Architectural Criticism in 2021 || Part 1.5: A Response to a Critique of Betsy DeVos’ Mansion

Before writing a fuller continuation of my previous essay on architectural criticism, I’m inserting a mini-essay that focuses on a particular piece of criticism. Let me be clear: I don’t see Kate Wagner, the person behind @mcmansionhell, as an enemy; I’m just using one of her articles as an example because I had, in my essay, already linked an image from an article of hers, and I’d rather elaborate on what I mean when I write “…a vapid buildup to a politically convenient takeaway” than bring in an entirely different item. Wagner, in my view, represents a sort of destabilizing criticism that takes pleasure in tackling “dry” subject matter with breathless, Meme-heavy sarcasm. I find the tone off-putting, but I appreciate it as one attempt to invigorate and broaden the audiences of architectural appraisal. My issue is that by now the joke has overestimated its capacity for judgmental clarity. Really anything can be made fun of if you’re determined enough, and the more of an unquestioning audience you have the easier it is to believe everything you say is true or coherent.

The image was from this 2018 Vox article: “Betsy DeVos’ summer home deserves a special place in McMansion Hell” (a title likely devised by the editor; given the other residences Wagner has lambasted, I would be surprised if she truly believes this is among the worst).

What I’d first draw readers’ attention to is that Wagner spends the first four paragraphs on the United States’ beyond-vast inequality of wealth. Two of these paragraphs are the article’s largest, and the article is twelve-paragraphs-long, meaning that 1/3 of it is devoted to establishing a socio-economic context — at least, that is the pretense. Once Wagner writes “…getting paid to make fun of DeVos’s tacky seaside decor is one of few ways to both feed myself and make myself feel better”, it is clear that her personal intent is a kind of vengeful mocking, and that her intent for readers is to prime them to associatively, knee-jerkingly despise anything which could come next with flat-affect “lmao”s. It’s hardly irrelevant to mention economic realities when examining luxury items (and what else is a mansion?), but Wagner’s subsequent analysis is not really architectural or even artistic: it is rather about looking at several photographs of a building, knowing who lives there and hating that person (and also imagining that they were responsible for all design decisions), and then mocking this-and-that in whatever ways one can devise. These grievances are understandable, but understandable grievances do not automatically lead to perceptive criticism.

Please look (perhaps again) at the first image. Note that only four, maybe, of the fourteen details Wagner chooses to focus on — “no wry comment needed”, “these look like playdoh stamps”, “when you love consistency”, and “oh my god is this a shutter” — approach anything vaguely resembling coherent criticism; and the other four images fare even worse (with the exception of the highlighting of an apparently absurd interior balcony). The rest are inane attempts at saying anything at all. Writing “hell portal” by an upper porch area may be funny for a moment, but what does it actually express? Well, nothing, except the author’s own irritation which will find whatever it can to announce its contemptuous sarcasm. Wagner’s captions will land only to the degree that the reader is humorously sympathetic.

The aforementioned remarks, excepting the one about the embedded chubby Tuscan columns’ Play-Doh-likeness, suggest that the worst thing a building can do is be formally heterogeneous. The implicative corollary here is that good architecture is eminently justifiable in all of its parts — consistent, unified, rational. This is as fine a personal belief as anything else, but when it is wielded as dogma against architecture which has no interest in being a Petit Trianon it can only reveal its intellectual self-limitations. Wagner writes that “there is a difference between architectural complexity and a mess”, yet what that difference may be is hand-waved away. We just have to believe that thirteen different window styles is too much. What’s the threshold? Does it depend on the size of the building? The types of styles used? Who knows.

Now of course bad architecture exists, and sometimes the failure indeed points to deficient editorial acumen; for architecture, like any other art, is as much about what’s included as what’s excluded. But in saying so little about the shingle style itself, Wagner seems to have given no thought to readers concluding that all shingle style houses are freakish — more specifically, concluding that this freakishness is a damning transgression, and that no self-respecting, punching-up class-warrior would ever be caught dead sincerely enjoying their geometric, “exquisite corpse” escapades. In fact, the freakish tendencies of shingle style houses are just what make them such great fun to see, visit, or reside in. Wagner’s article, as far as I can tell, omits this possibility. When she writes, “Betsy likely went with this style because it is very popular in New England and in coastal enclaves of the rich and famous in general”, one is being pushed to presume that the only probable reason the shingle style exists or could be preferred over another style is to signal élite solidarity.

The photograph right above is of Kragsyde, a Massachusetts shingle style mansion, designed by the US-Northeast-oriented firm of Peabody & Stearns, completed in the 1880s. It was demolished almost a century ago, but the few exterior images of it which remain are, I think, fascinating — maybe most of all for its enormous archway, possibly a porte-cochère, which has a thin, overextending keystone bizarrely driven into the top like a nail puncturing a petrified rainbow. I bring the building up because Wagner gives us no reason to consider why Kragsyde may have been a genuine architectonic accomplishment and not merely an oversized farce of contiguous pretensions. To the layperson hot off of the Vox piece, there may be no artistic difference between it and DeVos’ place, except that perhaps Kragsyde has a more consistent fenestrative application (would that make it better? if so, why?).

I appreciate that only so much can be said when you’re limited to less than a thousand words, especially when the issue is “complicated” (as the byline for Vox’s First-person series advertises). But the problem I keep coming back to is how DeVos’ mansion is treated as a stand-in for DeVos herself. This makes any architectural critique, no matter how pressed it is for size, flimsily presentist: its durability starts and ends with how alive the architecture’s resident(s) and political presence are. On some emotional level, this is pretty sensible: if we despise monarchical institution, we can find a sort of loophole to enjoying Versailles palace on the basis of it no longer being the residence of royalty. Our awe over its decadence and scope is intersectionally “admissible” on the basis of its having become a UNESCO World Heritage site. Similarly, one can imagine DeVos’ mansion being appreciated in a hundred years (should it still exist then) because the passage of time will have rendered DeVos’ person a historical fact, and perhaps more separable, and then tolerable, in that regard — even if the building remains private.

But if architecture is, as a craft, critically whittled down to nothing more or less than inorganic expressions of social disparities, with every aesthetic decision a reflection of politically explicable taste, then we must assume that a great deal of the world’s most remarkable architecture is equally ridiculous and despicable, since so much of it was born out of great privilege and required specialized resources. I doubt Wagner actually believes this, because it would betray the entire premise of her McMansion Hell project, which is to demonstrate how so many modern day mansions are deeply unpleasant mounds of visual illiteracy, and cannot hold even a stump of a candle to the luminously learned and eclectic talents of prior great architects such as Mackintosh, Norman Shaw, Lutyens, or Ledoux. So what’s the takeaway here? As far as I can tell, it’s simply that if you hate Betsy DeVos, and if you care about class, you should hate her house too. And I do not think that that is architectural criticism.