McDonald’s McModernist roots

Now aglow in 116 countries, the golden arches have evolved from a roadside advertising scheme into a global symbol

Topics: McDonalds, Globalization, Architecture, The Guardian, Fast food, Smithsonian.com, ,

McDonald's McModernist roots (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This article originally appeared on Smithsonian Mag.

Smithsonian Magazine When the ancient Romans marched through arches, it was a celebration of victory, an end to long-fought battles and distant travels. Today, when we march through arches, it is a celebration of globalization, efficiency and Shamrock Shakes. And it is decidedly less triumphant – unless of course, you happen to be a franchise owner.

McDonald’s recently opened up location number 34,492 – it’s first in Vietnam, the 116th country to serve up the franchise’s famous French fries. In honor of the occasion, The Guardian took a broad look at McDonald’s McInfluence around the world. More interesting to me though, is Nicola Twilley’s closer look at a typical McDonald’s location on the excellent blog Edible Geography. Twilley notes that there are more than 50 different factors that McDonald’s judge when they determine the precise locations to expand their empire:

“These included predictable benchmarks, such as property tax levels and the age, race, and income levels of the local population, as well as more fine-grained details such as speed limits and the direction of traffic flow (e.g. “going home side versus going to work side”). Meanwhile, complex algorithms govern the optimal placement of a McDonald’s in relation to its competition, Burger King.”

McDonald’s even provides potential franchisees with a site plan of an ideal location. It’s an all-too familiar design, though one that looks much more depressing when seen from above. The fast good store becomes an oasis in a sea of cars. A model of efficiency for an automotive culture.

An oasis of French fries in a sea of parking spaces. Also known as the ideal site plan for a McDonald’s franchise. (image: McDonald’s USA Real Estate)


With so much thought now going into the success of each new location opened by most recognizable fast-food franchise in the world, it’s no surprise that the same type of rigor has been applied to McDonald’s global maneuvers. In 1996, James Cantalupo, then President of McDonald’s International, told The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, “We focus our development on the more well-developed economies — those that are growing and those that are large — and the risks involved in being adventuresome…are probably getting too great.” So basically, McDonald’s sticks to the busy intersections of the world.

The statement came in response to Friedman’s “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention,” which states that “no two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against one another.” Far from the triumphal arches of ancient Rome, any city with the modern arches of McDonalds is much less likely to go to war – at least not with one another. Originally conceived in 1996, Friedman’s tongue-in-cheek (or teeth-in-patty) theory didn’t quite hold up, but it still suggests that most countries with a McDonald’s have stable economies, a strong middle class, and just too much to lose to go to war. Friedman isn’t alone in looking to McDonald’s as a shorthand metric of global politics and economic issues. Before his theory, there was the “Big Mac Index” of currency exchange rates.

Of course, McDonald’s wasn’t always a global power. Before its arches stood for the triumph of globalization, they stood for the triumph of a hamburger stand and the impact of the automobile on American culture and architecture. In a 1986 article for the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, architect Alan Hess explains the origins of McDonald’s famous arches.

In the early 1950s brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald hired architect Stanley Clark Meston to design a drive-in hamburger stand that carried on the traditions of roadside architecture established in the 1920s and 1930s. They had some experience with previous restaurants and a very clear idea of how they wanted their new venture to work – at least on the inside. Meston described the design as “logically dictated by clear program and commercial necessities” and compared it to designing a factory. Though he didn’t necessarily consider himself a modernist, Meston’s pragmatic, functionalist approach reveals, at the very least, a sympathy with some of the tenets of Modernism. Function before form. But not, it would appear, at the expense of form.

And anyway, the exterior had its own function to fulfill. In an age before ubiquitous mass media advertisements, the building was the advertisement. To ensure the restaurant stood out from the crowd, Meston decided to make the entire building a sign specifically designed to attract customers from the road. Now, many architects have speculated that McDonald’s iconic Golden arches have their origin in Eero Saarinen’s 1948 design for the St. Louis Gateway Arch or Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s unbuilt 1931 design for the Palace of the Soviets. But they tend to read little too much into things. The answer is much simpler.

The building was a sign but it wasn’t really signifying anything – other than “hey! Look over here!” According to Hess, the initial idea for the golden arches –and they were called “golden arches” from the very beginning– came from “a sketch of two half circle arches drawn by Richard McDonald.” It just seemed to him like a memorable form that could be easily identified form a passing car. The longer a driver could see it from behind a windshield, the more likely he or she would be to stop. Oddly enough, the idea to link the arches, thereby forming the letter ‘M’, didn’t come about until five years later. McDonald had no background in design or architecture, no knowledge of Eero Saarinen, Le Corbusier, or the triumphal arches of ancient Rome. He just thought it looked good. Weston turned that sketch into an icon.

Technology has long conditioned urban form and continues to do so today. But this was perhaps never quite so clear as it was with roadside attractions and restaurants like McDonalds. Speeding across the country in cars changed our understanding of the landscape and a new architecture arose in response. But technology changed this roadside architecture in another way too. In Notre-Dame de Paris (also known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Victor Hugo wrote a line oft-repeated by architecture scholars: “This will kill that. The book will kill the edifice.” Buildings once transmitted ideas across centuries. Hugo was describing how the printed word and mass media would become the dominant historical and cultural record, obviating what was previously a primary function of architecture: communication. Well, to make his argument more germane to this article, TV killed the Golden Arches.

As television advertising became the primary means of marketing, there was less and less of a need for buildings to serve that function. In 1968 McDonalds completely broke from their automotive-inspired building type when they introduced their first mansard roof structure that, until recent years, was ubiquitous on the main streets and highways of America. No longer part of the building, the arches have become a separate sign, functioning purely as a corporate logo and graphic identity. The roadside attractions of Stanley Meston are quaint novelties and tourist traps. Though it was ultimately entrepreneur Ray Kroc’s business savvy that transformed McDonald’s into the brand it is today, it seems that the early success of the restaurant resulted from detailed, pragmatic, perhaps even Modernist thinking went into the design of the very first McDonald’s location. Though the scale has dramatically changed, in some ways it’s the same type of thinking that went in their 34,492nd.

Moreover, the notion of the global franchise itself something of a Modernist concept. This type of identical seriality evolved from mechanical reproduction – a concept close to the heart of early architectural modernists who thought that industry and planning could cure all society’s woes. Architecture might not be the answer to global poverty that early modernists like Le Corbusier hoped for, but it can help assure consumers they’ll be getting a consistent product, whether they’re purchasing it in Vermont or in Vietnam.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...