It was 2006 and I was entering the seventh grade at Southern Middle School in Aberdeen, North Carolina. The McDonald’s was on the way to school and, overnight, things started to disappear. First it was the Playplace, which lay disassembled in a caution- taped parking lot. Then the red double-mansard roof complete with French-fry lighting came off in pieces, revealing the naked brick box underneath. Finally, the red bricks themselves were pasted over with quoined EIFS – fake stucco.
The metamorphosis took a month at most. When my family and I visited ol’ Mickey D’s, we were surprised to find its dingy brown floors and sun- faded pink-and-blue vinyl seating replaced by handsome grey tiles and an impressive variety of pleasantly modern seating options.
The large-scale transformation of fast-food restaurants across the US has been a quiet one, occurring under cover of night and glimpsed in blink-of- an-eye moments from passing cars. In May 2019, this transformation, decades in the making, was capstoned by a new, 1,021sqm flagship in Times Square, designed by Landini Associates. The modern McDonald’s is glass-clad and grey-tiled; filled to the brim with ads for Uber Eats, touchscreen kiosks and knock-off Eames chairs. The death of the old is further signified by the demolition of the eighth kitsch wonder of the world, the Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s in Chicago, which included a museum of rock ‘n’ roll and McDonald’s memorabilia. All around the country, other companies such as Burger King and Wendy’s are racing to catch up, replacing their mansards and play areas with glass and painted-brick modernist boxes.
In a way, there’s something both less and more honest about the new McDonald’s flagships and remodels. A cool, classy gentrification-grey facade filled with mid-century modern furniture doesn’t fool anyone – McDonald’s is still McDonald’s. It’s still the low-paying, environmentally unfriendly, bad-for-you fast-food place, it just has trendy furniture in it now. It is but one of millions of examples of what the critic Kyle Chayka calls “AirSpace” – the ubiquitous, tech- driven minimalist aesthetic spread throughout the world, which, in its own way, makes our McModern era more honest. McDonald’s and company have given up trying to portray that they are fun and family-friendly. The firm’s new stores tell the truth: it’s a big, cold, faceless corporation with branches in Aberdeen, North Carolina and Times Square that look exactly as cold and faceless as its headquarters in Chicago.
However, this is nothing new. In fact, this all happened back in the late 60s – we’ve simply forgotten. Back before the previously hegemonic McDonald’s design (the red double- mansard complete with illuminated ribs) McDonald’s was googier, with the golden arches still serving as part of the architecture. According to the out-of-print book Orange Roofs, Golden Arches by Philip Langdon, McDonald’s brought in changes for three reasons: 1) so it could copyright the roof design to prevent imitations; 2) because local municipalities didn’t want the loud golden arch architecture in their cute small towns; 3) because the mansard roof allowed for the heating and ventilation equipment to be concealed.
After McDonald’s slimmed down its architecture, other fast-food restaurants followed suit. Burger King’s 1970s restaurants were all mansardised, as were Wendy’s and Denny’s. The colour of choice was not contractor grey as it is now, but brown. So much so, in fact, that Langdon called it the “browning of America”, connecting it to Charles A. Reich’s famous 1970 book about environmentalism and our collective consciousness, The Greening of America. Late modernism made its mark on fast-food restaurants, making them moth brown establishments with cedar shingles and shed roofs. The browning of America was a short-lived phenomenon, however – a side note of tasteful remorse that lasted less than a decade. The next dominant architectural movement, postmodernism, brought kitsch back for the world to celebrate.
When Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and their graduate students went to Las Vegas, they came back with a pseudo-populist manifesto, encouraging architects to learn from the everyday commercial landscape of the sunset strip. The book they co-authored with Steven Izenour and published in 1972, Learning from Las Vegas, changed architecture forever. One commonly overlooked part describes the way in which the scale of how we view the world has switched from that of the human to that of the automobile: “A driver 30 years ago could maintain a sense of orientation in space[...] When the crossroads becomes a cloverleaf, one must turn right to turn left[...] But the driver has no time to ponder paradoxical subtleties within a dangerous, sinuous maze. He or she relies on signs for guidance – enormous signs in vast spaces at high speeds.” In order to compensate for this change of scale, commercial buildings had to do radical things to draw attention.
This is where Venturi and Scott Brown’s duck and decorated shed dichotomy – later applied to modernism and postmodernism – originated. You could either dress up your building to be something – like the Big Duck on Long Island – or you could just have a box with some tickey-tackey thrown on it, advertised by a big sign. Fast-food restaurants tended to lean toward the latter. The argument for the decorated shed was that it made communication easier. Communicating a certain meaning or purpose was more easily achieved through using a kind of architectural semiotics: church = steeple; house = dormer; restaurant = big hamburger sign. Architects throughout history have used ornament to indicate what a building is used for. (Take, for instance, the big lyre motifs that accompany most classically styled concert halls.) But modernism, with its abolition of ornament, muddied the waters of architectural perception, making buildings hard to read for everyday people – or so said Venturi, Scott Brown and their postmodern comrades.
This wholesale reinvigoration of architectural ornament as communicative sign was welcomed with relief by fast-food restaurants, who in some cases (such as Burger King’s) took it as a cue to paint their buildings with brighter colours, and in others, such as those of Wendy’s and Bob Evans, began ornamenting their stores with such details as copper fascia and Chippendale pediments in order to signpost their folksiness. Fast-food restaurants gained playgrounds, communicating to children that these were not only eateries but somewhere to have fun too. Ronald McDonald and his weird, acid-trip cohort were etched into modular play structures – cast-enamel statues watching a new generation of children becoming initiated into the fast-food way of life. You could have your birthday party at McDonald’s and every time you ate there you got a free toy. By the 80s and 90s, McDonald’s and many of its competitors sat alongside toy corporations as the bugbear of anti-advertising-to-children campaigns. When Eric Schlosser published Fast Food Nation in 2001, 96 per cent of US children could recognise Ronald McDonald. These generations of McDonald’s restaurants were perhaps the greatest protégés of postmodernism, as well as a staggering exercise in architectural-sign-making.
Until relatively recently, we lived our American lives in branded spaces. Fast-food restaurants, as well as hotels and shopping centres, took the brand from an advertising technique and grocery-store-shelf consideration, and made architecture out of it. We sincerely forget how many of the buildings we entered were designed to be experienced as brands.
For all the discourse around having a personal brand, our spaces over the last 10 years have become increasingly brandless. McDonald’s is now McModern; hotels have got rid of their kitschy orange roofs and turned into interchangeable modernist boxes painted in the same colours; the mall, with all of its colourful, sugar-coated advertising, is dying. If you asked me to tell you the difference between the interior of a Safeway versus a Harris Teeter, I don’t think I’d be able to. Somehow every mall-based clothing store – an architectural typology once known for its colourful and eccentric diversity, across income scales ranging from H&M to J. Crew – looks the same.
Something tangible has been lost with the mass debranding of space. Brands have worked for decades, using everything from Instagram influencers to remodelling, to alienate themselves from kitsch. Now kitsch itself – once ubiquitous – is becoming a rarity in the American landscape. Kitsch is un-self-conscious – it laughs in the face of good taste and it acknowledges itself for what it is. Kitsch and fast food went so well together because they shared a common conception of being both lowbrow and popular – universally consumed. McDonald’s is good. It tastes good. How a franchise that popularised itself by means of characters like the Hamburglar and Grimace quietly abolishes its past and tries to make itself into what it is not is a story I want to hear.
The answer McDonald’s gives for why it has remade its flagship in the Instagram image is technology itself. These are technological upgrades – Uber Eats, touchscreen kiosks, patterned seating that is perfectly at home with a hashtag. But the firm has forgotten that people don’t go to McDonald’s to take pictures, they go there to get food and leave. It has misunderstood the app and its culture. Instagram prides itself on sniffing out new trends and hyping from the bottom up, not the top down. A big corporation recreating itself to suit the platform is, like, so lame. At least when McDonald’s had ball pits and clown statues it was memorable. To write this story, I have had to keep switching to the tab with the picture of the new flagship store because I’m constantly forgetting what it looks like.
Venturi and Scott Brown’s ideal, even today, cannot be entirely squashed. Even as these tacky places are muted or replaced, one thing that rarely gets axed – no matter how modern and Airspace-y the remodelled restaurants become – is the sign. Recently they revamped one of the last remaining old-school McDonald’s in Baltimore, the one on Greenmount Avenue and 29th Street. It’s now a grey box with wireframe furniture and hip gallery walls. But outside the McDonald’s sign, complete with glowing golden arches and crooked letters that spell “Try a McFlurry”, is still there. The flagship in Times Square is half glass-box restaurant and half enormous LED billboard announcing that it is a McDonald’s. Travelling on the highway, those arches still loom from impossible heights, occasionally annotated with the price of gasoline. Architectural semiotics vis-à-vis mansard- French-fry ornament may have been abandoned, but the sign, and the homogenous consumption experience it communicates, remain the same. In the words of Learning from Las Vegas: “If you take the signs away, there is no place.”