The rise of the McModern
From busy rooflines to plastic shutters, mismatched windows to four-car garages, the McMansion has dominated the American suburban residential landscape for almost 40 years without a notable change in aesthetics. Many people know a McMansion when they see one. The typical McMansion follows a formula: It’s large, cheaply constructed, and architecturally sloppy.
Until around 2007, McMansions mostly borrowed the forms of traditional architecture, producing vinyl Georgian estates and foam Mediterranean villas.
But in the last 10 years, this has begun to change: McMansions are now being constructed in architectural styles from the 20th century, specifically modernism. We are witnessing the birth and the proliferation of modernist McMansions: McModerns.
Though McModerns are commonly found in the places where modernism itself thrives—indoor-outdoor climates like the West Coast and the Southwest, and near liberal cities on the East Coast—they are also beginning to pop up in burgeoning tech hotbeds south of the Mason-Dixon, such as central North Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia. McModern houses are following the trail left behind by NPR, Chipotle, and MacBook Pros: They’ve become popular with younger, tech-savvier, and more highly educated individuals.
What makes the McModern a fascinating case study in residential architectural history is its two separate lineages: its foundation as a McMansion, and its origins within the greater historical context of popular modernism—that is, modernism for everyday families.
McMansions have always taken a formal layout and dressed it up in a series of architectural costumes: Mediterranean, Shingle, colonial, Tudor, chateauesque, and now “modern.” All McMansions follow roughly the same structural form.
The McMansion has three contrasting—and disproportionate—parts: a central core with multi-story entryway, a side wing, and a garage wing. There are many variations to this: Sometimes the central wing has its own mass, other times it’s embedded with other masses. The side wing can be distinguished by different cladding or shape, or a focal point, such as a picture, corner, or bay window. Sometimes the side wing is omitted. The garage wing can be perpendicular to the main house as in the example above, or adjacent, with the doors being side-facing or front-facing. None of these forms are proportioned to one another, or scaled to the human form.
In the grand taxonomy of residential architecture, the McModern is a genus within the McMansion family. This is not to say that the “modern” part isn’t as important as the “Mc,” because the McModern as we know it derives from a source not often touched upon: the everyday modern houses not designed by famous architects, but by builders, or from pattern books.
The earliest examples of non-canonical, lowercase-m modern architecture were perhaps the Prairie Style kit houses inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and designed and built by Sears Roebuck & Co., briefly popular between 1915 and 1920. From 1920 through the 1950s, instances of non-architect-designed modernist houses were few and far between. While a few pattern books offered Art Deco or Streamline Moderne-style house plans in the 1930s and 1940s, these were not as popular as the concurrent minimal traditional style, favored by many for its small size during difficult economic times.
How to identify a McModern, as per McMansion Hell:
- Single-family detached home
- Constructed from inexpensive materials, such as vinyl, stucco board, and veneers, rather than traditional materials such as stucco or reinforced concrete
- Contrasting exterior cladding materials and colors
- Attached garage and/or two-story foyer
- Sometimes features non-modern details like Tuscan columns or windows with stylized muntins
- Massing and rooflines may be over-elaborate, combining several roof forms, e.g. terrace, shed, “butterfly,” or “M-shaped”
- May include decorative forms like extruded walls or cantilevers clad in differing materials
- Windows are erratically sized and placed in “artistic” configurations without consideration for overall composition
- Rarely designed by AIA-licensed architects—more often by building companies or house plan websites