By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
By New Times
²Long John Silver's is the best example. Its buildings evoke a salt-weathered, clapboard, 18th-century New England house, complete with high gabled roof and cupola sprouting a weather vane. Tilted posts on the walk outside, linked with heavy ropes, suggest an old pier. The image is an inviting and comforting one. We imagineÏnot consciouslyÏa wharfside inn in a colonial fishing village, ready to welcome the tired mariner with plenty of ale, good cheer and a toasty fire. This movie has nothing to do with Arizona, nor with most of the locales where Long John plants its shops, but that's not a problem. The image is ingrained in our collective American cultural memory.
Taco Bell likewise tried to capitalize on a colonial image, but it backfired. Students of Taco Bell architecture will remember that the chain's stores originally featured prominent Spanish-mission design elements, including arched windows, fake vigas, a vigorously scalloped parapet with a bell and a sign that suggested the stereotypical Mexican snoozing under a sombrero. But in the 1980s, Taco Bell designs were progressively de-Hispanicized until nothing ethnic remained but a wide and hardly Spanish arch forming the portal. Why? Taco Bell's market research showed that too many Anglo customers were, at some subconscious level, wary of the association with Hispanic culture. Would the food be too strange? Too hot? Too...dirty?
The research is dubious, because Hispanic architectural imagery works just fine in marketing other commodities, from north Scottsdale mansions to conventions at the Pointe Hilton. Perhaps the old Taco Bell design simply put out the wrong kind of signal. It looked squat and cheap, even for a fast-food restaurant, and that sloping, shedlike dining room tacked onto the front of the box gave it the general air of a shack. Architecture that reminds Anglo America of Spanish nobility is one thing; buildings that suggest Mexican poverty are another.
Along with the 1970s designs that tried to cozy up to history were those that shouted more aggressively for attention. The ubiquitous mansard roof, generally in bright to garish colors (red for Kentucky Fried Chicken, orange for Hardee's), was one device. It served two purposes: It enclosed all the unsightly mechanical equipment on the roof, and it raised a billboardlike strip of color above the prevailing streetscape to catch the eyes of oncoming motorists. Der Wienerschnitzel's tall A-frame and Pizza Hut's belligerent crimson hat did likewise.
This jamboree of competition for our eyes and stomachs was not something that made our cities prettier or more habitable. Although architects successfully developed fast-food interiors for great efficiency (assembly-line production of food and rapid cleanup), they addressed few of the traditional concerns of architecture on the outside. Context, or the lack of it, was the most egregious failure.
Most good buildings relate to their neighbors in some way-size, color, materials, form or texture. Or sometimes a building will succeed by repudiating context and making such a bold, dramatic statement that the rest of the neighborhood cowers and virtually disappears in its presence. Tempe's inverted-pyramid city hall is a great example.
But through the mid-1980s, fast-food architecture did neither. It ignored its neighbors with cheap, look-at-me bombast, but with every chain's design standardized from sea to shining sea, it also failed to say anything unique. Until recently, a Burger King in Tulsa, Oklahoma, looked exactly like one in Tempe, Arizona. If the chains had never arisen-if a million or two independent fast feeders were out there on the streets, all clamoring for attention-our commercial strips might look even more squalid than they do now, although they'd be more interesting.
Fast food never stays the same for long, however, and neither do the huts that serve it. Thanks to several striking new custom-designed fast feeders in the Valley, those routine mansard outlets suddenly seem as dated as root-beer floats.
McDONALD'S WILL HAVE to breed a cholesterol-free cow before it presents a breakthrough as startling as its year-old Rural Road outlet in Tempe. This restaurant is to a regular McDonald's as Chardonnay is to Cherry Coke.
²Since the site bordered Arizona State University, McDonald's Phoenix office wanted some sort of thematic link to the campus. Since no student today would likely hang out at a restaurant that recalled, say, a library, architects at the Archus Group of Phoenix developed a McDonald's pseudo sports bar.
Outside, a miniature stadium bristling with flags appears to be growing out of the roof. Neon-outlined sports figures and goal posts ornament the parapet. Brick veneer stairsteps up the two towers, suggesting steps in a stadium or arena. Maroon and goldÏor at least as near maroon as bricks could be made-highlight the color scheme. The golden-arch logo may be the quietest, most acquiescing sign in the history of fast food. It's a dramatic, yet handsome, building.
The sharp-eyed connoisseur of fast-food architecture will note that it's also just the standard McDonald's, dressed for an ASU costume party. It has the same footprint as every other contemporary McDonald's, the same dimensions, the same kitchen, the same location for the restrooms. But the twin towers and the radiused corner between them blur the McDonald's shoebox so effectively that most customers will never notice the family resemblance.