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.

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Lawrence W. Cheek