Suburban Chicago McMansions Follow a Dark Logic Even I Do Not Understand
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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We all know the story. One-hundred ten years ago, in 1911, a fire flared up in a scrap bin at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village, New York. One-hundred forty-six workers, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, some as young as 14, died that day, as a result of burning to death, smoke inhalation, or jumping out windows to escape.
Many of those deaths were preventable. They might have been able to escape were it not for the fact that the owners of the factory had locked the doors to the stairwell, to prevent workers from taking unauthorized bathroom breaks during the workday.
On Friday, six Amazon workers were killed and many others were injured when the company's facility in Edwardsville, Illinois, collapsed after being hit by a deadly tornado. Similarly unsafe labor practices may be to blame.
The workers were required to come in and stay there despite the tornado warning. Employees say they were not allowed to have their phones on the floor — for fear they might decrease productivity — which meant they didn't have any way of staying up to date on incoming disaster or preparing accordingly (Amazon denies this). The facility itself, despite being in an area known for having a high rate of tornados, did not have a basement where workers could take shelter until it passed. The best they could do was to hide in bathrooms.
In light of the fact that these conditions may have contributed to the casualties, Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) issued a statement on Saturday (at the time only two workers had been confirmed dead):
Time and time again Amazon puts its bottom line above the lives of its employees. Requiring workers to work through such a major tornado warning event as this was inexcusable. At least two workers will never be going home to their families, and countless others continue to be trapped beneath the rubble of the Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois. This is another outrageous example of the company putting profits over the health and safety of their workers, and we cannot stand for this. Amazon cannot continue to be let off the hook for putting hard working people's lives at risk. Our union will not back down until Amazon is held accountable for these and so many more dangerous labor practices.
It took Amazon founder Jeff Bezos until 9 p.m. on Saturday to address the collapse and the deaths, as he was far too busy posting about his vanity trip to space on Instagram.
One of the Amazon workers killed in the collapse had actually been able to text his girlfriend, letting her know the company was not planning on letting them leave until the tornado was over. He would have had enough time to get home had they allowed him to.
Climate change means we will be seeing more extreme weather like the tornado in Kentucky. Here are the tornado safety rules I had drilled into me growing up in tornado alley for all those who don’t have experience with this kind of extreme weather. Be aware there this information includes folk wisdom, if you see something different from a scientist or safety expert please listen to them over a tumbr post.
1. Know the position: this is the old classic from tornado drills in school. Crouch down, shins flat to the ground and butt on your heels. Put your head down between your knees and and interlace your hands behind your neck to offer some protection from falling debris. My mama always said “get on the ground and kiss your butt goodbye”
2. Seek shelter: if you are in a building, you want an interior room on the ground floor or a basement. You want to be as far from windows and exterior walls as possible. If this is your residence, pick the room beforehand and put together a kit to keep in there. Bottled water, battery operated flashlights and a radio with fresh batteries, and a first aid kit are the basics. A lot of tornado shelters these days have built in gps devices so rescue workers can locate the shelter in case the building has collapsed. These can be purchased individually and are usually called something like “emergency gps beacon” or “hiking emergency beacon”. When a tornado watch is announced, its a good idea to gather other items you may need. Carriers for pets, medication, comfort objects, etc. that you want to have with you. Blankets, pillows, and even mattresses can be used to shelter you from falling debris. Having these items gathered and ready make getting into your shelter much smoother. My parents always had us put on a coat and sturdy shoes before going into the shelter in case we had to leave through rubble. When the tornado watch becomes a tornado warning or when you are told to seek shelter, move into your shelter and use the radio to keep listening to weather updates in case wifi goes out and you can’t access it on your phone.
3. If you are out: if you are driving when you need to take shelter, DO NOT stop under an overpass. This is shown in the movies but is incredibly dangerous in real life. The overpass creates a suction sort of effect that leads to more debris flying around and incredibly strong wind speeds. Pull over and get as low as you can, in a ditch or ravine and assume the position. If there are absolutely no low spaces or buildings you could seek shelter in, park, stay buckled in, and lean down below the windows.
4. Know the signs: a tornado watch means the storms has all the necessary components for a tornado but they aren’t tracking any circulations or tornadoes. A tornado warning means they are actively tracking circulations, funnels are forming, or there is a tornado on the ground. During a tornado watch you should be preparing to take shelter and watching the weather updates. During a tornado warning you should be actively seeking shelter. It is useful to learn to read a weather radar and find what local news channel has one on their website. This can give you a better idea of what directions storms are moving and how severe they are. If a storm is coming and the sky turns green, start preparing to seek shelter. I can’t describe this over text, but storms that end up having tornado conditions have a different smell. I don’t know why, but they do. If a storm is coming and it smells or looks different than what is normal for your area, be on alert for weather announcements. If you see a tornado and it looks like its still, that means it is moving directly towards you and you must seek shelter immediately.
5. Stay calm: I know this is easy to say and hard to do, but staying calm is key during extreme weather. Being prepared is one way to reduce anxiety around extreme weather you aren’t used to. Practice gathering what you need and getting in your shelter. If you have kids, practicing can help them feel more confident if they ever have to seek shelter in an actual emergency. As a kid with an anxiety disorder, my parents used to have games that can be played out loud (like eye spy or riddles) or songs for a sing along on hand to help me stay calm while we were in our shelter.
I hope no one has to use this information, but its always best to be prepared. We have to band together and help each other during times like these.