AMERICA MAKES the best fast food in the world. This is not an oxymoron. It is one overlooked point of light in our black hole of economic gloom.

No Russian morozhenoye franchises are popping up in downtown Phoenix, even though ice cream might be more welcome here than in frosty St. Petersburg. No English fish 'n' chip joints are rising to challenge McDonald's for control of Mesa's arteries.

When fast feeders overseas decide to try it themselves, they copy American models, usually ineptly. In Vilnius, Lithuania, you will be surprised, not pleasantly, by pizza lathered in beet sauce.

America also serves up the best fast-food architecture in the world. For more than 70 years, beginning with the cartoon battlements and turrets of White Castle hamburger outlets, fast-food architecture has skillfully manipulated our individual feelings and even expressed our national aspirations.

This isn't to say that fast-food architecture has improved the looks of our cities-it hasn't, no more than Arby's sauce will improve boeuf bourguignon. Lewis Mumford, the father of all us scribblers on architecture, wrote in 1962 that suburban America was an incoherent and purposeless urbanoid nonentity, which dribbles over the devastated landscape and destroys the coherent smaller centers of urban or village life that stands in its path." Grouchy words, but Mumford was looking at strips blossoming with Big Boys and Golden Arches, and what he saw was cancer.

But drop in on the dramatic Tokyo Express outlet in Mesa, and what you encounter is far from incoherence. Visit the new McDonald's in Tempe, an upscale, pseudo sports bar with everything but Bud Light, and you'll definitely discover purpose-sales have doubled since the move from the old building a few blocks away.

Fast-food architecture can be taken seriously. It means business. And it's getting better.

THE FIRST AMERICAN fast-food chain established the precedent for nearly everything that would follow: The building itself would carry a message.

The chain was White Castle Hamburgers, started in Wichita, Kansas, in 1916. The burgers cost a nickel, and there were stools for just three dine-in customers-most sales were carryout. The first store was a remodeled streetcar, but with the opening of the fourth, in 1921, the 10- by 15-foot stand sprouted a fake turret and crenelated parapet. It looked like an oversize doghouse that the town eccentric might have built for an Airedale named William the Conqueror."

But as Philip Langdon pointed out in his excellent 1986 history of chain-restaurant architecture, Orange Roofs, Golden Arches, it scored two important points with customers. The image of a medieval castle," no matter how feeble and superficial, lent the plebeian nickel burgers a tiny whiff of importance and nobility. And the spotless whiteness of both exterior and interior suggested sanitary conditions in the kitchen, a rarity in the 1920s.

White Castle's midget turret was also the ancestor of a lot of fast-food architecture of the 1990s. McDonald's builds restaurants with tall, octagonal turrets today, and their function is exactly the same as White Castle's was: to have an appendage of the building poking above the single-story suburban streetscape to draw attention.

But it wasn't until the 1950s that fast food blossomed into a feature attraction on these streets. And when it did, the architectural imagery pointed toward the future, not the Middle Ages.

Early 1950s drive-ins were often built in the form of octagons or disks, with glass walls and a canopy outlined in neon hovering over the parked cars like a motherly wing. The symmetrical form was practical: With no back" to the restaurant, every customer could feel like an equal part of the action. Just as important, the buildings conveyed the futuristic image of spacecraft. Of course the images were stiff and clumsy, but with '57 DeSotos nosed into the drive-in, who was thinking sophistication?

Well, McDonald's was. Its prototype candy-striped, parabolic-arch restaurant scored its nationwide debut in Phoenix in 1953, at the southwest corner of Central and Indian School. It wasn't subtle, but it sure was dramatic.

Two great yellow parabolas, suggesting the arc of a rocket, appeared to burst through a soaring roof overhang, supporting and suspending the building in a triumphant swoop of modern technology. Of course it was a fake; the arches had no structural function-if they had, the first wayward DeSoto to blunder into one would have collapsed the building.

Other chains battled McDonald's parabolas with high-tech images playing off the swept-wing fighters-America's pride-that first appeared in the Korean War. Angular pylons erupted from roofs. Glass walls tilted outward at ever more aggressive angles, like upside-down fighter cockpits. Roofs and canopies became wings poised to slash into the sky, perhaps to carry payloads of radioactive burgers into the heart of godless Russia. Sadly, there are few of these Cold War relics left-a chain restaurant generally lives only 15 to 20 years before it's bulldozed or unrecognizably remodeled. There is one swept-wing Denny's still aching to fly at East Van Buren and 32nd Place.

The supersonic style of fast-food architecture crashed in the late 1960s, in part a casualty of the growing public antipathy toward modern architecture in all kinds of buildings. Marketeers began hearing people apply words like Ôcold" and Ôstark" to their buildings. They also began to hear local city councils, finally reacting to the overbearing carnivals lining their commercial streets, use words like Ôno" in response to rezoning petitions. The result was a more soothing, sometimes schmaltzy, often vaguely historicist, style of building that dominated through the 1970s and 1980s.

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.

Inside, more classy disguising. The standard dining room is broken up with waist-high partitions and decorated with pennants, a photographic ÔHall of Fame" of ASU jocks, and TVs tuned to sports channels. The oak furnishings hardly look like they were made to be hosed down, as fast feeders used to be. The only disappointment is that the Archus Group failed to open the space inside the towers to the dining area, which might have added some real spatial drama.

Could this be too pleasant a dining environment? Could it encourage people to hang around too long, thus disabling the low-cost/high-volume formula essential to fast food?

I don't think so," says co-designer Rick Cartell. McDonald's has evolved a family orientation, and they want pleasant environments for people. I don't think they punch a clock to see how quickly they can get someone in and out the door."

Still, it wasn't wholly McDonald's initiative that mandated a building as good as this. Drive west on Southern Avenue from deepest Mesa into Tempe, and, just west of Dobson Road, at the border, you encounter a startling transformation in the fast-food streetscape. Suddenly, the landscaping around the Burger Kings and Taco Bells grows more luxuriant, the garish signs more retiring, the tile on the mansards meekly blending with the colors of the strip shopping centers in the background. If Dorothy had been tornadoed from suburban Topeka to suburban Oz, this is the transformation she might have seen.

The fast feeders didn't do this out of simple good will. Local city halls have been forcing it. The difference between Tempe and Mesa is that Tempe started its citizens' design review board earlier, and has cracked the whip more aggressively.

Municipalities are getting more involved with our design, either through conditional-use permits or design review boards," says Dick Barber, director of architecture and engineering for Jack in the Box restaurants. And the West Coast is setting the trend. We're seeing it more in California and Arizona, and to some degree Washington state, than anywhere else."

Design review boards in Tempe, Scottsdale and Mesa have been mostly successful with the fast feeders. At the most basic level, contrast the unreviewed Rally's Hamburgers outlets in Phoenix with the one at 1410 West University in Tempe. The latter is the same cheap stucco box, but it's dressed up with eucalyptus trees, a brick skirt and a sunburst of yellow tile on the parapet. Beautiful it isn't, but it does look a bit more permanent, a bit richer in texture.

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