By Nathaniel Meyersohn | CNN
For decades, cheerful, playful, and oddly-shaped fast food outlets lined American highways.
You would drive past Howard Johnson’s with its orange roofs and then past the red roofed pizza huts of Pizza Hut. A few more miles and there was the White Castle with its turrets along the way. Arby’s roof was shaped like a wagon and Denny’s was like a boomerang. And then McDonald’s, with its neon gold arches towering over its restaurants.
This quirky designs were an early form of brand advertising, gimmicks designed to get drivers’ attention and make them stop.
As fast food chains proliferated across the US after World War II, new roadhouse brands needed to stand out. Television was the new media that had not yet blasted into every home, newspapers were still emerging and social media unthinkable.
So restaurant chains turned to architecture as an important tool to promote their brand and help create their corporate identity.
But today’s fast food architecture has lost its quirky charm and distinctive features. Shifts in the restaurant industry, advertising and technology have made the exterior of fast food bland and mindlesssay critics.
Goodbye bright colors and unusual shapes. Today is design minimal and tight. Most fast food restaurants are built on that maximum efficiency, do not attract the attention of motorists. Many are box-shaped, adorned with faux wood paneling, imitation stone or brick exteriors, and flat roofs. A critic called this trend “faux five-star restaurants” designed to make customers forget they’re eating greasy fries and burgers.
The necklaces now have almost identical looks. Call it the gentrification of fast food design.
“They’re soulless boxes,” she said Glen Coben, an architect who has designed boutique hotels, restaurants and shops. “They’re like Monopoly houses.”
Fast food restaurants developed and expanded in the mid-twentieth century with the explosion of car culture and the development of highways.
According to John Jakle, the author of “Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age.”
Fast food chain buildings are designed to attract the attention of potential customers driving by at high speed and slow them down.
“The buildings had to be visually strong and bold,” he said Alan Hess, an architectural critic and historian. “That included neon signs and the shape of the building.”
A leading example: the design of McDonald’s, with its two gold bows slanted over the roof of the restaurant, a style known as Google.
Introduced in California in 1953, McDonald’s design was influenced by state-of-the-art coffee shops and roadside stalls in Southern California, then the heart of burgeoning fast food chains.
The two 25-foot-tall bright yellow metal arches that rose through the McDonald’s buildings were tall enough to attract motorists amidst the clutter of other roadside buildings, their neon finish glistening day and night. McDonald’s design sparked a wave of similar Googie-esque architecture at fast food chains nationwide.
Well into the 1970s, the designs were a prominent part of American roadsides, “imprinting the image of fast-food drive-in architecture in the popular consciousness,” Hess wrote in a magazine article.
But there was a backlash to this aesthetic. As the environmental movement developed in the 1960s, opposition to the striking Googie style grew. Critics called it “visual pollution.”
“Critics hated this populist, commercial California roadside architecture,” Hess said. Googie style went out of fashion in the 1970s when fast food style favored dark colors, brick and mansard roofs.
McDonald’s new prototype became a low profile mansard roof and brick design with clapboard structure. The arches moved from the top of the building to signposts and became McDonald’s corporate logo.
“McDonald’s and Jack in the Box unfurled their neon and Day Glo banners and architectural containers against the endless sky,” said the New York Times in 1978. They have been “toned with the changing tastes of the 60s and 70s.” And with the growth of mass communication advertising campaigns, brands no longer relied on architectural features to stand out – they could simply flood the television airwaves.
Fast food is becoming more luxurious
In the 1980s and 1990s, companies began introducing children’s play areas and party rooms to attract families — additions to existing “brown” structures, Hess said.
The rise of mobile ordering and cost considerations have since changed modern fast food design.
With fewer people queuing up for full meals at fast food restaurants, businesses didn’t need elaborate dining areas. So today they’re expanding drive-thru lanes, increasing the number of takeout windows and adding digital kiosks in stores.
“We have a lot of red-roofed restaurants” that “clearly need to go away,” says a Pizza Hut executive said in 2018 of its classic design. The company’s new prototype, “hut alleys,” helps reduce wait times at drive-thru locations.
The new fast-food box designs with their flat roofs are more efficient to heat and cool than older structures, said John Gordon, a restaurant consultant. Kitchens have been reconfigured to speed up food preparation. They are also cheaper to build, maintain and staff a smaller shop.
But in the effort to modernize, some say fast food design has become homogenized and lost its creative purpose.
“I don’t know if you could identify what they were if they had a different name on the front,” says Addison Del Mastro, a urban writer which documents the history of commercial landscapes. “There is nothing that tickles the wandering imagination.”
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