Fast food restaurants move from one-size-fits-all architecture to “curated” design

Americans often can recognize a McDonald’s or Taco Bell anywhere in the country with their familiar architecture. This may be changing:

“What is different now from what we used to do is we are breaking away from a one-size-fits-all model and going to more flexibility, more variations, to end up with a more curated approach,” says Deborah Brand, Taco Bell’s vice president of development and design. Taco Bell has spent the past two years rethinking its restaurant design, and Taco Bell Cantina is just one result. “I think it’s a different approach to value,” Brand says. “We’ve always known that we have inexpensive food that is craveable, but we also look at value as serving the same food at the same price point in a potentially much more elevated dining environment.”…

Many other fast-food chains—“quick-service restaurants,” or QSR, in industry parlance—are doing the same. Restaurants from McDonald’s to KFC to Starbucks are rethinking their spaces inside and out, in a wave of design interventions that, given the sheer number of these restaurants, will spread throughout the U.S. These designs are setting a new standard for the commercial landscape, guiding the look and feel of the stores and restaurants on our streets and in our daily routines….

A quirk of designing for chains with thousands of restaurants and global marketing campaigns means that the design of the physical spaces often has to align with the image of the restaurant being portrayed in advertisements. In recent years, the KFC brand has built its advertising campaigns around an updated interpretation of the chain’s white-haired founder and human mascot, the long-deceased Colonel Harland Sanders, playing on his Southern gentleman character, while also making him, and the restaurant he represents, a little feisty. McCauley and FRCH were tasked with redesigning the restaurants to reflect this new attitude…

Today, in the era of the Taco Bell Cantina, the chain has diversified its approach to design, shifting far away from this signature building style. But branding through architecture is still a strategy used by some fast-food chains. Take the white castle-shaped buildings of the White Castle brand, for instance, or the sloping, hat-shaped red roof of the Pizza Hut chain. In its early years, McDonald’s required that its franchised restaurants use the famed “golden arches,” two parabola-shaped yellow bands on each end of the building that became a form of physical advertising. Now, for reasons such as cost and flexibility, brands are putting less emphasis on highly defined ornamental architecture and paying more attention to the experience of the customer, both in the drive-thru and inside the building.

This has the potential to both make the structures more attractive to certain demographics – and it sounds like the young adult consumer is in the crosshairs – while disrupting a common experience across locations. Are smaller branding elements like logos enough to carry the architecture if it varies quite a bit across locations? Might this chase away older consumers who are used to a particular aesthetic?

Another thought: some of this change may be in response to local guidelines where communities are more resistant to typical fast food restaurants which are viewed as lower-class. There are plenty of McDonald’s and other fast food locations that adhere to local design standards to fit in with the streetscape. Imagine you are a big city and McDonald’s wants to open a new location: would you prefer a standard looking restaurant or something unique that does not immediately scream McDonald’s?

When all the suburban homes are the same, how can residents set themselves apart?

Continuing to draw from a 1953 Harper’s study of six mass-produced suburbs, Harry Henderson discusses an interesting aspect of the cookie-cutter houses:

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We are used to the idea that a home, like many other goods one owns, is a means by which people differentiate themselves from others. Your car reveals your personality (or your financial resources). Your clothes celebrate your individuality. Your favorite TV show provides deep insights into your psychology. Your McMansion impresses those driving by with its size. And so on. But, what if residents do not have the luxury of differentiating their exterior?

Henderson suggests they then move their differentiation into activities: what groups are you a part of, what are you contributing, who do you know. But, I think this misses two features about homes:

  1. Even if these homes were mass-produced, it wouldn’t take long before residents could alter their homes and yards. Indeed, Barbara Kelly in Expanding the American Dream details how residents of Levittown made changes to their homes. People add additions, make landscaping decisions, paint their exteriors, and more. If you look at the streets of these homes sixty years later, you can both pick out some of the common architectural features as well as see significant efforts to stand out.
  2. After the section cited above, Henderson then goes on to say that the residents then emphasize interior decorating. They may be cookie-cutter homes from the outside but could have very different feels. While this is not as visible to the neighborhood, it does present an opportunity to show family and friends your own unique self.

There are current parallels to the dilemma Henderson poses: residents of condos, townhomes, and apartments have similar issues as their exteriors share characteristics with others around them.

This is also a reminder of a tendency of modern humans to look for ways to secure a higher status for themselves. Even in a supposed middle-class society, Americans want to be seen as their own individual, even if their housing choices are constrained.

Thinking through “architecturally ambitious” shopping malls

One writer suggests the shopping malls of the future will need to offer a unique architectural experience:

My version of the mall game would offer more aggressive architectural interventions. Pop the top, and change the air-conditioned, enclosed food court into an open courtyard with a creek running through it. Cover the tan stucco with silvery panels to give it that au courant “industrial” look. Turn one section of the parking lot into a food truck rodeo, local vendors only. Replace the Dillards with a Spa Castle, or a Nitehawk Cinema. The mall of the future is architecturally ambitious, includes plants and water features, judiciously sprinkled with local retailers and food options, and surrounded not by a donut of surface parking lot but with housing, hotels, even educational facilities.

Don’t get me wrong: Malls are still dying. Credit Suisse estimated that 220 to 275 shopping centers, 20 to 25 percent of the current stock, would close within the next five years. We built too many, too cheaply. And it would cost too much to make many of them a worthy destination in 2018.

But even in the age of Amazon, people still leave the house, still shop, still eat. Malls have generated their own version of industrial ruin porn, including video. But when I talked to Erik Pierson, the man behind YouTube channel Retail Archaeology, he freely shared that, while his video of Mesa’s defunct Fiesta Mall may have gone viral, SanTan Village in Gilbert is doing just fine.

In an experience based society, going to the mall needs to be an exciting or satisfying experience compared to shopping at a big box store or purchasing items online.

Three thoughts about this suggestion:

  1. Only certain malls (and in certain areas) will have the resources to try to be architecturally ambitious and not all of them will get it right. My guess is that shopping malls in less well off communities will die off while those in wealthier areas will continue and will be the ones that take more architectural risks.
  2. Shopping malls have been criticized over the decades for their crass commercialism and their fakeness (acting like public spaces when they are really not, simulating other environments). Would more ambitious architecture make them more or less acceptable to critics? Take water features: they may be interesting to patrons but are they authentic design elements or just another symbol of the artificiality of the setting?
  3. What about creating malls that have flexible or changing architecture? Designing malls so that they have regularly changing features – as cited above, the “silvery panels” that provide an industrial look could be swapped out every 6 months with different kinds of panels – could help provide an element of novelty and excitement.

As is suggested in the article, perhaps the real secret is to better embed these ambitious malls in already interesting architectural settings. Instead of having to build a destination in the middle of a suburban parking lot, take advantage of already lively spaces and put an interesting and unique mall there.

List of cities with the most McMansions does not actually look at McMansions

Realtor.com asks an intriguing question involving McMansions – “So which are America’s housing markets with the biggest cribs, and why?” – but then does not follow through because of a limited definition of which homes count as McMansions:

We sifted through realtor.com listings to figure out which of the 150 largest metros had the highest percentage of homes on the market that are 3,000 square feet and above. (The average square footage of a new single family home is 2,627, according to the National Association of Home Builders’ analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.) Sure, this includes some tasteful, large homes and legit mansions. But it was impossible to separate those from the McMansions—it’s rare to see the word “tacky” in a home listing.

There are plenty of big homes in the United States – the median square footage of a new home is over 2,400 square feet – but not all big homes are McMansions. The article provides a different definition for McMansions than the one they actually use with the data:

The imposing, ostentatious structures looming over surprisingly wee plots of land. The crazily mismatched architectural styles. The hipped roofs, gabled roofs, and pyramidal roofs—all on the same house! The bank columns. The front yard Romanesque fountains. The puzzling profusion of window sizes and types. The gigantic, two-story front doors.

I can understand how the real estate listings do not easily allow for the easy categorization of homes as McMansions. Few, if any, homeowners and realtors want to advertise their homes using such a pejorative term. Yet, if you are going to use a headline involving McMansions and then talk about the poor architecture of McMansions, then your measure should take these features into account.

How might this be done? A few ideas:

  1. Take random samples within each metropolitan area and look for specific features.
  2. Do a survey of realtors, architects, and others who might be able to identify McMansions to get their sense of how many McMansions are in particular areas.
  3. Train a computer program to scan thousands of images of homes for sale and determine whether the homes are McMansions or not. (The coding scheme would be very similar to the one used in #1.)

These approaches are not necessarily easy but would be essential for actually getting at which AMerican cities have teh most McMansions.

For a more complete definition of a McMansion – including but also beyond their size and architecture, see my summary here.

The difficulty of changing corporate names on significant urban buildings

The Hancock may soon officially be no more in Chicago but that does not mean the name will disappear from use, including by architecture critics like Blair Kamin:

But names still matter. “Willis Tower” has never felt right. It’s foreign — literally. At the height of the Great Recession, with Sears Tower’s owners desperate to lure tenants, a British reinsurance company swept in and cut an office lease deal that gave it naming rights. Lots of people, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, would rather that the modernist high-rise continue to be called Sears…

The eclectic Wrigley Building, thank goodness, is still the Wrigley Building, even though its namesake company no longer occupies it. The building’s whiteness was meant to symbolize the freshness of chewing gum. The architecture and the name were part of a single, organic package, just as they were in New York’s Art Deco Chrysler Building, where eagle gargoyles adorned the building like Chrysler hood ornaments…

But as I’ve written in recent weeks, pondering the Chicago Tribune’s impending move from Tribune Tower to the old Prudential Building (now One Prudential Plaza), buildings are commodities subject to the dictates of the marketplace; expecting them to stay frozen in time is unrealistic. The same goes for their names.

That’s why Boston’s John Hancock Tower, a 62-story glass-sheathed high-rise that is as elegant as Chicago’s Hancock is brawny, became known in 2015 by its street address — 200 Clarendon. When the lease of the John Hancock company expired, the tower’s owner no longer was allowed to use the Hancock name. The new name hasn’t exactly caught on with the locals.

Three things strike me here:

  1. Iconic structures are more likely to retain their original names even when later changes dictate the official name is something else. What makes those buildings iconic can differ: it may have been occupied by an important local company or it may have unique architectural features. The buildings cited above in Chicago have both things going for them.
  2. It is a little strange for locals to cling so strongly to corporate identities in the names of buildings. Would it be better to instead name major structures after something other than the company behind it? An address may be rather bland but perhaps the name could be connected to the particular architecture and design or tied to a famous figure, moment in history, or feature of the location.
  3. Perhaps the deeper issue is connecting buildings to history. If naming rights are simply up for grabs, prominent locations can change their identity regularly. Not only might this be disorienting to locals, it can remove the structure from its creation and its place within a city. The issue may not be naming rights but rather making sure that buildings are defined by locals rather than by out-of-towners or global interest.

I suspect residents of Chicago will be calling the structure the Hancock for years to come.

Black Mirror portrays a future in sleek, modernist structures

In watching episodes of Black Mirror, I noticed a pattern in the buildings and streetscapes depicted on the show: they are often modernist. There could be multiple factors behind this:

  1. This is how Western society often portrays the future: in contemporary structures comprised of glass and steel and with sharp lines and minimalist decor. This trend goes back decades with modernist architects and culture producers from the early 1900s to today exercising a significant influence on what we think the future should look like.
  2. This particular vision of a future in modernist buildings also allows the show to hint at the problems with future technologies. While everything may look impressive, these modernist spaces can be perceived as cold and unwelcoming. When discussing the show’s title, creator Charlie Brooker said, “The “black mirror” of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.”
  3. Many of the episodes are set in England. Perhaps the architecture there is indeed different than what is found in many American locales. Perhaps local residents and organizations are more open to modernist architecture. I’ve argued several times before in this blog – here is one example – that average Americans tend not to like modernist architecture for their own dwellings.
  4. The plot lines for the episodes tend to involve futuristic technology created by tech companies. Tech companies in modernist buildings seems to make sense. The campuses of Silicon Valley, such as the new Apple headquarters, as well as their retail locations, such as the new Apple store on the riverfront in Chicago, reflect these design choices.

Could you have a show about futuristic technology that takes place in older homes and buildings? Would this seem too anachronistic? For better or worse, much of the near future (think at least the next few decades) will take place in structures built decades before the Internet, smartphones, and driverless vehicles. Indeed, some people may want to live and work in these older structures because of their character and history even as they also enthusiastically embrace the modernist dictates of new technologies to be thin, sleek, and modernist.

New record set by the number of skyscrapers built in 2017

Skyscrapers have truly spread around the globe in recent years:

The current global boom in tall buildings shows no signs of slowing. In its annual Tall Building Year in Review, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) found that more buildings 200 meters tall or greater were finished last year than any other year on record.

A total of 144 such structures were completed in 69 cities spread across 23 countries, part of a wave of tall towers, the fourth-straight record-setting year in terms of completions. Last year’s new tall towers set records across the globe as well: new tallest buildings took shape in 28 cities and 8 countries…

The U.S. completed 10 such structures, including four in New York, two in Chicago, and the record-setting Wilshire Grand Center in Los Angeles. This new class of skyscrapers forms the bulk of North America’s 17 new towers, representing 10.4 percent of the worldwide total.

But as has been the case for years, Asia, specifically China, was the center of the action. Chinese construction projects added 76 new skyscrapers, representing 53 percent of the global total. The city of Shenzhen, which added 12 new buildings, accounted for 8.3 percent of the worldwide total, more than any country outside of China.

While these buildings may be constructed in some places because of high densities and a need for interior space, I suspect the status factor is big here. Being able to project an impressive skyline is a nice feature for today’s big city to have. To be a major city in the eyes of the world, skyscrapers help. Buildings alone cannot catapult a city to the top of the global city rankings but they can certainly make an impression on residents and visitors as well as provide space for new bustling activity.