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What Makes a McMansion Bad Architecture? (mcmansionhell.tumblr.com)
758 points by jseliger on Aug 14, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 519 comments



The lack of balance, proportion, controlling lines[1] and symmetry are all bad aspects of nearly all modern (in the chronological sense) architecture, not simply McMansions.

My primary issue with McMansions specifically (beyond the fact that they lost the thread on western architecture, which should be blamed on the academy[2]) is that the materials and workmanship are terrible: ugly gaps, quick to stain stuccos and metals, slapdash construction and very little craftsmanship. The flip culture that the mortgage-debt bubble of the last 15 years created has exacerbated this issue to almost comical levels.

[1] - https://www.amazon.com/Old-Way-Seeing-Architecture-Magic/dp/...

[2] - https://www.amazon.com/Bauhaus-Our-House-Tom-Wolfe/dp/031242...

EDIT: After reading another post[a] of his, it is worth mentioning another chronic problem with modern (again chronological, not stylistic) building: the buildings often look like they are about to fall over. A particular pet peeve of mine is the flashing gap found at the base of many houses and buildings, which introduces a disconcerting negative gap right where a soothing, wide foundation should be. Visual insanity.

[a] - http://mcmansionhell.tumblr.com/post/148935246684/mcmansions...


One classic case of this is that the "landscaping" at these developments almost always consists of bagged and burlapped shrubs that are planted without removing the burlap.

The roots usually don't penetrate the burlap so after two years you can walk around this kind of place and see all the shrubs are yellow and dead.

Big picture I disagree with the general outlook of the article. If we've learned anything about architecture through anti-architects such as Jacobs and Venturi it is that buildings are meant for people to live and work in and not to prove a point about aesthetics or aggrandize the architect or whoever hired the architect. There are plenty of buildings that have "balance" and "rhythm" but the roof leaks or there are spots that get to 105F when the sun shines in.

McMansions fail because they are designed to be impressive for the first fifteen minutes when they are showing the house rather than to be effective and economical "machines for living" as Buckminister Fuller would have put it.


> The lack of balance, proportion, controlling lines[1] and symmetry are all bad aspects of nearly all modern (in the chronological sense) architecture, not simply McMansions.

And this is because most "modern" houses are about cramming the checklist of real-estate criteria (3 bedrooms, 2.5 baths, 2+ car garage, etc.) into a building that can then be stamped out the maximal number of times in the minimal amount of land area.

This is what happens when the value of land becomes the overriding factor.

In addition, architects derided the houses built during the post-war era, too. The difference was that the post WWII houses didn't have homeowner's associations enforcing "standards" so they evolved over time to become the "quaint" neghborhoods that everybody so loves today.


The McMansions showcased in the articles are well beyond cramming anything (they are huge) and does not look like the kind of house where the owners would appreciate having 12 other houses looking the same as neighbours. Indeed, as soon as you're stamping out houses, you'll want to hire a real architect to make them appealing to as many people as possible, which means balanced, proportioned and symmetric (if unoriginal, but that's not what the article is about).

If anything, the absurdness of McMansions appears to be driven by a desire to be fancier than anything anyone has seen anywhere else.


I used to know an architect who designed stamped-out houses. According to her, she'd present an aesthetic design, and then the building corporation would trim away all the better elements to cut costs, leaving an ugly vaguely historical-looking box with windows, a door, and a roof.

> the absurdness of McMansions appears to be driven by a desire to be fancier than anything anyone has seen anywhere else.

It's easy - and fun - to scoff, but I think a lot of buyers and owners genuinely don't notice the difference between crapchitecture and something with real style and flair.

Also applies at the high end. Take a virtual drive around houses for sale in Beverley Hills. There are some real kitsch classics available - including some real architect-designed modernism-in-a-box neo-kitsch stand-outs.


> It's easy - and fun - to scoff

I think that's a great point. It's an easy way out to frame a discussion like this. "McMansions exist because people are tacky and have bad taste".

I think it's more interesting to look at it from the other perspective. Why is it such a popular design?

Maybe the quaintness of pre-war/post-war housing did not keep up with the needs of modern life. Maybe we need more space, and more privacy from the ever expanding sprawl of suburbia to feel safe, and sheltered (in a mental sense). The cheesy facade could just be a simple tool to keep the building's quick-and-dirty plaster walls, within the scope of the suburban vernacular.

I actually grew up in a McMansion. I always thought it was a great house. We had a pool, and two concrete lion statues guarding the front door. Thinking back on it makes me cringe. How could my parent's buy a house like that? It oozed with tackiness.

But it got the job done.

It was large, had enough room for the whole family, and was a physical manifestation of their hard work.

When neighbors stopped talking to each other and only focused their attention on their own families, it became harder to flaunt wealth. Maybe the McMansions are just a clearer, and louder, cultural identifier, compared to things like gold watches and fine clothing?


> I actually grew up in a McMansion. I always thought it was a great house. We had a pool, and two concrete lion statues guarding the front door. Thinking back on it makes me cringe. How could my parent's buy a house like that? It oozed with tackiness.

If you’d grown up in a normal-sized house (maybe 1000–1800 sq. ft., depending on family size), you’d also have thought it was a “great house”.

Kids in general tend not to question their natural environment much. There are some amenities (electric lighting, hot showers, indoor plumbing, washing machines, telephones, HVAC, ...) which make a noticeable difference to quality of life compared to growing up in a wattle and daub shack with a dirt floor.

On the other hand, having an extra 6 miscellaneous rooms to store random crap, giant walk-in closets, 4 bathrooms, a huge home theater, or supersized bedrooms makes only a very slight difference to anyone, except insofar as it signals to the neighbors that you‘re rich and gives you 3x more cleaning to do.

My parents who grew up in families with 5 kids in tiny 3-bedroom 1-bathroom houses in the 50s thought their houses were great. I’m sure they would have appreciated 1–2 extra small bedrooms and an extra bathroom, but it wasn’t a big deal.

The much larger problem with McMansions is that they tend to be in suburbs with huge distances between places and streets actively hostile to pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit. Absolutely everything requires a car ride to get to: friends’ houses, the park, school, grocery stores, little shops, cafés, restaurants, the library, the doctor’s office, concert venues, museums, etc. Such an exterior/public environment is incredibly constricting for everyone, but especially for kids, the elderly, the disabled, and the poor.


The conversation always seems to get very judgy when taking about American suburbia. Yes, most houses are ugly, and have too much shit packed into them, but I think you can find that anywhere. Rich people and poor people in cities and rural areas alike will probably keep stuff around that they don't need, and want more rooms than needed in their current home.

Suburbs are always going to be more hostle towards pedestrians and cyclists, and we are currently seeing a trend of people moving away from them.

Unfortunately design is often used as a tool to judge others. I had the chance to study art history, but that does not give me the right to make broad and generalized statements about where people live and what they choose to do with their lives and money.

If we want to see the ugly American McMansion go away, we should spend more time coming up with good designs that fit the needs of the people who buy them, rather than trying to convince them that what they currently own Is ugly.

Apple did this with great success. They built a product that the consumer didn't know they needed. They imparted their design principles on the public through a solid product line, rather than telling them their current computer were ugly.

People might not need McMansions, but they are still going to want then. Until there is a better design for the same price, people are going to buy them.


Rich people who live/ed in actual mansions often end up just using a mini apartment inside the thing and the number one complaint is how long it takes to walk somewhere. They where large for parties, to support staff, and look impressive not because people actually wanted a lot of space.

Mcmansions are designed to be cheap to construct while being easy to sell. Buyers are attracted to distinctive structures as houses blend together when you look at 20+ of the things. They also default to check boxes has a pool y/n not aesthetics. Thus, your idea of 'a few good designs' makes them harder to sell.

Interestingly people with a lot of money (10-100's of millions) now days often go for small but very distinctive buildings. Think frank lloyd wright not huge but art in large part because they don't need or want lot's of staff and will often just rent out structures for party's.


> Suburbs are always going to be more hostle towards pedestrians and cyclists, and we are currently seeing a trend of people moving away from them.

That trend did not last very long:

http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2016/03/24/more-americans-are...


The suburbs that are gaining people are becoming more urban-like, or at least more old-school-small-town-like, since the newcomers expect urban amenities such as bike and pedestrian friendly streets.


I live in a mid-sized city. You can pretty correlate younger people moving away with school lottery results.

If you draw the Montessori-esque or really good conventional school, you stay. If you draw the schools in the hood, the for sale sign is up within 72 hours. If you draw one of the ok-ish schools, it's about 50-50 based on income.


>Apple did this with great success. They built a product that the consumer didn't know they needed. They imparted their design principles on the public through a solid product line, rather than telling them their current computer were ugly.

And look where that got us: we went from Windows XP, Vista, and finally 7, to the UGLY horror shows of Windows 8/8.1 and 10. You may think your Apple UI looks nice, but for 99% of office workers, they're now either stuck with the hideous Metro UI, or they're going to be really soon as soon as their IT department upgrades them.


" gives you 3x more cleaning to do."

This so much. I don't have a McMansion but I have a house that was added on to and has a total of 4bed 3 bath. The living room, 1 bathroom and 3 bedrooms would be like one "great room" in a McMansion. I feel like all we do is clean. We wouldn't even use the older side of our house if I didn't have my office in it, and my 5 month-old's future room. Before that we lived in the master suite/kitchen/utility room area.

Maybe people who have McMansions can hire cleaning staff or something? We basically spend every weekend cleaning and doing yard work. There really isn't any time during the week after working so many hours, especially when I'm traveling, and taking care of a kid.


> I feel like all we do is clean.

> my 5 month-old

Oh boy. You haven't even begun to clean :-)

Two kids under 4, a third on the way. We sweep the hardwoods an average of twice a day (dining room and kitchen are in the hardwood section), and it's still always gross. And that's just one thing. We burn probably 6-8 hours a week on cleaning, and definitely could do more.

And yardwork. Ugh. I hate it. I'd happily live in a house with a postage-stamp of a yard with 1/4 the total sqftage of our current one. Front yards especially. I mean, what the hell? Get rid of 'em. Especially since smaller yards would mean higher density, which means things like parks and pools are closer.


It sounds like you need to buy a Roomba for your hardwood floors.

As for smaller yards, not having a yard means your neighbors are looking in your windows from their houses, and traffic is driving right by your front door, and sometimes through your front door or living room window when a drunk driver loses control.

A shared pool now means you have to have an HOA to own and manage the pool and common spaces, and they're going to charge you outrageous fees because they're embezzling a lot of the money (by hiring contractors who are their cronies, and paying them way too much), plus they'll have all kinds of rules about what you can do with your house and you'll get fines for every little thing. If you're going to live like that, you might as well just rent an apartment; at least with an apartment you're not on the hook for any maintenance costs at all, and you can move out when your lease expires without penalty, instead of trying to find some new sucker to buy your place and put up with the HOA.


> It sounds like you need to buy a Roomba for your hardwood floors.

Considered it, but when I asked around with other parents, reviews were universally poor. Plus so much of the stuff that ends up on the floor in the dining area is (I'm guessing) too large for a Roomba to handle without burning out the motor inside a year (think a couple handfuls worth of whole peas) so we'd end up sweeping about as much anyway.


Maybe I'm missing something, but if you spill a bunch of food all over your floor, you're supposed to sweep it up right away, before people step all over it and make a huge mess; that isn't something that's supposed to wait for a regular cleaning. At least, that's how normal people live.

The Roomba can handle a few stray peas here and there. I think you're underestimating it. But if you're making a huge mess on your floor every day, then it's not really meant for that, though you might want to look at why you're making such a mess in the first place; is someone in the family a huge klutz or something? I have hardwood floors on the first floor and barely do any cleaning at all, mainly I just sweep around the litter boxes more often. It just doesn't get that dirty, even with 3 adults.


> is someone in the family a huge klutz or something?

(quoting myself)

> Two kids under 4

So, yes. :-)

Though this is a problem that time (and persistence) will fix, eventually.


> Two kids under 4

Whoops, missed that part! That explains everything.


> And yardwork. Ugh. I hate it. I'd happily live in a house with a postage-stamp of a yard with 1/4 the total sqftage of our current one.

The best use for a yard is to turn it into vegetable gardens and animal pens. Make it productive, not just pointless, wasted space.


I live on a 50 acre farm and work (mostly) remotely.

Most of the farm is hay fields and woodlot, but on 5 of the acres we raise pigs, sheep, and chickens, have a 1,000 ft^2 greenhouse, a vineyard, a berry patch, and two 3,000 ft^2 crop gardens.

If you're going to say "hey, I've got a solution to the hard work of mowing a lawn", we need to have a long conversation.

...perhaps while we remove rocks from one of the fields and use them to build a wall? Beverages are on me.


> If you're going to say "hey, I've got a solution to the hard work of mowing a lawn", we need to have a long conversation.

Heh, it's not a way to reduce the hard work, but a way to actually get a return on all that work.

Also, I am completely envious.


Completely off topic, but what happened to Smartflix and its assets (DVDs)? Is there a writeup/explaination somewhere (since the website is no longer available)?


Around the time I moved to a farm, I sold the firm to an employee for a nominal fee, she ran it for another year, and then shut it down.

As per the sale agreement, when it did shut down, I ended up with most of the DVDs. So now, on the farm, I've got a tractor, hay baling equipment, a chicken scalder, a chicken plucker, an industrial meat grinder, a welding rig... and 40,000 DVDs on various how-to topics. :)


40,000, wow. I guess it would be a lot of work to auction those off on ebay one at a time. Maybe you could bundle them up in ~10 DVD bundles for specific topic areas, like metalworking, etc..


I know what you mean. I have all hardwood and 4 dogs. I basically run our roomba everyday to help a little bit and still need to vacuum every weekend. The little guy doesn't do any damage, yet. I'm in the middle of nowhere so I cut about 5 acres out of the 15 I own. It used to take 4-5 hours to cut grass. I got a zero turn mower and it takes about 2 hours now. I guess that's the tradeoff for living on what basically looks like a national park.


Didn't have a house. Grew up in a tiny 1 room appartment with my parents, then moved to a 2 room appartment and actually had my own room since 2nd grade. And yes that was a "great house". The 2 room tiny appartment felt like so much space.


You have an interesting perspective.

I'm reminded that in a lot of places outside of the US, flaunting your wealth is considered a big faux pas.

> and was a physical manifestation of their hard work.

Not being a home owner, or a car owner, or a gold watch owner, or fine clothing owner myself, does it seem necessary to have a physical manifestation of one's wealth to flaunt? Does it really speak positively about a person?


I'm not arguing that it's a positive signal. I'm saying they (the home owner) think it's a positive signal.

I also would say that flaunting your wealth is not an American invention. It's probably more common than you think around the globe. I would think that it's a common occurance in any rapidly expanding economy. China and India have some widely tacky architecture. Whole towns replicating iconic Western cities. I think it's an interesting pattern in developing economies. We all seem to look at Europe when trying to show how far we've come, or how successfull we've become. It's when people don't have an interest in, or don't have time to have an interest in design, where we see things like McMansions.

In short - Why is all tacky architecture some sort of French or British knockoff?

Only other example I can think of that goes against this trend is the fake Adobe house, or the fake Spanish tile house... The American West's and Southwest's version of the McMansion. Houses that copy the look of traditional architecture without any of the actual benefits of the design, like good insulation.

All this stuff is fascinating to me. The cross roads of semiotics and contemporary, tacky architecture. What does it mean to build a mini Versailles? What does European classicism in American architecture say about our society?


> Whole towns replicating iconic Western cities

it's not just a pattern in developing economies. it also happens in las vegas, but that's different, somehow.


> I'm reminded that in a lot of places outside of the US, flaunting your wealth is considered a big faux pas

Where is that? In all the countries I have been the wealthy like to wear special clothes, build large houses, drive expensive cars. In some countries they wear more jewlery, in others they talk about expensive trips they go to.


It's common enough. Outside of the US, it's referred to pretty commonly as 'Tall Poppy Syndrome' (especially AU and NZ) pr the 'Crab Mentality'. In Ireland, it's related to the twin concepts of 'Begrudgery' and 'Notions'. The Netherlands has 'Maaiveldcultuur'. And the Law of Jante has already been mentioned.

Fundamentally, it's a way to promote social cohesion, albeit in negative terms. It's not, however, against success, but against the idea that success inherently makes you a better person deserving of putting on superior airs: the successful should not rub the faces of others in their success.


Such attitudes themselves are often associated with classism -- ostentatious possessions are generally the realm of the nouveau riche.


In Berlin in particular, and Germany/Austria in general. There are some very fancy districts in Berlin but in most of it I think driving a very fancy car will cause more negative than positive reactions.

In Vienna in my experience it is very important to seem cultivated (knowledgeable in the arts, music, etc), but wealth doesn't seem to be as big a factor (more so than in Berlin though).

Munich is supposedly a lot more wealth-focused but I think probably still not quite as much as some places in the US. Extreme but slightly relevant example: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3260135/I-ve-created...

"The multi-millionaire and his pneumatic wife told us how they were hounded out of Germany for being too flashy, saying people would spit on their Ferrari and sneer at Maria's large breasts.

So Bastian packed up his life and settled in LA to fulfill his dream of living the 'Baywatch life' after he became obsessed with the show while growing up in cold, landlocked Munich."


Irish guy I knew once told me:

The difference between the an American and an Irishman is that the American looks at the mansion on the hill and says, "someday, I'm gonna be that guy". The Irishman looks at the mansion on the hill and says, "someday... I'm gonna get that bastard".

(I'm sure this is an old joke and he didn't think of it, and it's probably been applied to many nationalities)


Its quite different how one shows their wealth country to country. Houses I thought were complete dumps in Rome are amazing to see at night - the lights go on and massive oil painting and amazing interiors are visible in what looked like near derelict buildings.


The Nordic countries, at least. In general you're not supposed to show your wealth, though wealth in any case isn't very common as the societies are very equalizing due to low income differences and progressive taxation.

Read about the "Law of Jante" for the extreme of this mentality (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_Jante). I think the first rule pretty well sums up the thought behind this:

  You're not to think *you* are anything special.


I think this point of view is a bit exaggerated. For example, 1% of the world's USD billionaires live in Sweden. (More billionaires per capita than e.g. the US.) If you walk around in Swedish cities (at least the major cities) it’s not really hard to tell that some citizens are a lot more wealthy than others. I’m not sure about the other Nordic countries but I would guess the situation is similar in at least Norway and Denmark.

[Edited to add more ”meat” to the comment.]


Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, is one of these fabulously rich Swedish people. He drives around in an old Volvo; and lives in a modest house. This is how he wishes to be seen.

The fact that he also owns several sports cars and a villa on the French Riviera, is not something he wants publicized.


>Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, is one of these fabulously rich Swedish people. He drives around in an old Volvo;

That seems like a bad idea to me. Old Volvos were indeed very safe by the standards of the time, but compared to a modern car, they're simply not. Here in the US, 30,000 people die in auto accidents every year (it's somewhere around 250k/year worldwide). If you have a ton of money, you might as well get a new car and protect yourself. A brand-new bottom-of-the-line Volvo will let you walk away from crashes that some old Volvo would kill you in. And surely a new V60 or S60 (their lowest-end models IIRC, unless they still have S40s there) wouldn't look too out-of-place in Sweden of all places (where the cars come from).


Warren Buffet drives a plain sedan to work in Omaha.

Steve Jobs never swanked up his house either.

Bill Gates's mansion was built primarily to try to showcase Microsoft development efforts (don't laugh! okay, laugh).


Disingenuous I think.

I would rather someone who has legitimately made a billion dollars just go buy a yacht and a Ferrari and drive them around.

Kamprad has a pretty solid tax-avoidance scheme going on too. Completely legal but frowned upon by those who think he should "pay his fair share".


Yes we have Warren Buffet worth over $60B, but lives in a relatively small house, has a $100k salary and so on.

But he is the exception not the rule when it comes to how the wealthy live typically.


As a casual observer, it seems to me that these countries have little income inequality. Wealth inequality certainly exists. I would argue that the latter is actually a bigger problem.


so you don't believe wealth begets income? strange view.


Yes, I suppose I was exaggerating. But the equalizing mentality does exist, even if it probably grows weaker with every new generation.


I guess it's no problem to be rich, as long as you don't pretend it makes you in any way superior to others. Enjoy it, but don't flaunt it. Don't make others jealous of what you've got and they don't.


> I'm reminded that in a lot of places outside of the US, flaunting your wealth is considered a big faux pas.

Here in Yankee-land, it is also frowned upon.


America finds it acceptable to flaunt wealth in a few places: Vegas. LA. Miami. SV, some. New York, kind of. But what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

In day-to-day America, claimed frugality wins. Most Americans will tell you their house was a "deal" in a place with good schools. Our cars are huge because we drive long distances with large families. Our warehouse memberships are to gain purchasing power over toilet paper and peanut butter - not gulfstreams or penthouses.

Granted, as Tom Wolfe observed in another place, our plumbers now live better than most Roman emperors. But you don't want to see an America that actually internalizes wealth flaunting.


Is it a popular design? In most of these new building associations, you only get one or two floor plans to choose from.


> According to her, she'd present an aesthetic design, and then the building corporation would trim away all the better elements to cut costs, leaving an ugly vaguely historical-looking box with windows, a door, and a roof.

Couldn't it then be argued that her design did not fit the specification? If these houses need to be produced as cheaply as possible, wouldn't it then be better to focus on achieving aesthetics using the minimal amount of extra materials, ensuring that there is nothing to trim away?


No, she was hired specifically to make something that looked good with a reasonable budget.

Then when she made something that looked good, someone else was hired to cut costs further.

You might think this makes no sense at all. But to a certain kind of business-oriented mind, it's perfectly logical.

A huge problem with traditional business process thinking is lack of organic understanding. It's incredibly hard to find people who can understand a project/process in the round with a deep understanding of cause and effect, and not just as a collection of formulas - one of which always seems to be "cut costs" - applied mechanically.

Of course it can appear to make sense in pure financial terms. But there are social and environmental costs which don't appear on the balance sheet, and possibly also opportunity costs in lost customer goodwill.


Would most houses in Beverley Hills or Bel Air be considering McMansions? I thought the vast majority are pretty far from that style. When I think McMansions I think Hollywood Hills or Atherton or even Los Gatos.


I dunno. Uncle Phil's house was what came to my mind for many years when hearing "McMansion."


McMansions look asymmetrical and have terrible "rhythm" on purpose, because it makes it MUCH more difficult for a casual observer to tell they are cookie cutter.


I'm a bit confused about what McMansion refers to. Is it cheaper-than-they-look 13-a-dozen suburban hell houses? Or is it gigantic sprawling mansions for those with more money than taste?


On the other hand, not enforcing standards gives everybody the opportunity to be one's own judge on aesthetics, and not everybody is good at that.

Belgium is well-known for that kind of freedom (for examples, see http://uglybelgianhouses.tumblr.com/)


Are you actually using that as an example of ugly houses?

Because to me, it looks infinitely better than the endless and faceless American suburbia.

And frankly, some of those are low-blows that look like they are about to be torn down or aren't actively being inhabited or maintained. And they still manage to look on par (at least in uniqueness if not in presentability)


Concur. American suburbs are my idea of hell. http://static1.squarespace.com/static/53dd6676e4b0fedfbc26ea...


Many people buy houses for their utility, not because it makes them a special snowflake.


I live in an apartment in a major city for the utility and because it makes me happy. I am within walking distance of a cooperative food market, a Trader Joe's, and four supermarkets. I am within walking distance of dozens of bars, restaurants, concert venues, cafes, and bookstores.

I can walk to my community darkroom, where I spend hours developing film and black and white prints.

I can walk to work. It's between 1.67 and 2.5 miles each way, depending on the route. The walk back includes an elevation gain of about 300 feet, giving me a pretty decent cardio workout just by commuting.

I drove briefly today because I had to go to purchase containers to store my overflowing material possessions (oh, irony). I was stuck in traffic, and it sucked. I love getting to bus, or take the light rail, or the street car, or walking.

I love living in a dense neighborhood overflowing with interesting people and shops, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. If that makes me a special snowflake, then so be it.


That's great, and I'd certainly rather live somewhere with higher population density, but if there's anywhere in my city that 1) is not a horrible mcmansion suburb, 2) has good schools, and 3) isn't ZOMGWTF high priced, I haven't seen it.

Lots of people live in suburbia not because they love it, but because they can't afford a decent place in/near the city and a good private school for their kids. Probably 75% of the cool houses in my city are in high(ish) crime areas with awful schools, and the rest are way out of my price range (and often still have bad public schools)


Some people love suburbia. You don't have to worry about mugging, loud neighbors, the blight of most urban architecture, piss-stained subways, the ability to own space as opposed to rent it, and more. Being able to have woods in your backyard, being able to walk out to see a stream, being able to get in a car at any time you like and go out to explore...those are sizable benefits.

Oh, and you can bicycle for pleasure with far more safety in most suburban areas, and jog too. You can own your own garden, build a shed or workshop on your own property, and do a lot of things that the worker drone lifestyle of an urban apartment won't let you do.


"Oh, and you can bicycle for pleasure with far more safety in most suburban areas"

Cycling for transport, on the other hand, is hell on Earth. My rib still aches now and then from the driver who hit me while I rode home from work (and then was shocked I wanted to call the police).


I wish people would discuss this more often.

You get "horrible mcmansion suburbs", in large part because they are cheap. People have to live somewhere, and anything that isn't a suburban detached house is unaffordable for 95+% of the American population. People pose this as a choice, but when the only alternative is crappy apartments or being homeless -- it's not really a choice.

I'd love to live in a Brownstone, or a Townhouse, or a Highrise, or a "dense urban area" that can support some form of functional public transit. Someday, I might be a millionaire who can afford that. Until that happens, I live in a suburban box, and drive everywhere, just like every other person in this entire state. Suburbs aren't cheap -- but they're the only somewhat-affordable housing option in the nation.


This conversation is about architecture. Walkability of a neighborhood is a different discussion.


If it's a different discussion, it's extremely related. Storefronts with no doors on the street (because everyone uses the lot in the back), or buildings set back 80 feet from the sidewalk, all make a neighborhood more hostile.


The architectural monoculture guarantees that there will never be a cafe, restaurant or bookstore.


That's not correct. Many of these housing developments specifically have sections zoned for small shopping areas that have precisely those things.


no, this conversation's about people telling other people what to like and how to live.


As are zoning requirements, parking minimums, and HOA's, so apparently prescribing a particular lifestyle is something folks are quite fond of. Given that the winning side has generally been the one fond of low-density, sprawling, single-use architecture, it seems worthwhile to discuss the merits of said architecture and its impact on the people who live in it.


[flagged]


> ... the anti-suburb circlejerk on HN

Please don't include things like this in comments. It's neither necessary nor OK.


Yours. Plenty of us would rather the suburbs than... most anywhere else.


Honest question: why?


Many people dislike the congestion, noise, and higher expense of space of the city.

The average income of the US is like 50k. If you have a family of 4 the size of apartment you get on that income in a city is extremely cramped. Additionally, the allure of walking everywhere quickly disappears when you have a 2 and 5 year old.


> Additionally, the allure of walking everywhere quickly disappears when you have a 2 and 5 year old.

Does it? Many people have small children in my peer group, and I've seen them moving to walking through their neighborhood rather than driving to their errands. The difference might be that German cities are much more hospitable to pedestrians in general. Also, there is sane public transit which is helpful if your toddler doesn't like to walk anymore.


"German cities are much more hospitable to pedestrians in general"

From what I've seen, German cities are much more hospitable to _humans_ in general. Towns too, for that matter. And Germany isn't exactly hostile to automobiles, which is impressive considering there's usually a conflict between walkability and drivability.


>Does it?

Yes, walking 2 miles with a two and five year old is awful. I suppose the experience from person to person is different, but I find two-year-olds to be quite selfish with short legs making them bad walking companions.

>Also, there is sane public transit which is helpful if your toddler doesn't like to walk anymore.

That sounds like not walking to me, but whatever.


"Yes, walking 2 miles with a two and five year old is awful."

If you're walking two miles for normal errands your city is poorly designed.


This. Also, most small children here have a tricycle or something similar once they're old enough to walk on their own. Sometimes the parent will carry or pull the tricycle, sometimes the child will use it if it does not want to walk.


It's a common complaint people give. "Well I can't see carrying 8 bags of groceries a few miles without my car"

But within 2000 feet of my apartment I have at least 4 or 5 grocery stores. The main reason they're so damn far apart in suburban America is that a 15,000 square foot grocery store might have 60,000 square feet of parking. US Suburbia basically _is_ parking and roads, with the occasional building sprinkled here and there on top of the skidpad.

If you've never lived outside of it, though, you're blind to it. It's like trying to explain why you'd want an umbrella to someone on Arrakeen.


I have my groceries delivered. That saves a lot of trouble. Small purchases easily go in my bike or in a backpack.


> It's like trying to explain why you'd want an umbrella to someone on Arrakeen.

Or, in this case, like trying to explain distances in feet to a non-American. :)

Good thing there's units(1).


I feel like there's more to it. When Americans visit me in Dublin they ask, before they get here, how I get by without a car. I don't think they really fathom that not only can it be done, it's actually easier when the city is well-designed. And Dublin's not even particularly great in that regard!


To be fair, that has more to do with the US than with suburbia vs city.

I'm European and I wouldn't want to live in a place like most US suburbs ever.


you would if you had kids you cared about. the schools in suburban areas in the states are magnitudes better than comps in the city. there's a fucking reason people pay and pay dearly to live in those areas.


You didn't read what I said. I wouldn't want to live in US suburbia.

My wife and I actually live in two places right now because of our line of work:

There's a 2BR apartment in a German city with about a million residents. It's not exactly downtown but definitely urban. It's actually slightly less central than the place I grew up but it's where we mostly stay when working on-site for clients in the region.

We also live in a 3BR apartment in a German town with about 15k residents. When we have children, this is where they will grow up until we need a bigger place.

I wouldn't want to live in US cities either, but for completely unrelated reasons. I'm more inclined to believe that it's possible to find a bearable place in urban regions in the US than in the traditional American cliché suburbia. Either way I'd prefer almost any apartment I've lived in (except for the tiny 1BR place we stayed when we were studying) over that.


It sounds like you are judging the entire US based on almost no information. The snobbish condescension is almost insufferable. Maybe try providing some interesting information in your comments about what it is that you don't like about US suburbia.


320M people have managed to find places in our 3.8M sqare miles "bearable". did you learn about america from movies?


By choosing suburbia you are part of the force underfunding city schools and perpetuating the problem.


Probably. But you choosing to have your kids go to a suburban school doesn't singlehandedly cause it, and you choosing to remain in an urban environment won't singlehandedly fix it.

So the choice remains, do you want your kids to go to a good school or a cruddy school? If you care about your kids and are mildly practical, this question answers itself.


i lived in chicago for 20 years. the city schools were funded just fine, the teachers' pensions (generous to say the least) weren't. i'm a lot more interested in my kid being safe and challenged at school than i am in paying for some retired teacher to take more vacations.


And yet they fail to teach capitalization. Or tact.


"you would if you had kids you cared about."

With that statement, you just lost any credibility your point had.


And yet childhood obesity is an increasing problem in the US. Maybe the suburban "let's drive everywhere" mentality is part of the problem.


If that were the case, childhood obesity would have risen like a missile in the 50's and 60's.


have you people never been to a suburb? obesity is definitely not a problem in the suburbs i've lived in. we're talking mcmansions here -- parents are likely climbers pushing their kids into every activity of every imaginable kind (good or bad).


Anecdotal, but I've noticed you can get a pretty good sense of the wealth level of neighborhoods in my city by who's out on the sidewalks on a summer weekday morning: skinny kids and overweight adults, all walking? Poor neighborhood. Skinny good-looking joggers? Rich neighborhood. The more attractive the average jogger, the richer it is.


I grew up in a tony suburb. Sure, the average kid who lived in one wasn't obese (although their parents are another matter), but for every McMansion there are 1000 people who work in the Walmarts, Home Depots, and AutoZones, and obesity rates among them are sky high.


In an inner ring burb, or a New England town, you don't have to enroll the kid in anything to avoid obesity. Mine has to climb down and back up an 80 foot hill any time she wants to go to the library or ice cream shop.


> Additionally, the allure of walking everywhere quickly disappears when you have a 2 and 5 year old.

Here's how Dutch parents solve that problem: https://www.babboe.be/media/easyslide/Babboe-City-Bakfiets-T...

Though a 2 year old can still go in a stroller, and the 5 year old can walk. (And some strollers these days come with a platform where the 5 year old can stand.)


Lacks the crowded bustle of the city, it's generally quiet when I walk outside. Yet I'm close enough to the city to take a train there if need be. Major events aren't far away, but aren't in my backyard. Crime rate is lower, police response time is incredible.

I live in a condo, but even in a condo, drastically more space than you'd get in the city for less money.

I feel I have a better quality of life in the suburbs on my income than someone with twice my salary would have living in the city.

I get that it isn't for everyone, but every couple weeks HN has a 'the suburbs are awful' post, and I feel that's incredibly unwarranted. Urban vs. suburban vs. rural is a lifestyle choice and a preference.


Backyards are extremely convenient, as opposed to walking/driving to a park, when you have dogs and/or small children.


the suburbs are mostly about crime (none) and schools (much better). this entire thread is filled with pedantic bullshit from people who haven't got a clue.


The problem here is not the ugliness of the houses, but the fact that they all look alike. But you've got the exact same thing in other countries, except that in the US, they are detached, which in Netherland tends to be too expensive for middle incomes. Those who can afford detached houses, can afford unique houses. Here, identical houses come in long rows: http://www.vansantvoort.nl/wp-content/uploads/46_rijtjeshuis...


Suburbs would be a lot better if they had shops and stuff instead of endless rows of houses. Low-density housing is ok, but why not put down a small mall every few blocks with stores and apothecaries that stocks essentials and maybe has a cinema or an arcade.


Builders often include business expansion lots between the residences and the arterial road, purportedly for businesses like that. Hardly anyone ever buys one of the lots to build there until long after the area is already too developed to build a business building anywhere else.

This indicates to me that developers tend to overvalue their owned lots near a neighborhood that they just filled with McMansions, almost as though they were selling lots that already had local businesses in them. They would do a lot better to just build the strip mall first, stick one franchised business in to anchor it, sell the house lots, then spin off the strip mall ownership into a separate business after 80% of the lots are built.

The home builders see it as someone else's problem. The houses are their moneymaker, and the businesses can take care of themselves. It's almost as though they have never heard of loss leaders.


You're describing Phoenix, Arizona there. The city (and most of the surrounding cities, with the exception of downtown Phoenix itself and downtown Tempe) is divided into streets along a 1-mile grid system. The low-density housing is usually located in the interiors of these 1-square-mile blocks, while the corners usually have strip malls with pharmacies, small shops, grocery stores, and sometimes cinemas. (Arcade? Those are extremely rare these days. Usually you'll only see them at a large mall.)


Why don't just live in a real city, with shops, pubs, parks, or centers to socialize almost everywhere?

Being on a suburb like that feels like puttying your house on its own prison for houses.


Because the city is full of fucking people. Crowds, lines, innumerable traffic jams. Or... I can live outside the city, with less of all those things, and more green space, and I don't have to hear my neighbors through the wall.


I would go crazy trying to find a particular house in there. This is worse than Plattenbausiedlungen. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plattenbau)


I know you're using that stock picture as an example of cookie-cutter-stepford-wives-american-hoa-creepiness, but taking a look at those from the air I see a really good use of interior space for low-slung structures, and some charming garden/enclosed deck/pool design going on. Looks like there's some real cozy gems in that neighborhood.

You gotta get in your car to get most places, sure. But it could be much worse.


It's ugly by my book. But it's not my house so it is not my business.

Risk is part of life. And the risk that your neighbour might build an ugly house is hardly one of the worst ones. (And the expected future value of your land is a guess, not a right).


Those Belgian houses are ugly in a cute and endearing way, kind of like bulldogs. McMansions are ugly in a boring and tedious way.


Wow, that's hideous, thanks for sharing. I guess it's what you are more used to, European ugliness pains me much more than US. The sameness of US suburbia does not bother me much, as I didn't grow up with it. Also, at least there is a lawn and place for a pool. With those Belgian catastrophes (though could be any European country really), there is no benefit.


The one with the "I'm puzzled" caption is actually kind of cool. It's not pretty, but they're on to something. With some polish from an architect it could have become really good, I think.


Some of those are ugly, but some paint and an artistic mind would get those less ugly. I admit, I like some of the houses on that list. But I'm pretty weird.


Most of the houses look like semidetached houses where one half has been demolished.


This is like saying computer manufactures are cramming the checklist (4-8 cores, 12 gb ram, terrbyte HD, etc) into any old case which can be stamped out the maximum number of times with the least overhead.

Yes it is true, and no there is nothing wrong about it. Complaining about the homes that other people choose to live in is just snobbishness.

If you want to own a nice looking computer because it appeases you in some intangible way, you can buy a mac (and many people do). But don't complain that many (most?) people buy a PC strictly for the checklist, and many people buy the mcmansion strictly for the checklist.


This is only true if the house is isolated, rather than in a neighborhood. The feel of a neighborhood—how welcoming it is, how it promotes healthy behaviors and discourages unhealthy ones (including crime), how neighbors interact with each other—is partly influenced by the architecture of the homes therein. Your neighbors absolutely are impacted by your home's design. While some of it no doubt is due to "snobbishness", much of it is also out of concern for the neighborhood as a whole. The same can't be said for a computer, which, even if it is in a highly visible area, won't impact anything outside of a dozen sqft or so.


I thought we were talking about McMansions? Do you really think that the shape of the support columns on the portico is what affects "healthy behaviors"?


This is exactly the kind of thought process that leads to HOAs dictating what color your siding can be, what materials your roof can be made out of, and whether or not you can have a flag in your front yard.


Of course, it can be taken too far. But that doesn't mean that reasonable restrictions aren't desirable. I could take your argument to its other extreme, and point out that the lack of any sort of HOA/neighborhood association/city code enforcement can lead to run-down slums.


If HOAs truly cared about aesthetics, there would be no market for asphalt shingles.


I fail to understand the hatred towards HOAs, I swear that most people simply parrot what they have heard before and the story just reaches legendary proportions and becomes accepted as fact.

HOAs also protect quaint neighborhoods from becoming chain link fenced over grown slums too. They can protect some older homes from being razed or having a 6k square foot home replace a 1.5k house on the same lot. The can protect you from neighbors who won't maintain their homes, leave disabled cars out, and generally just make a neighborhood annoying. They are very little different from building management groups that keep people from making the high rise you live in hell.

Yes there are some bad ones but you can usually predict those by simply talking to people in the prospective neighborhood. Also read the HOA and architectural guidelines of any place that has them you look at, when it gets into details about what can be planted, ground cover, and down to the type of pine bark/straw use there is, well that is an indication you will have HOA Nazis.

Given what I have seen with subdivisions that ended their HOAs or didn't have them I would keep them in any small lot setup (once you pass an acre HOAs become less relevant as your neighbors are less noticeable)


I refused to move to a neighborhood with a compulsory HOA, and instead landed in an area with a voluntary HOA. We moved to an older suburban neighborhood that is just filled with community pride, and just exudes a neighborly feeling. We felt the same way about your 1+ acre rule, but man, were we wrong.

That said, while we've been here less than a year, we've had run-ins with the HOA. The HOA has determined that the big yellow recycling bins are 'ugly', and should be kept out of sight except when they are at the curb on pickup day. The HOA has been hounding my neighbor for having a three car garage, which they've determined to be tacky. HOA guidelines assert that none of the houses in the neighborhood should have garages larger in capacity than 2-car (which has led to the hilarity of my neighbor across the street having 2 2-car garages). He didn't put the three car garage in; he bought the house that way, and a part of the reason he bought the house was for the third bay. Regardless, the HOA has asked him to tear it down repeatedly, even though he's not an HOA member. Personally, I removed a tree from the front yard that was dead -- it probably wasn't dangerous yet, but if it had fallen, it would have gone into the road, so we took it down just to be safe. Since then, we've gotten three notes about 'unsightly tree stumps', even though we aren't HOA members.

The 'old-guard' seems to think that nextdoor.com was written by somebody in our neighborhood, and got mad when it was opened up to adjoining neighborhoods, posting a call to action on the site and insisting that "we've all agreed" not to let other people use Nextdoor.com, as it should only be used to report suspicious activity.

I could go on, but the point is that the HOA entails a shocking amount of drama. Thankfully, as non-members, we aren't bound to their terms, and even when I donated the membership fee, I made it a point to highlight that this donation was not a membership payment, because I refuse to be bound to their arbitrary standards, and membership means granting them force-of-law authority over me. In hindsight, it was the wisest possible choice.


HOAs are made up almost entirely of people who have nothing better to do. Retired school principals and dentist's spouses who have all the time in the world to think of things like "those bushes are too tall" or "those yellow recycling contains are ugly."


But if that were true, it would take only a small amount of effort to get the people who aren't like that, which usually outnumber the fuddy duddys, rally them behind one person, get that person elected head, and do away with crappy rules.


... and then be subjected to their new crappy rules of what they think the perfect neighborhood looks like.


Those are all things the town should be doing, not some private organization. Fence needs to meet zoning rules and get a permit if it doesn't. Renovation, demolition, expansion, all something controlled through the permiting and zoning process. Disabled cars? The town again. Neighbor not mowing their lawn? Code enforcement.

So I really really don't see the point of an HOA.


No, no, no. Those are things that no one should be doing.

If you want to control an entire community to the extent that most zoning boards and HOAs do, the proper thing to do would be to retain ownership of the property and write the restrictions into your leases.

Your neighbors' property is not your property. If they wish to make their home into an eyesore, that's unfortunate for you, but they really like being able to dispose of their owned property as they see fit. If they wish to use their yard to grow nothing but dandelions, tamp down on your outrage and let them; for all you know, they will be using them for organic salads and floral wine, and to stop them would be taking food out of their mouths.

The only thing that the county/municipality should be doing is to assess and levy the costs of any externalities upon the property owners, and to ensure that no property owner can cause so much damage that they cannot subsequently pay to repair it. No amateur nuclear reactors in the backyards, for instance. No dumping PCBs into the creek.

That car on blocks should be fine, provided that any parts containing toxic pollutants have been removed and disposed of properly. Once you remove the lead-acid battery, gas tank, and exhaust system, then drain the fluids, there isn't much left in it to worry about.

You don't, after all, have any property interest whatsoever in the view from your front porch. The more you forcibly remove the illusion of control that people have over their own lives, the greater the number who will crack and become les petits Napoleons, seeking to control others in petty ways. Some number of HOA officers follow the mentality "if I can't have a purple garage door, then no one else can do what they want, either".


This is wrong.

There are reasons for the town to control what you can build on your property. My neighbor should not be able to tear down his two story house and replace it with a five story apartment building built up to the property line. My neighbors should not be allowed to leave a rusting hulk in their front yard, nor should I. We shouldn't be allowed to not mow the lawn for a month, pissing everyone else off (they were not growing dandelions, they were simply neglecting their property out of laziness).

And no, I really do have a property interest in the view from my porch. And so do my neighbors. Which is why I don't care if you have a rusting hulk in your backyard, or you never mow it. There is a very large difference between "you cannot allow your property to go derelict" and "you must paint your house this shade of puce."


You do not have a property interest in your scenic view. That would require a view easement on someone else's property, which only some states have. California is one of them, but many of the US do not currently allow them.

But no state allows a negative prescriptive easement. That means if you want a (inherently negative) view easement, you have to buy it, create it on your own property before selling it, or convince a court to award it to you.

HOAs have their power because the subdivision developer put the easements and covenants in place before selling off the lots. Zoning or ordinance changes by the municipality are simply a [usually uncompensated] taking of your rights in your own property.

There may be an argument to be made that eminent domain allows a municipality to do this, but doing so without just compensation is illegal in the US. So if the town passes an ordinance banning storage of derelict cars wholly visible from every point on the road frontage property boundary, it needs to pay everyone something to compensate for that. The amount of such compensation may be as little as $1 per owner, but even that would place a limit on how many arbitrary property-use rules a town can impose on its residents. That's a good thing. It encourages governing bodies to prioritize their meddling, such that the derelict car rule goes in before the anti-dandelion rule.

Ownership rights and property laws are several of the foundation stones underlying all of human civilization. As such, there is a right way (pay for what you take) and a wrong way (take whatever you can) to manage property.

My opinion is that the number of vague and arbitrary rules that are placed into HOA covenants are such that they are more suited for leases, such that each lessee must read and agree to them each time they sign, and the market can respond more readily to discount the lease price in accord with the burden of the restrictions. Have you ever read any of those HOA covenants? I'm surprised anyone would buy property with even half the restrictions on it.


No, now this is far too far to the other side. You are not an island, and your actions can and will affect others. Therefore, in a community, you need to take that into account. Don't want to do that? Move out to the middle of nowhere, where you won't be affecting others.

And no, if you are in a neighborhood, a car on blocks should never be acceptable.


>Those are all things the town should be doing, not some private organization. [...] So I really really don't see the point of an HOA.

The private HOA of a particular neighborhood can enforce higher standards of appearance than the town/city codes.

For example, the HOA can require that any fence must be wrought-iron[1] instead of chain-link or wood, or brick&stone mailboxes instead wooden posts. A town can't formally codify such rules because many neighborhoods within the city limits will be lower-income homes that can't afford upscale building materials. It would be an unfair rule to enforce for the entire city. Therefore, town codes have to address the lowest common denominator. A town code will have some baseline standards such as disallowing cars to be propped up on cement blocks in the front yard. Therefore, an HOA would not have to specifically address that in its covenants.

Another reason for HOAs is gated neighborhoods. The town typically is not required to spend tax dollars to maintain roads inside the gates. Therefore, the HOA is the entity that accumulates money in the treasury for any road repairs.

Also, keep in mind that HOA is a voluntary organization and many people willingly buy into HOA neighborhoods. They don't want their neighbors' homes to degrade into a substandard appearance which would negatively affect their property values.

If the majority of homeowners truly hated their HOA, they could vote to remove all cosmetic covenants from the bylaws and only keep the HOA corporate entity to maintain the common landscaping areas. However, no HOA voters choose that path so there must be a reason why.

All that said, the HOA has a board and although the members are voted in by the homeowners (usually annually), the positions often does seem to attract a peculiar type of tyrannical overzealous personality.

[1]https://www.google.com/search?q=wrought+iron+fence+yards&biw...


"Also, keep in mind that HOA is a voluntary organization and many people willingly buy into HOA neighborhoods."

That's not entirely true. If the only homes in the area that you can buy within a reasonable commute to work are HOA properties, you didn't exactly choose to be a part of an HOA, did you?

"If the majority of homeowners truly hated their HOA, they could vote to remove all cosmetic covenants from the bylaws and only keep the HOA corporate entity to maintain the common landscaping areas. However, no HOA voters choose that path so there must be a reason why."

Not every HOA allows such things.

"All that said, the HOA has a board and although the members are voted in by the homeowners (usually annually), the positions often does seem to attract a peculiar type of tyrannical overzealous personality."

Not every HOA allows such things.


>If the only homes in the area that you can buy within a reasonable commute to work are HOA properties, you didn't exactly choose to be a part of an HOA, did you?

Well I guess "choice" is in the eye of the beholder. You prioritize the short commute over the restrictions of HOA. Somebody else who felt even more disdain about HOA than you would prioritize living HOA-free and suffer the unreasonable commute. And there yet others who chose both unreasonable commute combined with HOA deed restrictions. All 3 choices are voluntary. Not every voluntary choice optimizes "convenience" across all dimensions.

Anyway... If your sentiment was the majority, residential developers would be building HOA-free neighborhoods to exploit that pent up frustration and plastering billboards with "Come to XYZ Estates with no HOA restrictions!!!" Greed is a wonderful motivator and I'm guessing there's some other market force preventing that scenario from playing out.

>Not every HOA allows such things.

Which HOA doesn't? Every HOA with deed restrictions I've seen for homes and condominiums in Florida, Manhattan, and California are agreed to and voted by the residents living under it. What overriding authority is higher than the residents telling them they can't remove a deed restriction? E.g. The neighbors need to convince each other that the restriction on visible trampolines is a bad idea and the majority vote to remove it.


Where I live, the biggest source of blight is elderly residents who are getting too old and frail to properly maintain their yards.

There's no HOA, so the only thing you can do about it is help them. There's no option for bossing the geezers around. And I'm okay with that.

If your home value can be ruined by a little bit of yard neglect, the problem isn't the neighbor's yard. It's a neighborhood designed on such a brittle basis that the yard becomes a problem.


> the only thing you can do about it is help them

You say this like it's a bad thing.


Having been in a couple of HOA now I can say that they just don't work as advertised.

Basically, in truth the HOA has little power over people who don't (or can't) play along. They can make life hell for people who are trying to be good neighbors with tons of arbitrary rules that do nothing but make the board members feel better about themselves, but if someone wants to be a deadbeat their options are limited.

About the worst they can do is put a lien on a house, but even that threat is of little effect against someone who is letting his house fall apart because he's planning to default on it anyway. The paperwork to put a lien on a house costs money too, so the HOA has to decide if it is worth the effort, especially if it ends up being dismissed in the foreclosure anyway.

HOAs are basically good for one thing: maintaining common areas. If your development has a private park or a clubhouse or something like that then the HOA can be useful. If they only exist to collect dues and boss you around about the exact shade of tan on your mailbox post then they should be disbanded.


> I fail to understand the hatred towards HOAs,

HOAs and the restrictive covenants that enforce them became popular for the purpose of keeping out Blacks (well, and other undesirable minorities, but mostly Blacks), and while they've been prohibited from actually (directly, at least) doing that for some decades, they continue to represent (because of who is willing to devote energy to regulating their neighbors through them) the same kind of cultural identity enforcement and homogenization by narrowminded elites that would keep out the "other" if they could.


Or hippies. I bid on a property once in an HOA that specifically prohibited "geodesic domes".


HOAs are great in theory, but in practice they're staffed by people with no sense of aesthetics whatsoever, and too often define "aesthetically inappropriate" as "different from my house". Thus overcomplicated monstrosities with squiggly hip roofs, no lintels or arches over openings in masonry walls, and fake historical details are allowed while a simple, elegant box house with gables and a standing seam metal roof isn't.


Cranking out houses meeting a real-estate checklist perfectly describes, say, Brooklyn brownstones— but they also have far more elegant facades.


The land in the far unincorporated subdivisions of Texas are nothing but houses exactly like the photos in the OP, and the land there is so cheap it's practically free.


> The lack of balance, proportion, controlling lines[1] and symmetry are all bad aspects of nearly all modern (in the chronological sense) architecture, not simply McMansions.

Postmodern architecture is surely a controversial topic on its own, but I believe the issues with McMansions raised in the article is their amateurish mimicry of canonical architectural styles. They throw in a column here, a bay window there, without understanding the why or how of these design features in context. As someone else in the thread mentioned, its like a bad machine learning-generated version of the traditional architectural styles.


McMansions seem rather well designed for their brief (at least compared to smaller modern suburban homes). Pseudo-principles such as "balance" don't actually matter all that much -- people spend remarkably little time in the position those images are taken from. The principles that might suit, say, Chatsworth House laid out in picturesque English countryside (which really can be seen in all its glory from its surrounds) do not apply to a large suburban home on a relatively small plot. Most of the time, the observer is not far enough back to see the whole house at all. They are in a garden, not very far outside one of the doors, or inside the house.

What many McManions do quite well is that if you travel around the house a short distance outside it (say 5m from the wall), it shows you a variety of interesting partial aspects. You can never see the whole thing but if it's well done then wherever you are in the garden will look fairly pleasant, and will feel slightly larger as the lack of continuity means you don't have a visual reminder of how short a distance you have travelled. And meanwhile, the many different secondary masses means you have different aspects from inside the house onto a small set of grounds.

Feeling bigger and more luxurious than it is, or than it costs, close-up (rather than looking glorious when seen from a good distance) is the brief of a McMansion.


Would the amaturish aping of a high modernist style be better?

The aping of traditional style is the most forgivable aspect of McMansions. At least they are trying to connect with the timeless way of building, however incompetently.


Bad modernist architecture often places style over substance. Such houses subordinate the livability and logic of interior spaces to the needs of the exterior's aesthetic. So you end up with a "cool looking" house on the outside, whose living spaces are poorly laid out, disjointed, inharmoniously transitioned, or simply make odd choices out of necessity.


Trying and failing horribly, which is arguably worse than not trying at all. It's sad, really, because aping traditional style isn't difficult at all unless you're trying to tack on as much bling as possible. There are plenty of simple, elegant houses from the 1800s and early 1900s in every city in the United States that serve as excellent templates.


> ugly gaps, quick to stain stuccos and metals, slapdash construction and very little craftsmanship.

I lived for a couple years in a slowly-deteriorating house on the national historic registry. Upper middle class when it was built in 1907. Big by the standards of the time, but not huge.

You'd have to be very wealthy to afford the lumber quality (even the lumber under the floors and inside walls was excellent by modern standards) and the woodwork in that house these days, assuming you could even find such without simply ripping it out of an older house. And despite never having had air conditioning and having very bad heating, every joint in that house was so tight you couldn't fit paper between the boards. Beautiful solid wood doors throughout, which would cost a fortune to put in a new house.


"You'd have to be very wealthy to afford the lumber quality (even the lumber under the floors and inside walls was excellent by modern standards) and the woodwork in that house these days, assuming you could even find such without simply ripping it out of an older house."

This meme about old wood and big wood and scarcity, etc., is oft-repeated, but I find it's not true.

Granted, there are some very specific woods that you can't buy new (old growth redwood, etc.) but you will have no problem at all picking up the phone and buying kiln-dried 12x12 beams, 24 feet long, etc., etc. ... no problem at all.

And they're not really that expensive, either. We had to buy a lot of 8x12 KD doug fir beams and 8x12 KD cedar beams for a barn renovation this past year and it wasn't budget-busting.


Faster growing trees make worse wood. Tree farms flood the market with cheap wood that's vastly worse from a materials perspective than old growth. A 24 foot long beam of high quality wood takes ~300 years to grow, 'nobody has time for that'.

At the high end ebony costs ~150x the cost of pine, though there are cheaper related species. It's also dense enough to sink in water.

Mostly you find Gaboon ebony which while pricey is mostly comparable. http://www.woodworkerssource.com/shop/category/ebony_gaboon....


Case in point: the floors of my 95 yr old house are douglas fir. The grain spacing is about 2 mm. Try finding douglas fir like that at home depot.


The finishing millwork stuff is crazy. We had an insect infestation on our front porch behind the beadboard. I pulled it out to get rid of the ants, and some jerk stole it from my driveway. Replacing those boards would cost something like $5,000 today.


> You'd have to be very wealthy to afford the lumber quality

For engineering purposes, you don't, since plywood and OSB are far more dimensionally consistent than the best of old growth lumber. Aesthetically, old growth wood is superior, but in most cases wood is covered in drywall & plaster anyway.


Old growth wood is just plain stronger than the type of wood you'd find in modern buildings. How much stronger? About 2-3x depending on the wood. Also, heartwood (from the center of the tree) is stronger than wood from the outer portions.

You cannot find (significant) lumber from 300+ year old trees anymore. That's what the original poster was referring to. I don't think aesthetics has anything to do with it.


> Old growth wood is just plain stronger than the type of wood you'd find in modern buildings.

That's true only if you discount engineered wood products, which are superior in strength to even the best of old growth lumber. For resistance to shear stress, nothing beats plywood or OSB; for bending stress, LVL; for tensile stress, LSL; for compressive stress, finger joined lumber.


I'm not an architectural expert, not even an interested amateur really. But it strikes me that there's some tension between the beauty of the exterior and the usability of the interior.

Take giant glass boxes, I know some people think they are wonderful, I think they are quite ugly. But an office where one entire wall is a window and light can flood in is a much more pleasant working environment than an office in a beautiful neo-gothic masterpiece with tiny windows.


Glass walls are rarely that enjoyable, even on the inside. You need to set the glass back from direct sun to get indirect light or you end up with a solar oven, and a huge amount of air conditioning to deal with it.

They do photograph well and win you architectural awards, however.


There are solutions to this, though. Shading glass surfaces and double glazing work well.


Wouldn't double-glazing just make the greenhouse problem worse?


Not necessarily - you can get low emissivity windows: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Low_emissivity#Low-emissivity_...


It wouldn't, since each layer of glazing reduces the amount of solar energy that arrives inside the window, and energy loss from buildings is an overwhelmingly convective and conductive phenomenon.


Le Corbusier used controlling lines in some of his houses. It's important to appreciate that good modern architecture grew out of an established architectural culture. Many principles were retained. It's not comparable to dada in art or punk in music, where the foundations of the activity were thrown away.

I'm an architectural historian and all I can say is that feeling is important. Rules are not so important, even the rule implied by the controlling lines technique. So I don't really endorse that tumblr's approach.

I love the way Andrés Duany (famous architecturally conservative guy, "new Urbanist") says he "adores" Le Corbusier's work: "I can't help it." You KNOW he's telling the truth, that he has a feeling for architecture.


> ... the materials and workmanship are terrible ...

They'll be easy to take down when farmland is needed again :)

Also, one can cut a new door (or loading dock) with just a utility knife ;)


Coming from a country where double-brick-and-tile is the gold standard, the concept of building your houses out of what is essentially cardboard tacked onto scaffolding is mindblowing.

On the other hand, when I realised that was the usual construction method in the U.S. it suddenly made sense of a whole bunch of movie moments when people smash into an damage or are thrown through walls.


You can't throw people through walls in the US (except for in the movies). Even non-bearing walls are pretty strong and have lots of wood studs in them [0]. http://diy.sndimg.com/content/dam/images/diy/fullset/2011/8/...


True but at least it's a lot less unbelievable than someone (outside of superpowers or a mecha suit) punching through a brick wall.


You know that modern construction techniques in the US date back like over 70 years? It's not like the houses fall down. My house was built in like 1960, framed and drywalled, it's here still and perfectly solid. So I'm not sure what your complaint is.


"Cardboard tacked onto scaffolding" is plenty strong, especially in an earthquake when brick and tile tend to crumble into dust due to excessive rigidity. Remember, skyscrapers are built using the same "cardboard tacked onto scaffolding", except the scaffolding is steel instead of wood.


Gold standard implies that it's high end. High end homes in the US can also have excellent quality as well.


In the UK brick may be gold standard, but basic level would be block work with render or brick facing. Really it's just what builders are used to, and the skills that are available. Bear in mind too that there are a lot of old houses here (by which I mean over 100 years old) and they're not just the high-end ones. There are lots of shoddily-built victorian terraces with single skin brickwork and no foundations, but survivor bias means that somehow they're still standing, even if it is a bit scary when you realise how many are built directly onto bare earth with bricks that fall apart and old mines underneath. They've survived the Luftwaffe and 150 years or so of subsidence, so they're probably fine for another 100 more.

Timber framing is just not the standard, so there are more brickies. The cost isn't that different, otherwise the crappy estates would be built in timber rather than blocks. Likewise plasterboard is skimmed rather than taped, because that's how it's always done and that's what the plasterers are used to, even if the work is more skilled. If the UK does move away from blockwork I'd imagine that as building regs change and the cost trade-offs move it'll switch more to SIPs rather than ever to timber framing.


I'd guess this has a lot to do with the availability of resources, too. Timber is much cheaper in the US, so it's not economical to build with sturdier materials. Even some of the larger apartment complexes I've lived in were wood-framed.


Brick is not used in England because of cost or strength. Brick is used because historically London has burned down completely leaving many people homeless. Brick ensures that a fire will not spread from one hour to another. When you build a densely packed city it makes perfect sense to use fireproof material at any cost. When your houses are spread farther apart you rely your neighbor's house fire not taking your house down so flammable building materials is much less risk.

In fact brick is NOT always as strong as wood! Brick is stronger under compression, and it feels harder, but under tension brick is much weaker than wood.


Maybe I should just have said "standard", then. All except for very old, very cheap houses have at least single brick walls and tile or corrugated iron roofing. Nicer ('average' rather than 'high end') houses are double brick and tile.


A few years ago in my area, some kid was chased by the local sheriff for driving an ATV on he road.

He drove into some subdivision of $500k homes, wiped out, and the ATV rolled into the side of a house that had no windows. He impact disrupted the glue and be whole side of the house (plywood, sheeting, siding) just fell off!


> impact disrupted the glue and be whole side of the house (plywood, sheeting, siding) just fell off!

I don't believe this story can possibly be true. No one glues on plywood, sheeting, or siding. If you glued on the plywood sheathing, you'd have to nail it in place while the glue set anyway. Ditto for the siding. I guess you could glue the sheeting in place, but that's not structural so it wouldn't fall off as you describe here. Gluing the sheeting would probably cost considerably more than just stapling it in place, which is what actually happens.

If this story is true, the builder is doubly stupid, first for building a house this way, and second for spending more money to do so.


It was probably a decade ago, so the details may be foggy. But I recall shaking my head at the widely spaced studs that were very visible.


Fair enough. I can believe that a poorly built wall fell apart, even if all-glue construction of hard to imagine. There are some shady builders out there.

Just a side note, widely spaced studs isn't necessarily a bad thing. My house is built 24 on center. Leaves more room for insulation on exterior walls, and you don't actually need studs every 16 for strength. I believe there are additional code requirements for houses built with studs spaced 24 on center, though I don't know the details.


Yep, this is a real thing, and is actually an extremely good idea.

Google "advanced framing".

(Used to work for a tech startup providing services to green construction companies.)


Residential construction with 2x6 framed walls (for deeper insulation) are often studded 24" on center.


Can you imagine how many of these things are probably going to be torn down in 20 years? I can still appreciate most houses built in the 70's and 80's due to the fact that they follow a lot of the basic tenets in the article. These things are going to be like those weird commercial building eyesores that were big during the 80's.


I've seen some really gross houses from that era. Weird angles, massive blank windowless walls, and I lived in a 1982 condo for a while that had gypcrete floors that were crumbling away to powder under the carpet. A lot of the mistakes of the 70s and 80s have either been torn down already or remedied at the owner's expense.


The interiors from the '70s and '80s were far worse than the structures themselves. Whoever though that shag carpeting (i.e. mold food) in bathrooms (i.e. the wettest room in the house) was a great idea?


Ugh! That reminds me -- the condo with gypcrete floors had carpeted bathrooms.

Anyhow, I've visited a McMansion or two, and I think in a few years we're all going to shudder at how badly dated the interiors are too. But which features age badly and which ones still seem charming after the fact remains to be seen. Granite countertops? Stainless steel appliances? Mammoth bathtubs? Closets you could sleep a family in? Two sinks in the bathroom?


All of those features are here to stay, especially the latter three since they're mostly a function of having lots of space. One feature that will date badly is the bland white/beige/peace/flesh/etc paint palette; in a effort not to offend anyone, it ends up pleasing no one. How about some, blue, red, and green, as so many gorgeous 19th century houses had?


> (beyond the fact that they lost the thread on western architecture, which should be blamed on the academy[2])

Can you explain what that means? I'm assuming the linked book is to back up your claim, and not to explain it.


I highly recommend the book (it is a quick and funny read) but to give you my short version: post WW2, academic architecture was taken over by anti-traditionalists, and purity spiraling lead to what Wolfe called "The Yale Box". People like Christopher Alexander[1] were ignored or shouted down as fascist, the craftsmen who were able to build the old way all died apprenticeless, and here we are.

[1] - https://www.amazon.com/Timeless-Way-Building-Christopher-Ale...


Right there with you; I could give or take the architecture (though I am a huge fan of '50s era modern and '20s era craftsman), I like homes that we well-built. It's funny, but it seems like the majority of these early 19th century Sears specials that are all over Portland are better built than any modern home.


I'd never heard of the tern McMansion before reading the article (I'm from the UK.) These poorly designed houses seem to have huge, vast amounts of land around them. In the UK plots are much smaller. Do you think cheap houses filling large plots is the issue?


The connotation I've always had for "McMansion" is the object of a middle or upper-middle class obsession with a poorly built, absurdly huge, cookie cutter house that looks just like every other house on its street, packed together on 1/4 acre or smaller lots with no lawn, yet selling for upwards of $500,000.

Not that I'm one to be snobbish, since I live in an old farmhouse that needs two issues fixed for every one that I tackle. But I'm happy that my only neighbors are a nice old lady in another little farmhouse, a church, and the animals that live in the woods behind me. It's not much to look at but it's within my means and in fact, my mortgage payment (tax and insurance escrow included) is less than a car payment for most of my peers. I'm happy that I don't feel the need to "keep up with the Joneses" and I can focus on my family's needs and my own hobbies instead.


Slight correction (that seems to be divisive on the issue), McMansions are generally characterized by not being cookie cutter. A neighborhood full of mcmansion's does have the distinguishing feature that each one is different, but they will all still feel the same. It's the result of each owner wanting something more unique and fancier than everyone else, and just smashing stuff on to do it.


Sorry, by "cookie cutter" I mean it's blatantly obvious they are all (within a neighborhood) designed and built by the same property developer. Around here, a developer will buy land for a subdivision, then hire one architectural firm and one construction crew to build 200+ houses all to the same general specs and overall theme. Yes, there are variations, but it's variations on the same theme.


I call that "tract housing". That describes my house. It's the same 6 floor plans with a few options, with the occasional custom job here and there.


They're houses built like cars. You have the six basic models. Then each of those models can have upgrade options and trim packages. Floor plan C with bay windows, sun room, and gabled roof here; floor plan E with 3-car garage expansion there; floor plan F with cupola feature and two-story deck package somewhere else.

Every house is different, but every house is the same. The only thing that really distinguishes one from the other is the finish work. The builder uses all the same parts and all the same subcontractors in each one.

The subdivisions are little more than an outdoor mass-production factory for houses. The assembly line is largely invisible, found only in the builder's sales and scheduling software.


Ah ok, when I think of a cookie cutter house I imagine neighborhoods where every house is the same with maybe an extra gable on some of them. Little boxes, and such.


Interesting in the Bay Area where half a mil won't even get you a single-family house: https://www.redfin.com/zipcode/95123/filter/min-price=400k,m...

Most small houses start at around 700k and go way up from there. There are still McMansions, but they're more like 1.5+++


> Interesting in the Bay Area where half a mil won't even get you a single-family house

That's the case in almost all European cities, too.


But the difference is that in most European cities single-family houses aren't the main mode of living - most people live in apartments.


It certainly doesn't help, but there are plenty of packed-in developments with similar issues. In fact I would say that the platonic American McMansion is on a fairly small plot of land and is built up absurdly close to the property line.


Yes, in fact, I always assumed the derogatory nature of the term (McX for X = mansion) is a dig at wanting an impressive-looking facade, but not being able to pay for a larger plot of land or the architect to design that big facade.


To me, "McX" evokes the image of fast food. Something bland, unappealing, and one-size-fits-all that sacrifices quality for mass production.

The later McMansions may have evolved as a response to the perception of them being generic by slapping on superficial and poorly designed accents. It doesn't change the low quality. Burger King isn't considered any better than McDonalds just because you can "have it your way".

But mostly it's about the houses being unnecessarily large. Now that I think about it, the McDonalds metaphor here is probably meant to be that they're Super-Sized houses.


Well of course it has to do with money, what you are referring to would increase the property cost by 2-3x. The same house but custom built home on an acre of land in the city in the u.s. east would run you $1million+, or have a prefab home on .3 acres (subdivision) for $400,000.


Similar to the concept of the Persian Palace in the areas I grew up - build quality was quite high in those cases, but as much of the lot as zoning rules allowed was used for two stories of house.


Depending on local zoning and "offset" rules, McMansions can be built on very small plots.

Rows of McMansion-style houses have been built with very little offset by abusing rules intended for townhouses. In the cases I've seen, a single shared wall -- often just a token wall made of brick connecting two structures on the outside -- allows the McMansions to qualify as a multiple-family dwellings and obtain higher density, dramatically increasing profit.


'Dwellings' and 'units', two words I often see in articles about housing in the United States, are very grim and cold ways to refer to people's homes.


A "unit" isn't necessarily residential. There are mixed-use "units" on the market that might be used as homes or as offices/shops.

A "dwelling" mostly comes up in the contexts of censuses and elections. One census form needs to be filed per "dwelling", and should include information about everyone who has dwelled there for the majority of the last year. This includes, for example, people just crashing on the couch, even if they're just on vacation and "live" somewhere else. For another example, this includes homeless shelters: the people staying in them can say the shelter is their "dwelling", though they're unlikely to feel like it's their home. (Also, a "dwelling" is not necessarily residentially zoned. You might be dwelling in a storage unit. It's not necessarily legal, but the government still needs a word to describe "places people live" that includes such cases.)

There's also "residence", which is just "dwelling" in fancier clothes, though usually implies residential zoning.


Doesn't dwelling have bad connotations though?

As in 'to dwell on' something. My dictionary says it comes from a norse word meaning 'to go astray'.

To my ears it's like 'hovel' and implies something like a hole in the ground - dark and dirty where an animal might live.


I'm not sure where you got that connotative sense for "dwelling". It shouldn't carry negative value - it's a very neutral term for a place someone lives.

"To dwell on" something isn't inherently negative either, it simply means to spend a fair amount of time thinking or focusing on a single thing. Whether that's good or bad depends on the context, and is not implied by the word itself.


Not in architecture circles. See for example Dwell magazine[1].

[1] https://www.dwell.com


Oh c'mon. Everything's "product".

.

.

.

... yes, I'm agreeing with you. And cringing as I remember a visit to a friend who'd taken up wine cellaring some years back, describing various vintages as "product". You'll hear that in media, app design, clothing, food, restuarants. Pretty much everything. MBA-speak gone mad.


I don't know much but in US I see home is very much used in type of house sense e.g. town homes, single family homes. Home does not give any warm fuzzy feelings here.


The British equivalent is the estates of hideous mock Tudor and cod Georgian houses on the outskirts of British cities. Same concept done on less land: poor design, poor construction.


Since American TV and movies are popular, here are some pop culture examples I can think of to get a feel for the style:

* The house that Tony Soprano lives in.

* In the movie Juno, the title character drives though a sparse, affluent suburban development to meet prospective adoptive parents.

The theme is unusually large, new construction, details that look out of place. They are often built on roads with large stretches of them. Although in the town where I grew up, they sprouted up very gradually over ~20 years as remodels/teardowns of modest 1950s homes.


There are plenty of "mcmansions" in the U.K. as well. Just take a look around some areas of Bucks, such as Beaconsfield, and other commuter belt areas. The plots of land are tiny as well. It really ruins the natural beauty of those areas.


I used to live in a very small town in the Midlands, just off the M5. It's expanding rapidly because of the attraction of commuter types and all of the new properties they're building are as big as possible, on small plots of land exactly as this article describes (with the exception of the small 1/2 bed properties the developers are forced to build to meet government large-scale development regulations.


In my mind, a McMansion's defining characteristic has always been that it's far too much house on far too small of a plot.

It has pretenses of elegance that are betrayed by a gaudy claustrophobia. It's like loudly proclaiming "LOOK HOW MUCH HOUSE I HAVE," while generally sticking out like a sore thumb from the other houses in the neighborhood.


They are far too much house on far too small a budget. They are about maximizing those wealth-connotating features of a home which are comprehensible to the upper-middle-class laypeople who buy them: raw square footage, bed/bath count, "classical" architectural features (poorly executed, because the intent is to check "expensive-looking" boxes, not actually to execute a quality building).

This same style is very consistently-expressed at differing scales in different housing markets across the U.S.; the lot size varies with land prices but the ethos is the same.


Is that second paragraph unfair though? You buy/own a block and build a new house. You know there are a lot of useful things you need or might need in the future (garaging, bedrooms for future kids, etc) but your constraints of land size and budget remain so the result is often the efficient answer.



In what way can a house be too large for a plot? If it fits, it fits, right? A big garden is nice, but plenty of houses make do without a garden.


Somewhat different socioeconomic strata maybe [?], but would be worthwhile comparing to Barratt-style stamped-out suburban estate houses in the uk. UK doesn't have the spare land that the US has, so generally can't do McMansion-style construction (the stuff that looks similar is normally on estates populated by footballers et al - eg Gosforth Park near Newcastle, there's a similar estate near every major city, but the eye-bleeding prices suggest better quality builds, if a similarly awful visual side to the architecture)


How much of this is the architect giving a well thought out design and the client simply saying, "No, I want it to look this way." and the architect simply gives in and does it the way the client wants because of the amount of money involved. Usually as a web developer, I can use the old adage, "Well, if we do it your way, it's going to cost X times more time and money." but when the client has unlimited resources, I would think it would be hard to simply dismiss them with this approach.

When I was in school for architecture, I only had one professor who gave us a reality check on this scenario and it was pretty humbling for a few of my fellow students to imagine a client would think they knew better than you with all your schooling and deep knowledge.


I conjecture that the entirety of architectural design theory is just an attempt to create a formal system such that the styles preferred by people that architects don't like are "bad", and the styles preferred by people that architects do like are "good".

The class of people who own McMansions are not very popular among the class of people who write about architectural design on tumblr.

If the conjecture is true then it should be possible to find cases of houses that clearly defy these principles of "mass", "balance" etc., but which are deemed "good" through a series of ad-hoc exceptions and explanations. Those houses will probably not be suburban.

De gustibus non est disputandum. This is equally true when you can create a low-dimensional approximation to your taste in terms of abstract principles such as "mass" and "balance".


This guy didn't just make up the rule of thirds, symmetry, or spatial rhythm. Its not unreasonable to try to understand why some types of architecture might be preferred over others. Rather than dismiss an entire field of inquiry, maybe try to see why it exists and if there is anything you can learn from it. Like much aesthetic theory, a lot of these analyses are post-hoc, but this isnt really a problem; its better to ask "why do people like this" than to state "people should like this because..." And sure, like much aesthetic theory, it can be a pretext for sociopolitical critique, but don't let that mar the whole thing.


But a lot of these rules are silly pseudoscience. I am strongly reminded of the history of people obsessed with fitting everything into the golden ratio. Because it's "god's ratio" and supposedly appears everywhere in nature. It turns out a lot of that was BS. And it certainly didn't make paintings that didn't fit the golden ratio bad or inferior.

There isn't any evidence to support that any of these rules actually make the architecture "better", whatever that even means. Even if a survey found that people prefer one style to another, it's still a highly subjective personal preference. There can be people with different preferences. If people didn't like this style of houses, they wouldn't be buying or producing them.


I think the general idea is that following the rules doesn't make your architecture good, it's that breaking them (probably) makes it bad.

But if you break them in the right way in the right place for the right reason, it can be awesome.

I guess code style can be a useful analogy: you can write absolutely horrendous, unmaintainable, unreadable code that follows all the best style practices, and you can have awesome code that breaks them. But when writing code in your day-to-day work, following the best practices, only breaking them when they're irretrievably in your way, is undoubtedly the best advice for not-super human non-geniuses to write good code.

Most of the mansions showcased are well within the range of having been salvageable had the architect run checkstyle on the drafts.


But my point is nothing about breaking these rules makes it "bad". At least OP didn't present any evidence that it does. Just that he, personally, doesn't like it.

At least with code one could make an argument that a certain style increases readability and makes it easier to follow. Although even there I think it's a lot of subjective preference, and it doesn't really matter as long as you are consistent.

With these buildings, changing the style to fit these arbitrary rules could make them worse. Like reducing the number of windows just so it fits into a certain style. Windows are nice and provide better natural lighting. Studies have found windows and natural lighting have a a very positive effect on mental health.

Or forcing the house to be symmetrical. That could make the layout suboptimal. As opposed to if it was allowed to be built without that constraint. And so on for the other rules. Every rule adds more constraints, which requires sacrificing other aspects to satisfy.


> But my point is nothing about breaking these rules makes it "bad". At least OP didn't present any evidence that it does.

This is a commonly expressed notion on HN, and one I've never understood. As if every blog post in the world were being evaluated as a doctoral thesis. I personally prefer it when people do me the courtesy of assuming,absent evidence to the contrary, that I am competent in my profession and a reasonable reporter of my own experience. Perhaps we could do the same for others?

Regardless, here it's wrongly applied. He did give evidence: photos. A couple I didn't quite get, but several gave me "aha" reactions. In seeing houses like these previously, I knew there was some problem, but I couldn't put my finger on it. I forwarded the article to my dad, whose immediate reaction was, "I like the McMansion article. It explains the problem I have with the back of our house."

You also seem to have a notion that subjective preference is arbitrary and random, shifting with every viewer. But there are at least two kinds of subjective preference involved here that are neither: the cultural context of architecture and the human perceptual system. Whether his rules are somehow "objective" or merely about what current neurotypical American humans generally prefer doesn't really matter for his point. Either way, he's explaining an important regularity relevant to, among other things, the building and buying of houses.


I didn't find the pictures of "bad" houses to be particularly less attractive or off-putting compared to the "good" houses, both before and after reading the justification for why one was supposedly bad. As a result, the evidence presented left me with the impression that the rules being given were just arbitrary declarations made to justify the author's taste. I suspect Houshalter's reaction was similar.


Maybe you just lack "taste", an aesthetic sense.


Maybe you [and everyone who thinks like you] lacks taste...

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You like one better than the other, I like the other better than the one. There is no right or wrong. God is not going to send lightening down on you for the wrong home design. (no matter which god you pick)

An engineering I can look at a design and construction method and objectively state that one is better than the other - but there is no reason the "ugly house" cannot come out better.


Looking at a math equation or a bit of software code and being able to identify it as elegant and beautiful is having and expressing taste. Given that you can look at two implementations that are functionally equivalent. But see that one is (more) elegant than the other. It's nothing objective. It's a sense of aesthetic, aka taste.

There are certain shapes, proportions, arrangements, etc. that most (not all) humans find pleasing. The majority have declared this to be "taste". It's not fair. But it exists and you can't wipe it away by reciting a trite aphorism.


In fact it's not clear that mathematicians have any shared sense of aesthetic: https://www.gwern.net/The%20Existential%20Risk%20of%20Mathem...

>The survey of mathematicians conducted by Wells (1990) provides a more empirically-based challenge to the intrinsic view of the mathematical aesthetic. Wells obtained responses from over 80 mathematicians, who were asked to identify the most beautiful theorem from a given set of 24 theorems. (These theorems were chosen because they were ‘famous’, in the sense that Wells judged them to be well-known by most mathematicians, and of interest to the discipline in general, rather than to a particular subfield.) Wells finds that the mathematicians varied widely in their judgments. More interestingly, in explaining their choices, the mathematicians revealed a wide range of personal responses affecting their aesthetic responses to the theorems. Wells effectively puts to rest the belief that mathematicians have some kind of secret agreement on what counts as beautiful in mathematics…


I looked at the pictures and didn't find them convincing I preferred the "McMansions" in every case. The author provided no argument for why my preferences are wrong or his are right. But he talks as if his preferences are objective facts, and seemed condescending to anyone that disagrees (which would seem to be a decent percentage of Americans that are buying these houses.)

Anyway there is a long history of weird superstitions and made up rules in subjective arts like this. I mentioned the golden ratio BS which also affected architecture. There is only vague handwavy reasoning behind it, but many architects really believed in it and tried to force it in everywhere.


Note that you have changed your complaint from "OP didn't present any evidence" to that you "didn't find them convincing". (I note that you don't provide any evidence for that claim. Shocking! What, are we supposed to just take you at you word?)

But if that's the case, so what? His article aside, it's undeniable that A) some people like McMansions and that B) a lot of people don't. He also notes right up front, "These principles are for the classical or traditional architecture most residential homes are modeled after." He is trying to make clearer what's going on in case B.

Your liking the McMansions is only proof that you're in category A. Maybe you don't know much about architecture. Maybe you're not a big fan of classical architecture. Maybe you're a fan of something else entirely. It is not proof that he is wrong about what makes something good classical architecture, that his explanation of category-B reactions is useless.

> Anyway there is a long history of weird superstitions and made up rules in subjective arts like this.

Yes, thank god we work in technology, where there are never any fads, superstitions, or made up rules that people really believe and try to enforce inappropriately. </sarcasm>

That technology has a lot of fads, superstitions, and misapplied rules doesn't mean there is no objective reality, that all opinions are arbitrary, that educated taste is meaningless. The same is true of architecture. The same is true of most human activities. Just because a domain is too complicated to be reduced to a small, human-comprehensible set of "objective" axioms doesn't mean there's nothing smart or interesting there. And it certainly doesn't mean we have to be condescending about any attempt to increase clarity.


> Note that you have changed your complaint from "OP didn't present any evidence" to that you "didn't find them convincing". (I note that you don't provide any evidence for that claim. Shocking! What, are we supposed to just take you at you word?)

Houshalter didn't change the complaint. Their original complaint was that the author did not provide evidence for why breaking the rules is inherently bad, not that the author did not provide evidence for why the pictured McMansions were bad. The comment you are replying to restated this:

> I looked at the pictures and didn't find them convincing I preferred the "McMansions" in every case [this refers to the houses themselves, not the rules]. The author provided no argument for why my preferences are wrong or his are right [this is the original complaint].

The rules aren't convincing because there is no evidence that they are anything other than semi-arbitrary preferences that the architecture world, or at least a subset of it, as coalesced around. I agree with Houshalter, which is why I am responding.


The article's author did not claim that the rules were anything inherent about the universe, or anything other than "semi-arbitrary preferences" of a particular set of humans. I also note that the author didn't claim that they were rules, but rather principles, which is an important difference. And there's even an explicit disclaimer saying that they only apply to a particular style of architecture. If Houshalter is complaining that the article didn't prove something it didn't claim to prove, I have no idea why that's relevant to anybody.

But assuming instead that he is asking for something actually related to the scope of the article, then yes, evidence was provided. For each principle, there are photos showing exactly how the principle is violated in typical McMansion architecture. For those with an eye for architecture who have spent time puzzling over McMansions, that is sufficient to demonstrate the principles.

You're welcome to complain that you didn't understand the evidence, didn't find it convincing. But I reject the assumption that is a problem with the article. This was clearly written for people with an interest in and some knowledge of residential architecture. There's no reason an article has to explain everything to everybody.


>, then yes, evidence was provided. For each principle, there are photos showing exactly how the principle is violated in typical McMansion architecture. For those with an eye for architecture who have spent time puzzling over McMansions, that is sufficient to demonstrate the principles.

No, it was insufficient evidence. The author didn't show photos (or is unaware) of non-McMansion-non-modern counterexamples to his "mass/voids/asymmetry" principles and explain why his guidelines are inconsistent. Therefore, his theory is incoherent.

The magazines including Architectural Digest and Veranda are the most anti-McMansion publications you can get and they feature homes that violate his principles. Secondary mass all over the place. Abundant voids and asymmetry too.

Yes, the distaste for McMansions is a real phenomenon but the author's explanations about what it _is_ by measuring geometries is incorrect.


>Your liking the McMansions is only proof that you're in category A... It is not proof that he is wrong about what makes something good classical architecture, that his explanation of category-B reactions is useless.

Exactly. We can have different preferences. His rules are not objective facts about what is "bad" or "good". If it was just an explanation why two architectural styles are different, then that would be fine. But it's worded more like "how one architectural style is right and the other is wrong".

>Yes, thank god we work in technology, where there are never any fads, superstitions, or made up rules that people really believe and try to enforce inappropriately.

I don't know why you think this is an argument against it. I oppose snobbery and superstitions about technology just as much. I don't think it's quite as bad in technology though. At least one could argue technology rules actually matter. Better user interfaces can make it easier for users to find what they want, and better code styles can make code more readable. Whereas the aesthetic of a house has zero effect on anything and doesn't matter.


OK. Hopefully I'm not putting words in your mouth. You think the author's explanation of why McMansions look like garbage is too soft and squishy. Too "subjective." In reality, it's all just personal taste, and as we know, there's no accounting for taste.

Serious question: do you think this house looks beautiful? http://65.media.tumblr.com/5cfa243ca7f2997cf794ed190c24c38b/...

Does it look better, worse, or the same as this house? https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/37/Thomas_J...

Do you think a large majority of people would agree with your personal, subjective taste in this case?


I agree with everything laretluval and Houshalter have said about the topic, and since they haven't answered your question, I'll do it.

1. I don't think it's fair to compare the two houses. The person who built the second house seems to have spent a lot more money than the person who build the first.

2. The first one gives the appearance that it has many tiny rooms, which I don't like.

3. I don't like the styling of either house. They both have weird styling elements (I don't the technical terms).


Let's go back to the author's own explanation. Half the examples the author uses of appropriate balance in design look dreadful to me.

I mean, I don't think you'll have problems finding people who think the purposeful asymmetry and complexity of the form of this McMansion (horrible details, but that's beside the point) http://66.media.tumblr.com/985ce3af7d99be6789a3d60733d87bdb/... is less jarring than the oversized porch and rather forced symmetry of this house http://66.media.tumblr.com/985ce3af7d99be6789a3d60733d87bdb/...

I suspect that you won't find a majority who think this architecturally interesting but rather disconcerting house which seems almost to be split into two discrete components http://66.media.tumblr.com/ef085492f16fa90eca55b34c2edb4f6e/... is more balanced and harmonious than this bland McMansion with a rather more subtle asymmetry of styling and no centreline http://66.media.tumblr.com/b60dfce3f94da6a03ded2c7c1acd2f34/...

And above all, picking holes in an architect's work is easy. I'm really not convinced that many people would consider this house with its oversized, overbearing gable and clumsy porch with ludicrously oversized pillars to be a model of a "properly proportioned house", regardless of the author's delight at it as an example of how to balance the top and bottom halves of an elevation http://66.media.tumblr.com/aacf83efd66eded7cffe5f42716fbe36/...

Architects can easily ignore centre-lines and rules of thirds and concepts of primary and secondary massing and matching windows and produce great houses, and they can easily follow them rigidly and produce something which is a shoddily-built mixture of poor imitations of different historical styles that's not built to a human friendly scale.

P.S. I see your Monticello and raise you Fallingwater...


Is there really a lawn on TJ's front porch? That looks fun to mow…


Problem is Monticello red brick and neoclassical style is what a lot of public buildings in the 1960s and 1970s seemed to ape. Many US people might like the former because the latter reminds them a bit too much of a courthouse, the DMV, or a church.


>> "...highly subjective personal preference."

I'm sorry to be the smug guy linking PG on HN, but this essay [0] directly engages your point here and IMHO pretty conclusively refutes it. This is the money quote:

"As in any job, as you continue to design things, you'll get better at it. Your tastes will change. And, like anyone who gets better at their job, you'll know you're getting better. If so, your old tastes were not merely different, but worse. Poof goes the axiom that taste can't be wrong."

[0] http://www.paulgraham.com/taste.html


If the people buying and living in the house prefer it, how can you tell them their taste is wrong? What does it even mean for taste to be "wrong"? What are the actual consequences of it?

If you go to a different culture, that has different food, architecture, music, art, etc, would you tell them they are wrong about everything and need to change? Would you listen to them if they told you your tastes were wrong?

There is nothing objective about taste. It's entirely determined by associations you make in the brain. The author has associated "McMansion" architecture with things he doesn't like. Maybe the cheap construction they are associated with, or the people who live in those houses, etc. But other people can have completely different associations.


I don't think they are psuedoscience, but it might be that architecture is an unusual case.

With other art forms, yes they use these rules, but there's also things like line, texture, color, and other rules that disguise or soften them. With architecture, I think they don't have much technique to do so, and the symmetry, golden ratio, etc, come through much stronger. Many of the examples he gave in his blog of good symmetry were actually fairly boring houses, and the problem with too much symmetry is a boring picture.

I mean the rules work, but in functional forms like houses, you have less ability to make them visually interesting overall. The McMansions might be the same principle in opposite-there isn't enough to make the non-symmetrical, almost abstract design less chaotic while keeping the visual interest.


>, a lot of these analyses are post-hoc, but this isnt really a problem;

It actually is the source of the problem because his rules end up being inconsistent. There are billionaire estates in the ultra expensive zipcodes of the Hamptons[1] (NY) and Atherton[2] (near Silicon Valley) that people would not call "McMansions" that violate the author's principles about "voids and masses".

Put another way... as a thought experiment, suppose we had the AutoCAD drawings of every house from modest cabins to mega estates. We attempt to write a computer program that has a boolean function called IsMcMansion(AutoCAD_file) that returns either TRUE or FALSE using the blog author's criteria. We can attempt to tweak the logic of the program to analyze and weigh the geometries of the "masses" and calculate the proportion of "voids" but we'll never end up with a program that 100% correctly predicts what humans label as "McMansion" Why? Because, those rules don't work! E.g.... IsMcMansion(famous_novelist_house)==TRUE is determined to be wrong because us humans look at that house and say "that house isn't a McMansion because it was built in 1914 and has so much _character_"

That's what we humans do. We post-hoc a lot of judgments with a veneer of authoritative-sounding logic. We actually arrive at "McMansion" by combining a bunch of other attributes like: lot size, building materials, builder, socioeconomic rank of buyers, year of construction, trendy styles, etc. E.g. IsMcMansion(Graceland)==TRUE because of the algorithm penalized its oversized portico. However, it is judged by humans to be misclassified because... Elvis once lived there. Hence nobody calls the Graceland Estate a McMansion. If the exact same house was built by a national builder like Toll Brothers[3] and the people living in it were social-ladder-climbing yuppies, we very well might call it a "McMansion."

[1]https://www.google.com/search?q=mansions+hamptons&source=lnm...

[2]https://www.google.com/search?q=mansions+atherton&source=lnm...

[3]https://www.tollbrothers.com/


It actually is the source of the problem because his rules end up being inconsistent.

Generally, rules about what constitutes "good taste" or "aesthetically pleasing" are derived not just from wealthy people but from established wealthy people. This is something that goes back centuries, to when Western cultures first started having a bit more mobility and it was possible for a person who wasn't born into a family of hereditary land-owning aristocrats to accumulate enough wealth to start having nice clothes, a large house with servants, etc.

The hereditary aristocrats, of course, didn't care much for this and so wanted some way to distinguish themselves from the jumped-up nouveaux riches, some of whom even became rich enough to buy (or obtain through rendering financial "service" to a monarch) their own heritable noble titles. And so began a complex, inconsistent and ever-changing set of standards of aesthetics and behavior, designed to act as a kind of shibboleth: if you hadn't been brought up among people who'd been doing this their whole lives (and who in turn were brought up by people who'd been doing it their whole lives), you'd never quite get it right and the older established noble families would be able to tell you didn't really belong to their social class (and would treat you accordingly).

Many of these rules about architecture are artifacts of this system: they are the evolved result of established wealthy families trying to find ways to make sure their homes were distinguishable from the homes of the vulgar arrivistes.

And in fact this is precisely what the backlash against the "McMansion" is about. Newly upper-middle-class people, and even newly-extremely-wealthy people, can still be singled out by the way their homes merely imitate the homes of established old-money people, and by picking out the ways the imitation fails. And remember that to the old money, a Silicon Valley billionaire who started out in a working-class family is worse -- because they jumped far too many social classes in one generation -- than someone who merely hopped into upper-middle-class suburbia. So just looking at recently-built megahouses won't tell you much because many of them will be built to the tastes of people who, by definition, cannot have good taste (remember: if you haven't had it for at least three generations, you don't have it at all).


I don't quite get your point here. Nobody is suggesting that the term McMansion is purely about architecture. There have surely been terrible buildings as long as there have been buildings. But this particular kind of terrible building is notable because of the socioeconomic factors that created so many of them.

The point of a McMansion is essentially social. Once you get past the structural basics, the point of most architecture is social. Humans are social primates. Yes, of course, if you construct a program without regard to sociality it will not be very good at understanding social phenomena.


He assumes that the design of dwellings should be determined by the aesthetic quality of their exterior front view. But the owners spend the most time in the interior, and second most in the back yard.


If you want to make the best use of the interior space, you don't carve up a half dozen secondary masses (using the article's term). You do this because you have bad taste and think it looks fancy/expensive. i.e. You think it looks like a proper mansion when in reality your 3000 sqft house should not be carved up into half a dozen independent chunks as if it's a palace built up over 4 centuries.

Maxing out the use of the interior space means one huge box, which is what most "ultramodern" houses in cities are. It's not my aesthetic, but it least it makes sense, unlike putting tacky form over function in the mcmansion style.


I too wish he'd written about more than the façade, but this piece is only the first in a series. He goes on to talk about garages and columns, so perhaps he'll get to interiors.


No, he doesn't. He's merely talking about one aspect of the design of dwellings. There are other articles talking about other aspects.


The thing that's crappy about McMansions isn't the people, it's that they're built by consciously aping a style, and then ignoring all of the rules of the style. If you regard architecture as a language, McMansions are composed entirely of pidgin.

It's akin to people calling their development process "agile" but following none of the rules of agile. They have "stand-up" meetings that don't go anywhere, retrospectives that are meaningless, and sprints that constantly expand in scope. Superficially it's agile, except that it violates all of the actual rules of agile development.


I think its worse than pidgin. McMansions look like they were autogenerated using Markov chains composed of bits of "real" architecture. The elements are there but they have no meaning.

The most infuriating thing about them in my opinion is that when they are made more expensive for more "upmarket" neighborhoods, the fundamentals don't change at all. The generator is just run for longer with more and more bits of house growing like warts on the main structure at random. They look... cancer-like.


This is a brilliant analogy. That's just what they look like to me!


Ha - that would be kind of awesome. A dynamically generated housing estate with each property unique based on a catalog of styles (kind of like No Mans Sky for housing!)


No, it is irreducibly a matter of taste.


It's a tricky area to define, but it is definitely not irreducibly a matter of taste.

Take some of the music in the world which has stood the test of time, and you'll notice certain aspects (such as good use of dynamics, rather than blasting every sound as loud as it can go) that stand out above the other rabble of popular music of the time period it came from. This isn't a coincidence, nor is it irreducibly a matter of taste. There are some elements to artistic things which are objectively better than others.

Good architectural elements stand out in subtle ways. Following some of these patterns tastefully makes a difference.


> Take some of the music in the world which has stood the test of time, and you'll notice certain aspects >There are some elements to artistic things which are objectively better than others.

"objectively good" == "aligned with the tastes of a great enough variety of people to be widely popular over space and time"?


Sure, and some peoples' taste will fetch millions of dollars and last for centuries whereas others will be demolished and forgotten within a decade. Don't you think that phenomenon is worth trying to understand?


Most certainly. Here is my hypothesis. Each individual has some taste function f which assigns an aesthetic enjoyment value to some house appearance. It is unlikely that f varies uniformly or without bound across people, as a certain kind of aesthetic nihilist might think: there are clearly universal trends in aesthetic judgments across cultures. But these trends are weak in comparison to culture-specific preferences. In music, for example, most cultures agree that an octave sounds more pleasant than other intervals, but the other intervals considered consonant/dissonant in Western music are not universal, nor is the concept that dissonance creates tension that needs to be resolved. These concepts form the core of what makes Western music seem good or bad, but they are entirely culturally learned from other people in your social network.

I hypothesize a person's f varies primarily as a function of the social networks they move in. Most people who are into architectural design theory are in very separate social networks from people who buy McMansions, comprising different social classes. So it is likely that they will dislike the things that McMansion people like.

Furthermore, I hypothesize that social groups develop fs partially to foster in-group cohesion and out-group separation, which requires making the out-group seem bad. As such, the people who are into architectural design theory will develop fs which penalize the kinds of things that McMansion people like. So under this theory, this tumblr is just a sophisticated way for one social group to put down another social group.

The question of what tastes fetch millions of dollars and last centuries and what tastes die out, then has to do with which social group ends up having more influence (in addition to the probably very weak universal aesthetic factors).

From this perspective, the screeds against McMansions seem especially distasteful, because the group that has more influence is putting down the taste of the group that has less. It seems like punching down.

An effective argument against this point would be to show that people who buy McMansions don't like them either, and are just forced to buy them because there's nothing better available. That would suggest McMansions violate the aesthetic principles even of the social group that buys them, and contribute to human misery, rather than just violating the aesthetic principles of a highly-educated privileged class.

The above obviously has lots of statements needing qualification and support, which is why it's just a conjecture.


> Furthermore, I hypothesize that social groups develop [particular tastes] partially to foster in-group cohesion and out-group separation

I'm pretty sure this hypothesis has substantial support from sociological studies.

> which requires making the out-group seem bad.

That's certainly a tactic that can be used, but it's not required.

The article states that McMansions are ugly, which implies that their owners have bad taste, not that they're bad people.


"probably very weak universal aesthetic factors"

This is your shakiest assumption. Art tends to reflect modes of human experience (how could it avoid doing so) and richly, sensitively evoked experience makes for art that has very broad appeal. Something like Shakespeare is universally popular not for colonial reasons or because it's somehow multivalent (in the sense of being specifically compatible with multiple cultures). It's a deeply satisfying reflection of human nature and a consummate engagement with human experience, which is what architecture should be too.

McDonalds food doesn't claim to be a high-point of human creativity, and it's not. Same story with McMansions.


This is the most intelligent post I've read in the entire thread, and that includes the original blog post. I read through the entire essay, thinking that at some point, the author would mention functional factors such as livability, room-proximity, space and natural light, but it was instead entirely about aesthetic preferences. There's something very off-putting about writing an entire essay insulting people for having aesthetic preferences that differ from yours and your friends'.


It's an interesting conjecture and probably has some merit, but looking at the examples in the article, I, as someone who is not an architect (but do like nice looking things) find that the McMansion examples are generally pretty ugly things that bother me for some reason I can't define (though it is thoroughly defined in the article of course).

I've seen houses designed by architects before, both internally and externally, and usually they exude a sense of balance and peace that is not present in the average house.

I offer an alternative conjecture: most people have poor taste. The majority taste is therefore generally condemned by people who actually know what they're talking about.

It seems to me this alternative conjecture is borne out in things like music (pop music, with a few exceptions, is generally simplistic and crass compared to many more refined sub-genre), literature (again with rare exceptions, books that "everyone likes" are generally awful - see 50 shades, Bourne, etc), though interestingly not movies (at least my impression is that there are a lot of very popular movies which are also quite good).


I offer an alternative conjecture: most people have poor taste. The majority taste is therefore generally condemned by people who actually know what they're talking about.

An alternative to your alternative: not everyone shares the same values as you, and there is no objective basis to say that your values are more important than theirs.


There is no way to argue someone out of the position that all aesthetic judgements are just equally valueless opinions.

After all, that is just their equally valueless opinion.


I think a counter-example of that type of architectural criticism is the work of Christopher Alexander; he's extremely opinionated about what he likes and doesn't like, but in "A Pattern Language", he lays out a bunch of design principles and explains what problem they solve and why he thinks they're the optimal solution to that particular problem.

Any other architect can come along and say "I don't think that's a real problem" or "I think I have a better solution to that problem". There's no appeal to authority (e.g. "this is how architectural tradition says you're supposed to design things, and anything that breaks these rules is wrong"). Everyone is encouraged to work things out on their own from first principles and see if they come to the same conclusion. I think this is especially important in Architecture, where anything beyond basic utilitarian functionality is very tied to psychology and is therefore in a realm of conjecture where very little is definitively provable and yet many people seem to react very similarly to certain design elements.

In "A Timeless Way of Building", Alexander talks about cultivating the mental discipline of separating what you think ought to be a good design from analyzing your actual emotional response to that design. Learning to pay attention to the latter instead of the former can often lead in unexpected directions and result in better design.


A Timeless Way of Building is a fantastic read for architecture enthusiasts. Also, it's easy to see how that book influenced software since the GoF book is very much the same idea applied to software.


It's amazing how persuasive completely reductive relativism sounds until you realize it's totally useless and utterly fails to explain powerful and general patterns in preference.


I am no architect, but based on the definitions of the article this building has no symmetry or balance whatsoever, and secondary masses dominate the primary masses:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sydney_Opera_House#/media/File...

Or then I just misunderstood the article completely.


I think the picture you posted is of the side of the building. This would be the facade, which looks pretty balanced to me:

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-CgY4n5BsK9o/VafsZ-ccfcI/AAAAAAAAVS...



I think you misunderstood the article completely.


Yes. I just noted following sentence:

"These same principles do not always apply to Modernist or even canonically Postmodern architecture. These principles are for the classical or traditional architecture most residential homes are modeled after."


Oh, good. I would have pasted it in but I'm on my phone and it's a pain in the butt :-)


No, you're right. The Opera House is a visual disaster.


> De gustibus non est disputandum.

Actually, I disagree.

I live in a house that has been built more than 100 years ago and people still enjoy living in it today. Houses from that era have been popular throughout the times.

Other architectural styles failed just after ten or twenty years. The flats became cheap, the crime rate high.

When I ask myself whether something is good taste, I really just want to know: Will I still like it in ten years from now? Will my kids like it in fifty years? Will I be able to sell it when fashion changes?

Finding what made the houses from the 1900 good and houses from 1980 bad is important and can help us build things that last.

You are right though to distrust architecture teachings. These houses from the late nineteenth / early twentieth century were considered bad taste by main architects in the post-WWII era in Germany (and other countries) up until the 80's. Old houses had been torn down and replaced by minimalist, modernist and brutalist visions [1]. Today it's obvious they were wrong.

Early Bauhaus buildings on the other hands are still popular, though to me it's not quite obvious what makes them beautiful in my eyes, and what makes me dislike later modern houses.

Anyway, I think it's interesting to find out why some buildings are timeless and others are not.

[1] pardon me if I used any terms the wrong way


>Those houses will probably not be suburban.

Most of the examples of good architecture in the article are suburban.


Here it is:

"Disclaimer: These same principles do not always apply to Modernist or even canonically Postmodern architecture. These principles are for the classical or traditional architecture most residential homes are modeled after."

At least some of the modernist styles explicitly rejects aesthetics, so it's hard to fault them for being so fiendishly ugly.

I think this Tumblr walks a very fine line. On one hand, it seems to want to be brutishly "haw-haw rich people have horrible taste and are bad people". This is echoed in the tone of some of the text (but only some, it also emphasise some mansions as being very pretty), and in the profile picture of Reagan. On the other hand, on the surface, it retreats into an extremely narrow trench of claiming to only and specifically critiquing the half-assed imitation of classical styles.

I guess you can call it a kind of dog whistling.


Why are you limiting that to architectural design? Surely your conjecture could be extended to encompass all aspects of design, literature, art.


I think a more constructive critique of McMansions would be on the quality of their building materials, and how their design will hold up to the elements through time. I am not an expert on architecture by any means, but I believe that what is worse than their poor aesthetic sense is their lack of quality material.

These structures were designed to be built as quickly as possible, for the least amount of money. Will they hold up in the wind? Will they succumb to gravity? A house could be ugly as sin and not follow any sort of aesthetic pattern, but if it is a sound stricture, I think it is a good structure.


The points the author spelled out are just field agnostic design principles with brief examples.

Re: Focus on the exterior vs the interior

I don't think it makes sense to talk about interiors in this post. An architect might focus on structure inside and outside, but his focus on design is mostly outside. Once you get inside a home that someone lives in, it's hard to isolate the architect's work from the interior designer's in a photo.


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