June 17, 2023

The Midcentury tiki / caveman origins of the iconic low "mansard" roof for McDonald's, Pizza Hut, etc.

The recent posts about Googie and tiki styles co-existing, as well as the primitive style of the Polynesian Village Resort at the founding of Disney World, got me thinking about American roof styles.

There's a group of small office buildings I drive by that are only 1 story -- and a low story at that -- but have tall roofs, like an extra 1 1/2 stories, that dominate the height of the building. However, they don't have windows in the roof, and they don't appear to be used as a second floor. The total height is still low, so it looks more like a primitive hut or longhouse -- prominent but low roof, squat main floor. The roofs are pitched and clad in shingles, not metal or slate or terra cotta tiles or whatever else.

That's when it hit me -- those iconic "mansard" roofs that distinguished every McDonald's, Burger King, Pizza Hut, etc., were not really mansard! They were tiki! It was a carry-over or evolution of the tropical longhouse-inspired roof from the Polynesian craze, after the overtly Polynesian elements had outgrown the fashion cycle, for the time being, before future tiki revivals (tiki statues & torches, leighs, hula dancing, ukuleles, and so on).

First, for examples of these "mansard" roofs in American popular architecture, see this discussion in general, and this history from Pizza Hut. McDonald's and Pizza Hut independently pioneered this style in 1969 (both in the Midwest-to-West, following our meta-ethnic frontier against Indians and later Mexicans), and it became ubiquitous during the '70s and '80s.

Really only the McDonald's and Pizza Hut have a noticeable change in the angle between the central part (steep) and the outer part (shallow). Wendy's had a changing angle, from steep to shallow from center to edge, but it was smooth and curved, not quite as striking. And Burger King and KFC had a single large "outer" part with a constant slope, and a short vertical perimeter around the "center" -- not really that noticeable of an angle change.

Now contrast with examples of actual mansard roofs -- and crucially, the rest of the building that they are a part of.

These roofs consist mostly of the steep vertical central part, with the outer more horizontal edge being almost a flourish or afterthought. The American roofs are more about that outer edge, less about the vertical central part. Mansard roofs have windows (dormers), whereas the American roofs do not. The cladding is sophisticated stone, usually slate tile, whereas the American roofs do not use stone and do not even try to imitate it -- it looks more like primitive wooden tiles (shake), even if it's technically asphalt. (Later revisions made the American roofs metal, too sleek compared to the original style.)

And most importantly, mansard roofs do not dominate the height of the building. Especially where they came from, in Early Modern French chateaus, there are two stories below -- with very high European ceilings on each floor. The roof is still prominent, but not dominating. The dormer windows show that the top floor was either a full floor unto itself, or at least an attic with high ceilings (for an attic) and lots of light coming in.

The American roofs dominate the height of the entire building, there is only one story below, and even that main floor has low ceilings, as is typical of Midcentury buildings (like ranch homes in the residential sector). They are not grand imposing hulks of mass -- that would be Brutalist buildings of the same time period -- but short squat huts, tapping more into the primitive than the futurist side of the American style of architecture.

And unlike the buildings with real mansard roofs, the American buildings are fairly open around their main story. Sometimes a wall-o'-windows straight out of Googie, though more often broken up by columns or piers, still opening up the main space on three sides (the back one closed off for the drive-thru).

Therefore, the American buildings read more as open outdoor structures like a primitive hut or a beach tent, without proper sturdy walls to enclose the interior (materially or visually). The columns or piers are just the supports for the deeply overhanging roof -- much like the porch-area columns holding up the roof of a Craftsman bungalow. In fact, the columns on the Pizza Hut buildings have the same shape as Craftsman bungalow columns -- wide at the base and tapering toward the top. Very distinctly American all around -- but what else would you expect from Pizza Hut?!

Although the pseudo-walls are windowed, from the outside and inside alike there is no feeling of the "light and airy" environment of Early Modern Euro imperial styles, such as a French chateau. Low ceilings, dark-tinted windows, no dormer windows or skylights in the massive roof, all contribute to the cozy caveman hut environment that Americans crave. We are part caveman, part spaceman -- and nothing in between (that's the Europeans, who we are not).

See this gallery for tiki architecture of the Midcentury, just before the mass adoption of the not-mansard roof style in commercial American buildings. (There are 3 other galleries on tiki, at the bottom of the page, but this one shows off the dominant roofs.) Looks pretty familiar, eh?

However, perhaps these roofs did not emerge directly from tiki, but from the broader caveman developments to our collective identity during the early and mid-20th C. It's too bad the Flintstones had homes that were like Midcentury ranch homes, with comparatively flat roofs that do not dominate the height. True Stone Age roofs would cover most of the height (and be thatched, not stone slabs), sometimes reaching all the way to the ground, so that the hut is really just one great big roof (ditto for an igloo).

In either case, these Pizza Hut type roofs derive from the primitive theme that came from within American cultural evolution, not from importing or copying a European style. How anyone can look at a 1970s McDonald's and see a French chateau, rather than a caveman hut, is beyond me -- why the use of the term "mansard", then? Probably just status-striver branding, I dunno.

McDonald's itself began with an iconic Googie design -- as did many restaurants and coffee shops of the time -- tapping more into the futuristic side of American culture, before eventually changing over to the primitive hut style. But in both cases, it was distinctly American, not European. A little more Jetsons at the start, then more Flintstones later.

Googie already had a heavy primitive theme, with its flagstone walls and tropical vegetation inside and outside. Very few vernacular styles of the supposedly more optimistic '50s and '60s were purely futuristic -- and so the shift to more earthy primitive hut styles in the '70s and '80s does not represent a turn toward the pessimistic or dystopian regarding the future and technology. Brutalism was still in full force, and it would dominate commercial architecture in the '70s and '80s -- in the grand scale buildings, with malls, not with the smaller detached hamburger stands.

When you think about it, a hi-tech space-rocket style for a burger joint is a little out of place. That should be for a grander scale, like the airport terminals and later the malls -- symbols of our growing societal complexity and industrial / technological progress. A standalone pizza parlor, which is not even connected to other stores as in a strip center, is too small-scale to merit the Universe of Tomorrow treatment. So just go with the cozy caveman theme instead -- just like detached homes, which never got the Brutalist treatment but the cozy caveman treatment (ranch homes).

Some new McDonald's are getting the retro Googie look, which is also fine -- at least it's part of American culture, albeit still a little out of place for a burger joint. But I'd rather have one of those than, well...

I don't want to dwell too much on the desecration of American architecture during the neoliberal era. But in this case, it was not a sudden explosion during the woketard iconoclasm of the 2010s, although it certainly got exponentially worse during that decade as well. The main change in the 2010s was to paint everything dull gray, as shown in this overview from 2012, right as that wave of desecration had begun.

But earlier in 2006, McDonald's got rid of its caveman hut roofs, and radically shifted to a more Euro look overall -- sophisticated stone facades, bland agoraphobic light-and-airy interiors, etc. And sometime before that (the '90s?) they began replacing the primitive-themed brown shingles with sleek metal roofs that were ketchup red. At least they left the caveman hut proportions mostly intact, though.

The later styles removed the roof nearly entirely, made the facades more filled-in and, well, facade-like instead of the wraparound wall-o'-windows broken up only by columns (not proper walls). They appear too tall, not like the cozy squat huts dominated by a massive roof like an extra-heavy blanket.

"But aren't you OK with them being blocky and boxy with sturdy walls? Isn't that the American style?" In those two senses, they still do look American, but they don't do the proportions right. They don't use a variety of scales a la the Prairie School or Art Deco or Mormon temples. And they don't use massive scale, imposing heights, and repeated geometric motifs, like Brutalism did to create a sublime rather than beautiful atmosphere. And none of those iconic American styles are literally just a dull gray box!

That is way more in the vein of Bauhaus -- utilitarian with throwaway gestures at sophistication through stone materials. We beat Bauhaus to the punch on post-Euro imperial architecture, beginning with Frank Lloyd Wright and the original Chicago School. And once Bauhaus did exist, we managed to prevent infection of it into America (other than Cesca chairs, with their use of wood and reed, atypical for Bauhaus materials). These dull gray functional boxes only sprang up during the neoliberal era, pretty late in the era for that matter -- the late 2000s for McDonald's.

But then, we have rapidly approached the stage in the imperial lifespan that Bauhaus came out of. Our neolib era was one of stagnation and plateau-ing, and only since 2020 have we entered the full-on collapse stage. Euro empires reached stagnation by the late 19th C, and only began collapsing during the 1910s. So, the closer that we come to their social and political environments, the more our cultural output will resemble theirs -- including god-awful utilitarian bores.

Once America's current civil breakdown has reached its nadir, and reconstruction begins -- not a new wave of imperial expansion, LOL, those days are over -- the first architectural task is to restore the American styles to American buildings. No more pseudo-Bauhaus burger joints or any restaurant -- we're going right back to cozy caveman huts!


  1. The Tahitian Motor Lodge (Holiday, FL) looks like Pizza Hut, in having the roof pitched across two axes -- side-to-side as well as front-to-back -- with a tall peak in the center of the roof. It was also built in 1969 -- there was just something in the air then, and this was still branded as Polynesian / tiki, unlike McDonald's or Pizza Hut.

    The usual longhouse was only pitched side-to-side, with a distinct front and back / entrance and exit. The caveman hut roofs pitched it front-to-back as well, open main floor on three sides (front, left, and right).

    Without having seen every tiki building ever made, I only found one exception in those tiki architecture galleries from before '69 that was also pitched front-to-back -- Kowloon Restaurant (Saugus, MA).

    However, the site says it was built in 1950, but then expanded 5 times. It was originally converted from an ice cream parlor, which was not tiki to begin with. So I don't know when it assumed the huge tiki shape, with the massive roof pitched along both axes -- could've been in the '60s as well, perhaps later, I can't tell easily from the internet.

  2. Also worth noting that the columns that break up the wall-o'-windows and support the roof for caveman hut buildings, do not have a curvilinear cross-section -- that would be a major Euro-LARP. They are rectilinear, like America's god intended (also seen in Craftsman bungalow porch posts).


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