – whatever they are – coexist with the good, the bad, and the ugly. Sometimes the rough edges are what make a city vibrant and exciting.

As an architect, I would like to see every aspect of the built environment in perfect harmony, well proportioned and beautiful. But this works best when it happens organically and with variety. By allowing great latitude in the system, mistakes may happen and things may not always look the way we want them to. Nevertheless, maximizing creative freedom also invites exciting innovations that just may point the way to a better life for everybody. On the other hand, when architecture and development are micro-managed you do not have real places, you have Disneyland. A nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Let's retire the word McMansion and have real discussions about architecture, development, and the future of our cities.

[Closing note: I don’t deny McMansions exist; I just don’t think the term should be misapplied and I don’t believe esthetics can or should be legislated by zoning. I had intended to include pictures in this blog entry as examples of my definition of McMansions. These come from what I call my Architectural Horror File -- a collection of houses with goofball proportions, misshapen details, a cacophony of materials. But they are soft targets. There are too many houses (some of them, sadly, in my own neighborhood) that are seriously flawed. I hope that they were designed without professional assistance. I’d hate to think that my colleagues are that thick.

It’s easy to be a critic, hard to be creative. Who knows what forces produced these horrors? Maybe the builder didn’t follow the plans. Maybe the architect had a bout of temporary insanity. Maybe the owners purposefully demanded some of the bizarre details. So, for now, I refrain. Besides, people actually live in some of these houses. At some point, they chose to conspicuously exhibit their bad taste. I just don’t have the heart to publicly shame them. It’s just too easy. Too easy.

So this is posted without pictures.]

Friday, June 19, 2009

Colorado Homes & Lifestyles

A residential project by Michael Knorr & Associates is featured in the current issue of Colorado Homes & Lifestyles (June/July 2009, pages 58-65) as an “Urban Nest”. The publication is available on newsstands and in bookstores such as the Tattered Cover and Barnes & Noble for $4.95. Our original clients built the house a decade ago. Under their ownership the interiors were elegantly monochromatic; the furnishings emphasized modern classics from the 1920s through the 50s. The project was previously published in the home section of the Rocky Mountain News (June 6, 1999) and was on the March 2002 cover of Builder/Architect magazine. The current owners, Dave Hurt and Scott Coors, purchased the property two years ago. They have completely redecorated the home using the talents of Jim Herring of HW Home. Warmer colors and tactile materials were introduced throughout the house. Texture and warmth provide a welcoming atmosphere. In my opinion, the house looks great in both incarnations. Here's a two page spread from the current magazine article, followed by a few images from earlier years. From tbe June/July 2009 issue of Colorado Homes & Lifestyles.

The project appeared on the cover of Builder/Architect in 2002.

A Corbusier-designed chaise as furnished by the original owners. The windows are by Hope, the same manufacturer specified by Frank Lloyd Wright for his Fallingwater masterpiece.

One of my favorite rooms is the library. The woodwork wraps the room with perfect craftsmanship.

The kitchen with a classic Eero Saarinen-designed table and chairs from the 1950s.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Women

The Women is an historical novel by T. C. Boyle (Penguin Group, New York 2009, ISBN 978-0-670-02041-6) about the life of Frank Lloyd Wright. Specifically it is about the romantic life of the famous architect. The Women reads like the plot of a soap opera. But, then, that is pretty much the way any biography of Frank Lloyd Wright reads. He led such a (deliberately?) dramatic life that any recounting elicits incredulity. Since so many biographers consistently report the same facts, we can conclude that the famous architect did indeed lead a life of over-scaled events, despite the fact that his architectural work stresses human-scaled spaces. He imbued his architecture with tranquility; meanwhile his personal life was a whirl of chaos and tension. My favorite biographical recounting is Finis Farr’s 1961 work, published just two years after Wright’s passing. I read that when I was very young so it may have left more of an impression than it deserves. A more recent (and more lascivious) version of Wright’s scandalous life is The Fellowship: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship by Roger Friedland and Harold Zellman (2007). A factual potboiler and a fascinating read. A favorite photo of Wright’s Taliesin given to me by Molly Lantz.
Possibly by photographer/inventor Ed Farber (1981).

Back to The Women. Boyle bases his book on well-documented events making his work very nearly a straight biography rather than a novelized tale. However, conversations, emotions, and motivations are necessarily conjecture, forcing it into the novel category. The reader can, however, take the bones of the story as historical record. The sordid facts are all true, documented in newspapers and magazines of the day and recounted by many people who knew Wright and lived through the events with him.

The literary device that makes The Women interesting is presenting the story backwards. Boyle reveals events in reverse chronological order, covering, in turn, the four most important women in Wright’s life. The author starts with his last wife, Oligivanna Milanoff, the daughter of a Montenegrin Supreme Court justice and student of Gurdjieff. He then moves to wife number two, Miram Noel, a morphine-addled esthete. Next Boyle covers the murdered mistress and wife of a former client, Mamah Cheney. Finally we meet Catherine, the first Mrs. Wright and mother to six of his children. A fifth woman, Wright’s mother Anna, could easily have been a major player in this tale. She had a tremendous influence on his personal and professional life. Boyle chose to limit his tale to Wright’s paramours. He does not ignore Anna, but relegates her to a minor role.

The reverse trajectory of the story makes a good tale because events that seem inexplicable or improbable when first exposed gradually make sense as the history behind them is revealed. Like real life, things that first seem bizarre often make sense when all the facts are discovered. Why is Miram Noel so erratic and vengeful? The behavior is explained by her spoiled life and troubled relationship to drugs, as we learn many pages later. How did Wright’s home, Taliesin, become a sophisticated expression of his unique style? It evolved as he rebuilt the place several times for reasons that are integral to his life story; each version of Taliesin became more refined and a clearer expression of Wright’s architectural principles.

All of this is luridly entertaining. The characters are crazy and exotic though Wright ultimately comes off as an arrogant egotist. (A term more pejorative than egoist, as pointed out by Ayn Rand many years ago when she was mislead by a dictionary. (!) A topic for another day.) Peripheral characters include celebrities, disciples, newspaper reporters, and local rubes. Wright never hesitates to turn all of them to his egotistical advantage. He allows spectacular personal events to orbit around him, apparently craving attention in order to amplify his larger-than-life persona. Few biographers would dispute the evidence of this. Many who knew him remarked on the uncomfortable opposition of his life to his life’s work. His buildings are friendly invitations to comfort and ease. His personality was self-exalted over the talents, needs, and considerations of others. An oft-quoted testament of Wright’s is that he preferred “honest arrogance” to “hypocritical humility.” It’s hard to argue with that amusing quip, except as it tends to excuse outrageously inconsiderate behavior. The warm interior of Taliesin. (From Taliesin web site.)

But this blog is less interested in Wright’s personality than his architecture. We really have to come to The Women with some knowledge of Wright’s accomplishments as an innovator and form giver or we wouldn’t be interested in his biography in the first place. In truth, he stands alone as the titan of twentieth century American architecture. He is not the only great architect this country has produced, of course. But his achievements came first in so many categories that he has to be placed at the top of the list. European-Americans contributed significant works to modern architecture. Mies van der Rohe and Richard Neutra cannot be ignored, but they freely admitted the early influence Wright had on their work even before emigrating to the United States. Locally grown architects, such as John Lautner and Bruce Goff, also made significant contributions, but they came later in the century after Wright had already staked his territory in the modern world. They also acknowledged the influence Wright had on their work. Taliesin emerges from its Wisconsin hillside. (From Taliesin web site.)

Unfortunately, The Women contains only hints of Wright’s architectural achievements. Descriptions of his buildings are sparse. That’s unfortunate since Boyle does have a gift for descriptive phrase. At one point he compares Taliesin (Wright’s rural Wisconsin home) to a Druid castle, its stone battlements anchoring it to the native hills. Most critics see the Japanese influence on Taliesin. The Druid analogy is unique, but I saw it in that light three years ago. I was driving down State Road 23 in Wisconsin on a drizzly spring day. Rounding a corner on the lonely road, Taliesin emerged from the misty hillside like an extension of the sandstone rock outcroppings in the region. It was Brigadoon… not quite real.
Southeastern Wisconsin.

“The house was beautiful… “ Miram Noel muses in The Women. “There was an aura of peace about the place… the simple transparent beauty of the place had a calming effect beyond all thought…”

Taliesin is as much a character as any of the women in The Women. Taliesin was Wright’s true love as well as the vortex of his story. Fires, multiple murders, legal theatrics, tabloid exploitations. All of this swirled around and through Taliesin.
Taliesin is often compared to the architecture of rural Japan.

Read The Women as an enjoyable summer novel. Read elsewhere for a serious understanding of Wright’s architectural work.