Legacy of the Golden Arches


TIME: Architecture & Design – June 2, 1986

Legacy of the Golden Arches

Highbrows Celebrate Lowbrow Fast-Food Architecture

There was a time, unremembered by most Americans, when Burger King and Pizza Hut and Dunkin’ Donuts did not dominate the nation’s highways and boulevards. ! The proliferation of chain restaurants (60,000 at last count) is a signal social fact of the past four decades, a transformation of the commercial landscape more swift and radical than any other in U.S. history. Strung out along main drags in every city, fast-food franchises become the strip, identically chaotic collages of glowing signs and prefab construction. The helter-skelter of the strip is the urban critic’s most convenient cliche –cheap-jack American laissez-faire run amuck.

For two decades, however, an avant-garde of populist architectural historians has been looking at the strip and its larger-than-life iconography without conventional middlebrow contempt. The movement’s manifesto is Learning from Las Vegas (1972), Robert Venturi’s examination of crowd-pleasing architectural symbolism and buildings designed primarily for drivers. The irony is so American, so pop: cultural highbrows celebrating unself-conscious lowbrow vulgarity.

 Now, just as the 40-year emergence of the strip seems complete, a pair of books renews the scholarly pursuit. Philip Langdon’s Orange Roofs, Golden Arches (Knopf; $30) is an exhaustive social history of chain restaurants. Googie: fifties coffee shop architecture (Chronicle Books; $12.95) is a more polemical and quirky work. Author Alan Hess, a California architect, takes as his nostalgic prototype a Sunset Boulevard snack shop built in 1949 and zigzags through a hot-rod-and-chili-dog architectural tour that celebrates old McDonald’s outlets, car washes and Las Vegas casinos–all the pushy, flimsy ’50s buildings that Hess calls “agitprop for the commercial future.”

 To orthodox historic preservationists, it seems perverse to make instant history out of the immediate past. But Hess is a militant. He belongs to the Society for Commercial Archeology and claims as his proudest achievement convincing the Department of the Interior in 1984 that the oldest surviving McDonald’s, plopped down just 31 years earlier in suburban Los Angeles, deserves inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

 And indeed, Langdon and Hess make reasonable cases that fast-food restaurant design is the snappiest, purest expression of the American Zeitgeist at mid-century: architecture as billboard advertising, billboard advertising as architecture. Both authors note that the germs of the modern strip were the work of serious architects, not anonymous commercial draftsmen.

 The species was invented in the 1920s, when the automobile turned from novelty to necessity and White Castle sold its first tiny square hamburgers from its tiny squarish outlets. After World War II, the genealogy divided into two distinct branches. In the downtownish precincts of Southern California were the new coffee shops, like Googies, serving 24 hours a day, greasy spoons with super-duper production values and plenty of room. Meanwhile, out in the suburbs and on numberless freeways, the hamburger stand became pandemic. Hess calls Ships, a Googie imitator built in 1958 and demolished in 1984, “the major monument of Coffee Shop Modern,” where “Fred Flintstone and George Jetson could meet over a cup of coffee.” The descendants include Big Boy, Denny’s and Sambo’s. From 1950 to 1960, years of heedless American growth, cars multiplied and the great fast-food empires were born: McDonald’s, Tastee Freez, Jack-in-the-Box, Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts, Mister Donut, Pizza Hut, Burger Chef. The architecture that resulted was a sort of Sunbelt peasant modernism, simple constructivist cartoons in steel and glass, designed to catch the attention at highway speeds. Usually, as Langdon says, it was a case of “form faking function.” Cosmetic A-frames were slapped onto plain boxes; McDonald’s golden arches never supported anything. The “modernism” of the fast-food stands was superficial set design, not unlike today’s putatively “postmodern” shopping- mall facades.

 In the 1960s, when the space-age future finally arrived, futuristic imagery was abandoned. Drive-ins died out, and fast-food restaurants became larger, more middle class. The new buildings were low slung, brownish, plastered with brick veneer. The exuberance of the late ’40s and ’50s architecture was replaced by bland pseudohomeyness in the ’60s and ’70s. Bad good taste supplanted good bad taste.

 But the golden age of golden-arch architecture has a legacy nevertheless. California’s Frank Gehry, for instance, practices a scrupulously conceived kind of rawboned Googie architecture: his buildings are striking mixes of forms, structural systems and materials, and sometimes (as in the Aerospace Museum in Los Angeles) they even play with illusions of antigravity.

 Fast-food architecture is coming full circle too. Two years ago, outside Chicago, the deconstructionist New York firm SITE built a sublime McDonald’s. The basic kit of pieces was standard, but SITE made the whole restaurant seem to hover: brick walls are cantilevered up off the ground, the roof floats above the walls. Decadent, maybe, but delightful too. In heartland suburbia, the highest of high camp has thus been achieved. When kitsch icons like McDonald’s come with their own built-in ironic critique, an epoch must be at an end.