Whether on the gleefully snarky blog McMansion Hell or in haunting photos of cul-de-sacs abandoned during the recession, McMansions—those ersatz chateaux of modern suburbia—are frequent targets of urbanists’ ire, derided as symbols of the wastefulness and isolation of suburban sprawl.
But what if the McMansion could be put in the service of urbanism instead? In his new book Atlas of Another America: An Architectural Fiction (Park Books, $49), the architect Keith Krumwiede, who teaches at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, envisions an alternative reality in which McMansions are used as building blocks to create small communities not unlike medieval villages or 19th-century communes. These “estates,” aggregated from real house plans used by big homebuilders such as Toll Brothers and Pulte, are set in Krumwiede’s fictional domain of Freedomland.
Across the Atlas’s richly colored pages, Krumwiede offers dozens of variations on the idea of the tract home as a module in a much larger dwelling. His estates have up to 200 bedrooms and 100 bathrooms each. Some are cruciform or X-shaped in plan; in others, the McMansions pinwheel around a fountain, lock together in tight Tetris-esque combinations, or link up delicately like daisy chains.
Each 10-acre estate site is only one quarter of a larger 40-acre parcel, three-quarters of which would be farmed. This grid is embedded in a larger checkerboard plan, in which three-square-mile townships alternate with nature preserves. While distant from contemporary thinking about urbanization, the checkerboard plan derives from no less an authority on the American way of life than Thomas Jefferson.
Falling somewhere between satire, sci-fi, and earnest architectural speculation, the Atlas combines the estate plans with essays by Krumwiede, cheeky reworkings of pastoral paintings to include McMansion facades, and an opening “discourse” in flowery 18th-century language. CityLab talked to Krumwiede about his singular, impossible-to-categorize project.
How did you get started on this?
My interest in suburban housing really started when I was down in Houston, teaching at Rice. Houston was a completely new experience for me. I’d moved there from L.A. and everyone said, “Well, it’s sort of like L.A.” I found it to be nothing like L.A., except for the fact that it’s a freeway city. It was really the most consistently suburban environment that I had ever lived in.
I essentially got tired of complaining about the suburbs and listening to architects complain about the suburbs, and wanted to figure out exactly what was going on in design terms with these builders. There was a really interesting builder down there called David Weekley, who developed a big-box strategy for selling his houses.
Then I started using the web as a way to continue the investigation, and that’s when I began collecting the plans. You would get the plan of the house and you would get a rendering of the house and then a hyperbolic description about the joys that would come to you if you lived in one of these houses. I can’t pinpoint a moment when it struck me, but I was like, “Why don’t I design a new America with these houses, and try to process all the conflicting desires, both in the culture and in the [architectural] discipline, around how we dwell and our settlement patterns?”
The notion was essentially pretty straightforward: The houses themselves weren’t necessarily the problem; it was the development patterns that were really problematic. Just the wastefulness in terms of resources, the social isolation that comes with detached dwellings, enclaveism. And I thought, “What can I do? Can I urbanize these houses?”That was the first take, so there were a lot of really weird aggregations that resulted when I just started to play with how I could use these as puzzle pieces and put something else together.
One of the joys of flipping through this book is the dizzying combinations of how you put the home plans together—all the different patterns they form. Did you go into it thinking that the average McMansion plan has real potential as a generative unit of architecture, or were you surprised by that?
I was a little surprised when I started doing the plans. There was a drawing I did before, to illustrate a piece that’s in the appendix of the book, called “[A]Typical Plan[s].” I wrote that piece [for a magazine] and then the editor said, “There are no images. We really need an illustration.” I knew I didn’t want to just have another beautiful picture of a suburban subdivision. I decided I wanted to put the plans together in a way [to] illustrate the argument of the piece.
When I did that, I was like, “Oh, these things actually can produce some of their own order.” I can take the enclave that I’m critiquing and turn it into a cooperative or communal dwelling. Then I just got obsessed, as you can see. There are 128 estates in the book.
That’s when the book began to move from being a critique to a proposition about sharing and new forms of dwellings. My hope is that when people get through the critique of the culture that is the strongest message in the book, they then start to get down to ideas about new forms of association and new possibilities for living together.
So the book is both a critique of the enclave and a reimagining of the enclave as cooperative?
Yes, I would say. The [problem] of the enclave is [when it is] a means of further stratifying us as a society, that we retreat into these communities that are generally people like ourselves, gated or not, where we assume a certain shared-taste culture. I'd say that’s the downside of enclaveism.
The potential is [when] you bring houses together, and bring people together in dwellings where the form of the community itself makes clear our mutual interdependence, and the benefits that accrue to recognizing that we share more than we don’t share. There’s value in that. I would say the project is optimistic in putting forward the possibility of new forms of community.
Freedomland taps into a long tradition of communitarian models, and the names of some of the estates reference that. Did any of the 19th century’s utopian schemes particularly influence you?
Definitely [Robert] Owen, the Village of Unity and Mutual Cooperation. The plans for the New Era Union [model city] “to help develop and utilize the best resources of this country.” There’s Albert Owen’s Pacific City. And someone called [Henry] Olerich, who wrote a book called Modern Paradise. They all hover on the line between being social tracts and being a kind of sci-fi.
What is your takeaway from all those hours of studying homebuilders’ house plans?
In the back of the book there’s the “Six Typical Plans” piece, where I identify with research assistants six different plan types for these houses, going back to the Foursquare, which is a very old plan type. You get the branching plans and the nuclear plan, [and] the bisected, which ties into center-hall types.
I think we do ourselves a disservice as architects dismissing all of these houses out of hand as aesthetically impoverished dreck, because they are really smart plans. That’s not to say that they have architectural values in a traditional sense. What I think they do effectively is they are able to deliver on the idea of every house being that individual’s palace.
Some of that comes down to the detailing, but more significantly, it comes down to planning. The layering of space so there’s always an aspect of scenography within the house: You're looking from one space through to another space, through to another space.
Why did you decide to use a checkerboard grid [for the land]? That’s something Jefferson wrote about favorably, but it’s at odds with our contemporary understanding of urbanization and density.
Well, the checkerboard did two things. One, it produced literally a game board, and I refer to it as a great game board of real-estate speculation, which it [historically] was. It was a way to parcel the land so that it could be distributed.
At the same time, I could situate each estate of communal living within a small territory of nature on its own. People would cultivate that land, and then you’d get the larger-scale alternation between settlement and nature. It’s what we want in our settlement patterns: We want to have easy access to all those things we need and equally easy access to escape from the city.
Jefferson did write about it quite a bit. Jefferson was notoriously an anti-urban person. There’s a quote in the book where he talks about cities as being pestilential to the life, health, and welfare of people.
But you’re able to take a lot of the principles he advocated and turn them to a fairly urban result. What would the density of Freedomland be?
I never did the numbers—they’re close or equivalent to what our typical suburban numbers would be now. We know that those are changing, too; even in the suburbs we see higher density pockets of development. That was absolutely a goal—to reconcile urbanity, or what the city represents for Hamilton, with what the country represents for Jefferson.
There was a period where I imagined that I was working for some delusional dictator who wanted to please all of his citizens, and Freedomland would be that place. Everyone could have what they want, but strangely, no one would get exactly what they wanted—which I think is always a consequence of that [promise].
When you present these ideas, how do people respond?
I’ve had certain architects affiliated with the New Urbanist movement who’d say, “These individual estates are really great. You need to find a way to build these.” There are other friends, who see themselves more as avant-gardists, who are like, “How can you be mucking around with these shitty houses?” They see it as selling out.
I maybe have a bit of Stockholm Syndrome at this point, but I’m really interested in some of the plans. There are some that I’m really committed to as proposals for living together. What I’m pleased about with the project is that I think it’s the most absurd thing imaginable—I’ve done this thing that still seems crazy to me—but it actually looks plausible, in a strange way. It has a believability to it, even as it’s utterly insane.