BUILDING A BETTER MOUTHTRAP

AFTER YEARS OF CHEESINESS, FAST-FOOD ARCHITECTS HAVE IT THEIR WAY

When fast feeders locate on a strip shopping center's pad, the design review boards force them to sing in tune with the strip's colors and materials-to use blue roof tiles, for example, if same are in the backdrop. This doesn't necessarily mean good design; it simply relieves conflict. The boards also typically demand more landscaping or walls to screen the parking. If the restaurant is not going on a shopping center pad, where harmony with the surrounding buildings is critical, the boards may press for a more dramatic statement.

That's what happened with the new Jack in the Box at Curry and Scottsdale roads, which features interesting, open-trussed gables and the air of a temple about it. The context didn't have a lot to offer," says Stephen Venker, Tempe's principal planner, so we said, `Go for it, guys, set a standard of quality.'" The architect, Travis Oliver of TTO Design Group, did just thatÏalthough he has a slightly different recollection of the cheerleading at city hall. It was frustrating going through design review," he says. It took about a year from the time we first took it to them before we could break ground."

The surprise is that most architects who have designed restaurants in nitpicking Valley suburbs generally feel the bureaucratic intervention has been good for fast-food architecture. Yes, it takes more time to sweat a design through, and it always costs more moneyÏbut it usually yields more intriguing, individualistic buildings. Dick Barber, Jack in the Box's director of architecture and engineering, says he doesn't know whether nicer buildings pay off in snagging more customers. In the fast-food business, location remains more important than anything else.

But it's hard to imagine that McDonald's could have doubled its volume in Tempe by moving around the corner from Apache Boulevard to Rural Road without that dramatic new image.

Carl Schaffer, a principal in the firm of Associates in Architecture and Design Ltd. of Scottsdale, thinks fast-food architecture has to become better to keep our interest alive. The food's always going to taste the same," says Schaffer, who designs Tokyo Express' buildings. People have been eating the same Big Mac for 15 years, and it tastes the same; a Taco Bell burrito is always going to taste the same. So I think the architecture needs to evoke a little more emotion, a little more friendliness. It takes the dullness out of the food."

Well, it certainly tries. The new Jack in the Box in downtown Mesa (Centennial and Main) illustrates just how far fast-food design has come, because its forlorn predecessor, the old hatbox-style Box, remains standing across the street.

This new building, also by TTO Design Group, is at heart a standard Jack in the Box, but like the Rural Road McDonald's, its humble origins are concealed by roof extrusions and two patios with trellised sunscreens supported by Doric columns. The drive-through lane is hidden out back, and lined with so many trees (and more columns) that it feels like the driveway to an English manor. This place is a delicious oxymoron-a gracious fast-food joint.

It was also expensive. Architect Oliver says it cost about twice as much as a regular Jack in the Box. That's a heap of hamburgers, and unlike the Rural Road McDonald's, it didn't get a striking interior space in the bargain. Walking inside is a big disappointment; it's nothing but standard issue-low ceiling, nondescript color schemes, fake blond oak tables. Reality time: It's just fast food, after all, and there will not be truffles in your fajita pita.

The recent McDonald's at Scottsdale Pavilions, however, wears a fairly standard exterior and a terrific, 1950s-theme interior. It's all black and gray and chrome, and decorated with nostalgic artifacts such as a nickel cola machine (nonfunctioning, of course), a Western Flyer bike that would outweigh most riders, a jukebox pumping out scratchy versions of Rockin' Robin" and ÔJohnny B. Goode," and, of course, portraits of Marilyn and Elvis. Design was by Robert G. Lyon and Associates, formerly of Scottsdale and now of Chicago.

Good as it is, Lyon missed an opportunity that might have instantly catapulted this McDonald's into international fame. Suppose the exterior had been a madcap, postmodern send-up of the Golden Arches stores of the 1950s? But then, would Scottsdale have allowed it? The double-edged sword of design review is that while it's pretty good at keeping bad architecture out, it may also do the same with brilliant design.

One more recent Valley fast feeder deserves mention: the Tokyo Express at Dobson and Southern in Mesa, by Associates in Architecture and Design Ltd. Along with dispensing quick rice bowls and sushi, this cheerful little restaurant will harmonize your Zen.

A square dining room under the tower is a study in purity-white tile floor, glass walls, white steel chairs, glass tables and a palm tree in the exact center of the room, stretching for the pyramidal skylight some 16 feet overhead. One could write haiku in this room-a kinky but newsworthy undertaking in any fast-food restaurant. Stylistically, architect Schaffer has managed to give it a Japanese spirit without any of the obvious devices like turned-up roof corners or shoji screens.

Tokyo Express felt very strongly about that," Schaffer says. Although they didn't want to discount all their Oriental flavor, their image is that, `We're American fast food.'"

In the wry closing to Orange Roofs, Golden Arches, Philip Langdon wrote, As of now, the most encouraging thing that can be said is that the evolution of chain-restaurant design has not yet reached its conclusion." Six years later, with the Rural Road McDonald's and the Dobson Road Tokyo Express, it may have. Golden Arches are history; we're entering the golden age of fast-food architecture.

part 2 of 2

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