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Suburban Chicago McMansions Follow a Dark Logic Even I Do Not Understand

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 05/01/2022 - 1:39pm in

For reasons architecturally unbeknownst to me, the McMansions of Chicago’s suburbs are actually insane. Perhaps it makes sense that Chicago, America’s mecca of great and distinguished architecture would also give birth to what can be appropriately called the netherworld version of that.

For six years, I have run this blog, and for six years I have been absolutely amazed by the formal leaps and bounds exhibited by the McMansions of Chicago’s suburbs. This area is undisputedly the fertile crescent of unhinged custom homebuilding and while I’ve heard other claims made for the gaudy, compact McMansions of Long Island, the paunchy shingled stylings of Greenwich, Connecticut, the Disney-Mediterranean hodgepodges of Florida, the oil-drenched nub mountains of North Texas, you name it – nothing comes remotely close to that which has been built in the suburbs of Cook, Lake, and DuPage Counties. (In the case of the houses featured in this post, nine of ten are located in Barrington, IL, which just might be the census designated place known as McMansion Hell.)

Usually vernacular architecture has some kind of origin point, a builder or a style or a developer one can point to and say, aha, that’s where that comes from. One could argue that the postmodern classicism of a Robert AM Stern or the tory Colonial Revival selections found in the Toll Brothers catalog provided this service for much of the McMansion canon.

However, the McMansions in the Chicago Suburbs are so wildly customized and unique, it is as though each of the ten listed here were in competition with one another to build the most outrageous collage of wealth signifiers imaginable, to the point where their architecture becomes almost un-house-like. The responsibility for their form, owing to the absence of architects, lies solely with the owners and the custom builders who did their unquestioned bidding, who plucked each turret and mismatched window from the catalog after being told, give me that. These homes are the end logic of the “custom home” of the pre-2008 era where nouveau riche (and sometimes old money) fantasies were dropped on whatever massive virgin lot one could afford to hook up plumbing to.

There are two Barrington subtypes I’ve been able to identify that, while not unique to the area, seem to be the only kinds of formal logic uniting many examples. The first I’ll call the Long House, which is just what it sounds like: a once rational house that’s been stretched to comical length-wise proportions:

Theoretically the above house makes sense to the eye. The turrets divide it into a kind of five part vertical rhythm. But the more you stare, the less sense it makes. Why is there a window between the third and fourth turret but no other? Why are there two whole other wings jutting out from the house in two other directions? Were the house not one color, the eye would get lost immediately, and the scale is such that the realtor had to zoom all the way out with a drone just to capture the whole thing in one frame. Besides, what style even is this imitating? French Country? Great Recession-core? (The same could be asked of all of these houses which, owing to their bloated-ness defy and elude even the most half-assed stylistic or historical cosplay.)

In case you were wondering, the turret exists so as to roof a curved secondary mass. A horrible question to ask ourselves is: when a turret is not used, how does one attach the curved mass to the roof? The answer is whatever is going on in the above example. I’m sorry you all have to see this.

The Long House is perhaps best demonstrated in the above particular model, which appears as though it’s not actually real but rather a mid-range SketchUp render. This house actually reminds me of many examples I’ve seen in Bergen County, New Jersey. The first three masses form a logical tripartite facade. The two that are tacked on after that undermine the rest and render it almost comical. Also they’re slightly different from one another. Of course.

The other of the two subtypes is what I call the Tank House. (One also finds turrets on a tank.) The Tank House is, well, shaped kind of like a tank: hulking, with a central protruding mass around which everything else is oriented, often at a strange oblique angle:

Building a house at an oblique angle is kind of an interesting architectural decision especially on a corner lot, but none of these are corner lots - they are large swaths of what was probably farmland unhindered by size constraints. A carport is rather like the firing arm of our tank house, protruding outward and demonstrating a kind of military might:

Often in the Tank House, additional masses are just kind of piled on to the sides because it’s actually kind of inconvenient to design a really big house on a 45 degree angle:

This results in these houses taking on a kind of kaleidoscope effect where they tesselate, spread and converge as the eye tries to assimilate them into something with symmetry, even though the design consistency falls apart at the edges.

And then there’s whatever this is:

Yeah. Sometimes postmodernism wasn’t all fun colors and ironic greek order references. Unfortunately.

However, the Tank House doesn’t always have to involve an oblique angle. What’s unique - other than the oversized central portico - is actually the piling on of the massing into mismatched wings:

Like I said above, architecture, especially “traditional” architecture longs for symmetry, and these houses simply do not have it. They always manage to screw up, shoving some house over there, some roof to that side, as though they’ve started with a central idea and were unable to commit, rather like this post in which I’m wandering around really, really trying to understand why these houses are so damn bizarre.

In the last two examples, you’ll see a central hall punctuated by grand entrance of some kind. But in both cases the symmetry is broken by adding another mass to the right simply because the garage calls for it. It shows a remarkable lack of architectural faculty and imagination to let a garage derail the entire formal logic of the house. It’s lazy. However, the garage is a status symbol in and of itself – perhaps the disruption, the madness, is the point. (In architecture, as in all things, one must remember not to ascribe to malice that which can be easily explained by incompetence.)

This brings us to the last of our examples, which I consider to be among the greatest McMansions to ever exist:

This house took sprawl as its very inspiration, its DNA, its parti. It exists simply to say how much of it there is. It lays on a barren sea of turf grass, is constructed entirely from fossil-fuel based materials, is illuminated by a spurious sky added in post. Everything about it is the pinnacle of artifice, the absence of substance. Even color eludes it - it has traded color for “tone,” for a monochromatic neutrality that even better conveys just how huge and stupid it is. I hate this house, but I also love it, because it pushes the boundary of the medium like all memorable works of architecture do. That’s the thing – despite six years of running this website, every time I think I’ve seen it all, I come back to Barrington, Illinois and find something even my headiest subprime fever dreams couldn’t possibly cook up.

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The McMansion Hell Yearbook: 1981

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 10/11/2021 - 12:52pm in

Hello everyone! We return to the great state of Illinois (where I live) to bring you this wonderful time capsule from DuPage County (where I don’t live but have ridden my bike.) There is actually much more house to get through than in the usual McMansion Hell post so Iet’s not waste time with informalities.

Behold.

This incredible 70s hangover is served (with a fine line on a silver tray) at a neat $5 million. It has seven bedrooms for maximum party discretion and 4.5 bathrooms also for maximum party discretion but of a different sort. Shall we?

Lawyer Foyer

Definitely thought that the staircase emptied out into a pool of brown water. (I’m sober, though.)

Auditorium-Sized Living Room

Pretty sure this is the most epic hearth in McMansion Hell history, if not world history. a bit of overkill, imo. Anyway, let’s see what’s behind it.

In the late 1970s, society once inquired, collectively: What if “Dudes Rock” was a bar?

Kitchen

This is the most normal room in the house. (This is a threat.)

Main Bedroom

How can something clearly from the 80s have such powerful 2006 energy?

Main Bathroom

This was likely a reno job but master bathrooms did start being roughly the size of my living/dining room a few years later.

WARNING: SICKO ZONE AHEAD

Okay. Okay. We’ve completed our tour of the main, relatively normal McMansion part of this house. We are now entering the Sicko Zone, wherein everything gets progressively a little more, well, sick.

(Note: There are more images from the sicko zone but Tumblr only lets me put 10 images in per post so please head over to the McMansion Hell Patreon to see more.)

The Den

Remember late-era Frank Lloyd Wright? These architects dared to ask: What if he sucked?

the horrible room

yeah sorry i need some air.

Rear Exterior

Well, that was eventful. I hope you all enjoyed our little foray into hell. Stay tuned for more Yearbook! It’s only going to get pinker and tealer from here.

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The McMansion Hell Yearbook: 1977

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 28/10/2020 - 4:40am in

Howdy, folks, and happy October! (It’s snowing here in Chicago lol) 

Before I get down to business on today’s post, I want to let you know of two big events coming up this week: 

First, I’ll be in conversation with Susan Chin and Vinson Cunningham tomorrow evening (10/28) to talk about urbanism during the pandemic (virtually) at the Museum of the City of New York. More info and tickets here

 I am giving this year’s Brendan Gill Lecture in Architectural Criticism at Yale via Zoom on Thursday the 29th of October at 6:30 Eastern Time. Admission is free. Here’s a link to the talk which includes info on how to register. 

Alright, now back to the main event. We’re back in Cook County, Illinois because of course we are, and this house falls into the rare McMansion Hell category of “this house is terrible but also kind of cute somehow????” 

It’s a shame you can’t really see the turret because it adds so much. Anyways, this house is peak 70s McMansion: longer than it is tall, involves a mansard, big picture windows, not too adventurous roof-wise. Still, it’s 6900 square feet boasting 5 bedrooms and 6.5 baths all at a whopping $1.5 million dollars. Just some pocket change, you know…

Let’s see inside, shall we?

Lawyer Foyer

All I want is some Looney Tunes action where some’s coming up from the basement and someone’s coming in the front door and WHAM!!!! 

Sitting Room

I kind of stan the dog pots though… 

Dining Room

I think the wallpaper might be crabs???? (????)

Kitchen

Pros of tile countertops: v twee and cute
Cons of tile countertops: grout 

Also we NEED to bring back the kitschy farmhouse aesthetic from 40 years ago. No more quartz countertops. It’s time for tiles with chickens on them!!!

Sunroom

Is this room supposed to be like weirdly tropical?? or Parisian??? or Martha Stewart??? or???

Vibe check: [please calibrate vibe checker and try again]

Office

After all, inside every middle manager is a languishing Hemingway…

Main Bedroom

“Struggled hard for these views (six arm flexing emojis)”

Also, disclosure: McMansion Hell will no longer use the term “master bedroom” because it’s antiquated and never made much sense after the (American) Civil War if you really think about it for more than three seconds. 

Main Bathroom

where to purchase malachite wallpaper asking for a friend (the friend is my office)

Spare Bedroom

Nothing says “I am a fun-loving carefree and slightly cRaZy girl” like this font:

Alright, that’s it for the inside. Instead of the rear exterior though, I’m going to end this post with a fun aerial shot instead just to show that my suspicions about this house have been confirmed. 

Secret Aerial Footage (helicopter sounds)

See, this house is actually very weird!!!! It is not as cute when all of its wily tricks have been revealed!!!!

Okay, that’s it for 1977. Stay tuned for 1978! 

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