Kate Wagner on McMansion Hell, Criticism, and Her Love of Cycling
Contrary to movie myth, there is no such thing as an overnight sensation. The moment when a cultural presence bursts upon the scene, seemingly fully formed, is almost always preceded by unwitnessed years of DIY training and single-minded obsession. Such is the case for Kate Wagner, who broke the architectural internet in 2016 with the introduction of McMansion Hell, a sharp and hilarious skewering of the bloated American home, in all its garish and desperate striving. A year later, the real estate listing site Zillow served the then-23-year-old Wagner with a cease-and-desist letter, claiming that her use of photographs violated copyright (even though they didn’t own the photographs either!). It was a clumsy move, resulting in an eventual corporate about-face and scads of free publicity for McMansion Hell. She parlayed that popularity—she has an avid fanbase on Twitter—into other impressive work. In addition to her blog, Wagner has written for The Atlantic, Curbed, Metropolis, Common Edge, and numerous other publications; she is currently the architecture critic for the New Republic. In late October, Wagner gave the 2020 Brendan Gill lecture, at the Yale School of Architecture. Last week we talked about the origin story of McMansion Hell, the future of criticism, and her love of cycling.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
KW: Kate Wagner
You have an interesting path to architecture criticism. Why don’t we just start at the beginning: What’s the origin story of McMansion Hell?
Back in the day, I used to be a musician and worked in a recording studio. I was also a test engineering intern at a speaker company. And I started McMansion Hell in the summer, between undergrad and graduate school. My graduate degree was in architectural acoustics, because I wanted to take what I learned from music and apply it to buildings, which I have always loved and studied and wrote about. That’s really where it started. The blog started as an inside joke between me and my ex-boyfriend and some friends. One day I decided to use this knowledge—that I had accumulated from reading about architecture since I was in my early teenage years—to write about why McMansions are so bad. I still don’t know to this day how or why, but it went viral.
How soon into the project did it go viral?
It immediately went viral. It blew up on Tumblr, which is where the blog was based. I woke up one day, and the post had 10,000 likes. People were asking for interviews; I gave a TED talk four months later. It just happened so fast, and I’m still not quite sure why it happened.
You probably have some idea, because it clearly struck a nerve.
I think the post was a decent explanation as to why these houses are so bad. And because it was on Tumblr, which is a micro-blogging platform, the social media element of it enabled that information to spread faster. It’s really just a roll of the dice, in terms of the mechanisms. But I also think it hit because it was short, interesting, funny, and accessible.
Funny is definitely one of the reasons why it was so accessible. That’s your superpower.
I’m a funny guy. Thank you.
Out of that came opportunities to do more traditional criticism, where you had to make a formal argument. You could still be funny, but there were a few more rules of the road. What was that transition like? You didn’t know you were an architecture critic yet, but you were getting to be one fairly quickly.
By the beginning of 2017, I started writing freelance for other publications. I had been writing for years. I was a good academic writer; I won some competitions in high school for essays and short fiction. I already knew that I could write. That was always validating for me. And I kept journals and notes and things like that throughout my college years. I knew that I was a writer, of some kind, I just chose to write about architecture because it was my favorite thing.
So people saw the blog, and I started writing for these smaller publications: 99% Invisible, Atlas Obscura. Shortly after I started writing for Curbed—I wrote a couple of one-offs for them—they asked me to do a bimonthly take on the culture of home. I always felt writing about architecture was natural for me, because there’s lots of narrative elements to it. There’s a way of looking at precedent studies and tracing the origins of things in order to tell a bigger story, linking things that may not necessarily be immediately associated with one another. I think linking cultural criticism to architecture was a big catalyst as to why I kept being able to get writing gigs.
In a weird way, you were training to be an architecture critic without even realizing it. You were reading architecture books when you were 15, doing the work that other people who took a more traditional path did in graduate school. All sort of self-taught.
Yes. I was a really weird teenager.
Where’d you grow up?
A small town in North Carolina. Pinehurst is the most notable place nearby, which is where they have the U.S. Open every once in a while. When I was a teenager, I was basically a shut-in, by choice. I didn’t feel a connection to my peers. And instead of trying to bludgeon in my way through awkward friendships, I decided to forgo social interaction and spend all of my time on the internet, listening to minimalist music, looking at SkyscraperCity forums, and reading Charles Jencks books from the community college library.
What did your parents think of your obsession with architectural theory?
Oh, my parents were always used to me being obsessed with things. I have been a classical music person all my life. And would always go on these long rants in the car about the internal politics of Soviet composers or something like that. Just pinball wizard stuff. I was really a strange, antisocial child. Not quite all there, I would say. It got better when I went to college and met people with similar interests and was able to express myself intellectually and creatively. But in high school, I was basically a kook, to be quite frank.
You were just orbiting from a cognitively different planet, and it probably was not a teenager’s planet, I’m guessing.
That’s probably true, but I also lived a completely interior life, and I regret that. As much as it is an origin story, I wish I had made a better effort to socialize and make friends and do normal teenager things.
But there’s no such thing as a normal teenager.
Maybe you’re right. I wanted to be an architect for a little bit, and I was good at drawing, but most of my drawing skill was devoted to portraiture. I took community college classes in portraiture, specifically. But the reason I didn’t become an architect is because my high school guidance counselor said my B-minus in Algebra II made me a bad candidate for architecture school. I was a decent classical musician. And when you’re good at something as a teenager, you think: Oh, I’ll just do that for the rest of my life. That’s why I went to music school. I got a nice scholarship and went to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and had a great time, learned a lot.
Were you still reading architectural textbooks and theory while you were doing musical theory and musical education?
Yes. There was no architecture department where I went to school. In fact, there’s only two architecture schools in all of North Carolina. The first thing I did when I got to college was get my student ID, go to the library, and I check out 10 books on Michael Graves, because I was going through a PoMo phase, I guess. A lot of my academic papers in college were an attempt to relate music to architecture. I always tried to link it back to architecture in some way. Working in the recording studio, learning how to be a classical music recording engineer, involves trying to make the room work for you, determining what sort of arsenal of microphones you have. Because, ultimately, the room governs all.
And so I became obsessed with acoustics. I was taking sound studies classes and decided that’s what I wanted to do. I went to Johns Hopkins after that and the Peabody Institute and studied architectural acoustics. My thesis was on concert hall design, the history of science and architecture theory, from 1960 to 1986.
You had a good quote about this in your Yale lecture: “Listening to a building is completely different from looking at a building.” Talk about that.
Just as you train the eye to observe different architectural features, in order to read a room, so to speak, you do the same with your ears. But it takes a lot more technical prowess to do it. It’s also something that requires a lot of practice. I’m out of practice now, because I haven’t been in a concert hall since the start of the pandemic, but if you don’t constantly use those skills, your ears will basically forget how to do it.
I learned this form of active listening as a recording engineer. But listening to rooms is quite different, because you’re listening for specific things happening in time, certain reflections in the sonic field, based on where you’re sitting, what they’re playing, and how the orchestra is arranged. It’s quite an involved process. So much of architectural acoustics is based on trying to design things using our instruments of sight, because we won’t know what something sounds like until it’s built, no matter how much we try to model it with our technology, which is still quite primitive.
In the Gill lecture you talk about the difference in the language of architecture criticism, between “density” and “sprawl,” and how you prefer sprawl.
This is kind of a veiled analogy for how academic writing is different than the writing you do for the broader public. Reading an academic book is a different experience. For example, I’m revisiting Manfredo Tafuri now, again, for the 50th time. Everything Tafuri writes is just so dense. There are so many ideas condensed in so few sentences. It’s like untangling your hair. It takes some time to be able to wrest meaning out of that, which is fine. At the same time, when you’re writing for the public, what you’re really doing is telling a story, creating a broader narrative that’s more easily digested. That doesn’t mean to say it’s dumbed down, it’s just a different type of writing. It’s a matter of unwinding an idea from an initial inception into something that connects, through nodes, to all of these other things, so it should intellectually sprawl, and by the time you’ve zoomed all the way out, people can get a full picture.
What’s the role of a critic in our current weird, changing, morphing journalistic design ecosystem? The Yale talk split that ecosystem into academia, the trade press, and what you call “PR-chitecture.” We’re in an odd place that has changed what a critic is, who a critic is, who they’re supposed to speak to.
It’s difficult, because the age of the architecture critic as galvanizing force, the critic who writes for the dominant newspaper, who architects and even developers fear, that’s over. It’s done. And that’s an economic problem. Once newspapers started getting gutted—their demise sped along by the death of print and the emergence of different online outlets—it splintered public attention. There’s no way, sociologically or culturally, that kind of hegemonic power could ever be accumulated again.
And so what you have in criticism now, for the most part—except for the seven critics still writing at newspapers, whose positions will most likely end after their tenure is done—is a fragmented, critical landscape. There’s freelancers writing for publications that are specific to architecture—Common Edge, The Architect’s Newspaper, New York Review of Architecture, Metropolis—and you have “independent contractors,” people writing on monthly or yearly contracts. For example, I had a column in Curbed that was an online thing that was renewed every year. Since 2019, I’ve been a critic of the New Republic, which is a contract.
And so you do X number of stories a year?
Yes, it’s a column, every other month, in print, for pretty much a dollar per word. It has to fit on a single page. Now, we have to be really honest here about what we’re talking about when we talk about architecture criticism, and who gets to call themselves architecture critics. It’s so funny, I’d been a critic for three years before I ever got a formal column in any kind. But it wasn’t until I got that post at the New Republic, which is actually a small part of the work I do, that I started getting invited to like give talks at a bunch of universities, guest critiquing at Ivy League architecture schools. That didn’t happen until the column came. And I find that to be quite upsetting, because I didn’t change anything I was doing. I was saying these things in different outlets, but we still place architecture criticism at the altar of print, which seems completely backwards.
And also, the material reality of all this is, I get paid $500, every other month. It is not a staff position with benefits. And what’s interesting about that position is that it exists in a publication that is not devoted to architecture and design. It’s a political magazine with a literary bent that has a reasonable circulation and a reasonable level of prestige. It’s a national-facing column. But the era of the local architecture critic who reviews the buildings in the city that they live in? That’s over.
Now, interestingly, you just moved to Chicago, where the long-time architecture critic, Blair Kamin, has left his post. If they were to offer you the job, would you take it?
I actually don’t know. I would consider it. But my apprehension comes from the fact that these newspapers are being gutted by private equity, and if that job were to become available, I think it would be very much in a skeleton form. I don’t think it would be a staff position with benefits, as it was when Blair was there. It would be probably similar to what I do for the New Republic. So, would there be prestige that comes with it? Yes, there’s a great history of Chicago Tribune architecture critics. But I’m not sure, materially speaking, that would it be all that different from what it is I already do.
Bob Campbell won a Pulitzer at the Boston Globe, and he was never on staff, either. He was a freelancer who wrote a lot. You might be right—that’s probably the model. I just think it would be bad if there were no architecture critic at the Chicago Tribune.
I agree. Of course I would love that post, that’s like a dream job. But I just moved here, and part of me wonders if someone who has been living here their whole life, and is attuned and has community connections within the city, might honestly do a better job being the critic for Chicago. These are all questions we have to ask each other, and we have to ask of ourselves, because if we just submit ourselves to naked careerism, I think that’s antithetical to the project of criticism. I mean, there’s a reason why I don’t write for certain publications. I have ethical qualms, I have a political or editorial disagreement. It’s important to say no to those places.
So you would rule out the right wing Wall Street Journal, is what you’re saying?
No, I’m talking more about places like Dezeen, for example, newer design media. I don’t want to be involved with that project, because I think it actively undermines the stability of architecture criticism through the sheer inundation of content and complete interconnection with the industry itself. There’s no critical distance.
It’s even worse, the blurring between what’s real and what’s rendered.
It’s PR. And I resent that. It’s antithetical to the project of criticism.
McMansion Hell has a really active fan base. Have you taken the subscription route, through Substack?
It’s based on Patreon, and that’s what’s paid most of my bills. So, yeah, I make about what a public school teacher makes from McMansion Hell.
And then you have a new obsession, cycling.
Oh, god. My in-laws gave me a time-trial bike, and I was like: Oh, I have to be good. My husband’s a lifelong cyclist; his parents are lifelong cyclists. They’re touring cyclists, endurance cyclists. I got used to being around cyclists all the time. My husband watched cycling when he was a kid and, you know, was very excited about it. I was just like, yeah, I’ll watch the Tour de France—and I got sucked in! I thought: Oh, this is the greatest sport of all time! Because half of cycling is just landscapes. It’s buildings and landscapes and urbanism and culture, all of these things that I already write about and already have knowledge of. And at the same time, it also involves these epic stories of struggle and redemption. It’s just bait for somebody like me. It was inevitable that I would write about this or be obsessed with it. It’s such a literary drama, man vs. man vs. nature vs. machine vs. self vs. society. It’s the perfect writer’s sport.
And so your first book will be about cycling? I’m wondering, why haven’t you turned McMansion Hell into a book?
The blog-to-book thing is over. That’s very 2007. I’ve been working on a book proposal for a couple of years now. And it’s mostly finding the right tone. The proposal I’m working on is not about McMansions, per se, it’s about why we find certain architectural styles to be ugly. Why do things suck, basically: McMansions, strip malls, hospital waiting rooms, Brutalism. It examines these contentious architectural forms, looking at how they came to be and why, what we can do about them (if anything), what they say about our lives and society and the way we live. That’s the book I’m working on right now. Right now, I’m also in talks for an adaptation of the blog into a television show. So that probably will come first.
All images courtesy of Kate Wagner and McMansion Hell.