Architecture is often viewed as a snooty pursuit. It’s not like you find Weird Al, an architect by education, writing zany columns in Architectural Digest. But, oddly enough, architecture found its comedian in the form of Kate Wagner, the 23-year-old architecture student who runs McMansion Hell, a blog that brings architecture criticism, and snark, to the beasts. Now Wagner is being threatened by Zillow, who seems not to find her explorations of the ugly houses on their site very funny.
The news broke yesterday when Wagner tweeted out a cease-and-desist letter from Zillow and took down her site in order to properly archive it. Wagner’s blog posts pull photos from Zillow, with proper credit and a full legal disclaimer at the bottom of every post, and she annotates them with sincere (if snarky) architectural criticism — like pointing out poor construction work and the impracticalities of owning a giant room you’ll never be able to heat properly, as well as observations on the personality (or more usually lack thereof) of the place.
Zillow’s argument is that since it doesn’t own the photos, and they’re just reposted from realtors, they’re liable for Wagner’s actions. But, as Buzzfeed notes in their coverage of Wagner’s plight, that legal argument doesn’t hold water for a few reasons, not the least of which is that criticism is legally speaking “fair use.” Just like critics can screen a short clip of a movie, or run an excerpt of a novel, architecture critics can and do use photos of homes to illustrate their point.
It’s difficult to argue McMansion Hell is anything but criticism. In fact, it’s incredibly useful, practical criticism. It offers detailed, accessible looks at architectural history and theory, and uses McMansions as a negative example. Wagner’s criticism is not fundamentally just that these homes are tacky, although she brings that up. She argues their tackiness is just the outward manifestation of a series of poor architectural decisions. Outward tackiness is likely a sign of more serious problems in the building itself, which is likely Zillow’s real grudge.
One can argue that architecture and construction, as an industry, may not want critics like Wagner. But long-term, it needs them. Many of the homes Wagner criticizes have been on the market for months, possibly years, because they are reality show sets, symbols of status, or assets on a balance sheet, but they’re not homes. Wagner is just pointing out what’s obvious to many, and both Zillow and the wider real estate market should remember that no criticism stings more than one you know is right.