McDonald's seeks an architect director to steer building standards and site planning for its vast empire, which spans more than 100 countries and 34,000 locations. Don't laugh! McDonald's has a much more distinguished architectural pedigree than you might imagine.
Cooper Union professor Grahame Shane, for example, traces the history of pop-up architecture back to the wood-framed buildings that housed the first McDonald's stores. Those were situated in commercial strips that abutted industrial production-line housing tracts. Just like public opinion on the McRib, the McDonald's gestalt has evolved over time: from industrial satellites located near airports and factories and their attendant housing tracts, to suburban staples such as drive-throughs and strip-malls. "Ultramodern Roadside Architecture" can't help but consider McDonald's architecture, because McDonald's helped to define the American roadside.
Some of the earliest buildings remain great. I'm lovin' the oldest, still-operating McDonald's store, in Downey, Calif., a solid example of Googie architecture (or Populuxe if you prefer). That store was designed by Stanley Meston, the first Architect of the Arches, and opened in 1953. When Ray Kroc bought the McDonald's company and opened his own franchise in Des Plaines, Ill. (pictured, courtesy of Flickr), he took Meston's so-called Golden Arches with him, if not the architect himself. Meston got the job with the original McDonald brothers because he was willing to take instructions from the client, but Kroc only needed the original building concept in order to spin out clones. (Meston's story, as told by the Los Angeles Times in 1989, three years before his death, is worth your time.)
A drive-by on drive-throughs can't encompass all of McDonald's design history; the corporate building history is every bit as American. The McDonald's Corporation's world headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., is located in the Campus Office Building, designed by Dirk Lohan, grandson of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The building is the epitome of "pastoral capitalism": a corporate campus set on dozens of acres and filled with thousands of trees, miles of trails, and multiple lakes. It is an Energy Star–rated and LEED Platinum–certified facility, and if another popular green rating system emerges, it won't be long before McDonald's claims that, too. For a company that changed all of food, McDonald's appears to follow every corporate whim, resulting in the most sustainable building possible in the least sustainable setting imaginable.
ARCHITECT's Aaron Betsky inadvertently found himself staying at the Hyatt Lodge that shares McDonald's campus, and he praised the structural expressionism of Lohan's work—if in muted terms. Betsky describes the building as a "deep grid facing the water," which sounds ominous for the House that Happy Meals Built. "It is evident that burgers pay for a lot of detailing, as the expressionism here depends on detailing the windows so that the beams do actually extend out onto the terrace, decreeing double layers of Roman brick as infill, accenting the meeting points with blond oak, and using stone slabs thicker than a Big Mac for balustrade and pavers," Betsky writes.
McDonald's gave Business Insider a tour back in December, and the pictures appear to confirm Betsky's assessment: "They [the hotel's public spaces] display the beauty of architectural elements coming together, no more and no less," as he wrote. Which sounds like a Yelp review of a Quarter Pounder, when you think about it. But Betsky says that one of the last persons to hold the rank of McMaster Architect in fact paid closer attention to details and interior. New McDonald's locations that he discovered in Europe featured "blond and dark wood, flush surfaces, and muted and concealed lighting." That's hardly the only sort of fancy European McDonald's out there. The point being, they don't all look like sad McBoxes, even if few of them aspire to structural expressionism and no single style obtains.
Yesterday, at Design Observer, critic Mark Lamster posted a Q&A with Andrew Bernheimer, the architect behind Papaya King, every New Yorker's favorite. (Papaya King is opening a location downtown.) Bernheimer walks Lamster through floor plans for several different fast-food chains: Five Guys, Chipotle, Shake Shack. One model missing from the list is McDonald's. Maybe people aren't as excited about a McDonald's as a Shake Shack or Five Guys, or maybe it's hard to say what a typical McDonald's really looks like, despite 34,000 examples. It may be the next McArchitect's job to figure out the design that puts Mickey D's back into that company.