Beyond Buildings



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McDonald's opening new headquarters in Geneva. Photo: Frank Baron.


Even McDonald’s is getting McModern.A while ago, I wrote about W Modernism, that particular combination of abstraction, theatricality, soft surfaces, and muted colors pioneered by the hotel chain using only the 23rd letter that has become the high end consumer version of the International Style. I noted that you could find this quasi-modernism in stores such as Zara and Banana Republic, and in many restaurants, but a recent trip to Europe made me aware that even the place I usually think of as being of such profound ugliness that it resembles the fat in which they fry their dead cow derivatives has gotten into the modern mode.


I was aware that McDonald’s was making a big push to upgrade their design, especially in Europe, an effort that started more than three years ago under a design director who has since moved on to turn Accor Hotels (Sofitel and the like) into W-Wannabees. I also knew that the company was trying to be green, with an emphasis on recycled and sustainable harvest materials, but I thought the efforts had been reserved to a few showcases in cities such as London and Barcelona. I was amazed, however, to notice the same understated facades giving to wood-framed entries in various Northern European cities. McModernism is apparently becoming the norm.


What is most remarkable about the designs is how soft they are. Instead of emphasizing the logo (though it remains very visible), making the restaurants beacons of light, and surrounding diners with surfaces that scream "easy maintenance" while reflecting every kid’s scream, the décor is a combination of blond and dark wood, flush surfaces, and muted and concealed lighting.


McDonald's in Munich. Courtesy: Reuters


The façade standard is a gray-green metal, with horizontal wood slats covering the windows, which masks the chomping down going on inside while making the restaurant appear more intimate both inside and out. While the counter continues to face the entry, and does not seem to have changed that much, it is somewhat less brightly lit, and the way there is certainly a more pleasantly framed one. The seating areas have a variety of curved and straight banquettes, as well as high tables covered with what appears to be bamboo. Suspended cloth (or quasicloth) chandeliers give out a suffused light that defines separate dining areas. There are green and red accent colors, and some of the chairs have articulated round backs, but what is most remarkable is the sense of coordination and understatement that the spaces convey, even with a great deal of activity taking place.


McDonald’s publicizes its more theatrical efforts, where strong accent colors and sculptural screens, not to mention Arne Jacobsen chairs, make the venues seem positively groovy, but it is its more mundane standard that interests me. I wonder whether the default palette and form language means that Europeans see this kind of design as so normal, so familiar, and thus so comfortable, that they feel at home there, or whether McDonald’s feels that it is drawing its audience upscale to a more aspirational environment of reserved elegance—which remains at odds with their menu, despite the success of their Starbuckian drinks.


The other big question is whether we will see anything like this in America. Here as well, McDonald's has created some snazzy designs in cities such as Chicago, and it seems that every few years I hear of a major upgrading effort, only to find variations on deep-fried non-taste on display past every Golden Arch. On the other hand, you could argue that at least we here in America are being honest: form follows function, or fryer.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.