When owners of the Shake Shack restaurant chain reopened their flagship location in New York’s Madison Square Park this spring after a seven-month renovation, they posted a reassuring message to patrons on a company website: “The new and improved Shake Shack,” it read, “has the exact same look and feel guests around the world have known and loved for 10 years—now carefully rebuilt to last for many years to come.”
But to James Wines, lead designer of the original Madison Square Park Shake Shack, it is not the same at all. And Wines, who was not consulted about the renovation, is more than a little shaken up about the “new and improved” version. “The results are an aesthetic disaster,” he said. “The enlargement of the shack has totally destroyed all of the original proportions, and the roof design looks like the product of a high school vocational training class. Needless to say, I am really depressed that all artistic value of this internationally famous icon has been wiped out. So much for art."
COURTESY JAMES WINES/SITE
The new version does not have the same details as the one that has been universally appreciated, Wines contends. “There was something about that shape and that visual vocabulary,” he said. Now, “everything is sort of slightly off… I don’t know what to say except that, artistically, they just ruined it.“
Based in New York City, Wines is an internationally known artist, architectural designer, environmentalist, and educator who heads the studio known as SITE, which stands for Sculpture in the Environment. He has designed more than 150 art, architecture, landscape, interior, and exhibition projects in 11 countries and has been a pioneer in the “green architecture” movement. In 2013, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum gave Wines its Lifetime Achievement Award.
The Shake Shack near Madison Avenue and East 23rd Street—a collaboration with Pentagram graphic designer Paula Scher and structural engineering firm Weidlinger Associates—opened in 2004 and was one of Wines’ best known projects, a small building that became a powerful symbol of New York City. Its “approachable modernness,” as a Fast Company writer once put it, helped establish the design language for a multinational food giant. The latest AIA Guide to New York calls it “one of the best new buildings in recent memory.”
At 83, Wines said he knows how it feels to outlive a building he designed, having lost eight of the nine retail showrooms he created for the Best Products Company. He said projects such as the Shake Shack makeover represent a different and equally agonizing sort of loss for a designer—a case where “the building aesthetic… is totally wiped out by insensitive renovation, while the architect has to painfully witness this kind of aberration.”
Wines is not alone in watching a building that he designed undergo changes without his consent. In Cincinnati, Ohio, the main lobby of Zaha Hadid’s Contemporary Arts Center was renovated earlier this year without her involvement; the arts center hired FRCH Design Worldwide of Cincinnati instead. In France, Jean Nouvel boycotted the opening of the Philharmonie de Paris and went to court to ask that his name and image be disassociated from the building because 26 areas were “non-compliant” with his original design. “Robert Venturi once said, ‘You want to photograph your building 15 minutes after it’s finished,’ ” said Wines, “because after that, they’re going to start changing it. “
The Way It Was
Edwin Bragg, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Shake Shack, said in an email message that the kiosk was renovated after 10 years because “we wanted to ensure that our guests and visitors to the park enjoy the restaurant for years to come.” He said the company’s goal in terms of design was to make the building look as close as possible to the way it did before the renovations.
“The design of the Madison Square Park [Shake Shack] is iconic for us and our company, and has inspired the design and architecture of every other Shack since,” he wrote. “The integrity of the design was not compromised, and it’s essentially the same Shack that our guests [have] known and loved over the years.”
During a recent visit to the reopened Shake Shack, Wines spelled out the reasons he’s troubled by the new version. He noted that the design was relatively simple—a glass and metal structure with a pitched roof, distinctive graphics, and a generous canopy to shelter people placing and waiting for orders. That basic design, he said, was inspired by “a fusion of imagery drawn from Madison Square Park, pop culture of the American highway, and Daniel Burnham’s Flatiron Building” one block away. One particular source of ideas was roadside diners and burger joints from the 1950s and 60s. What makes the Shake Shack unexpected, he said, is that while it takes cues from the car culture, it is set in a park where cars are not allowed.
As part of his effort to give this urban building a roadway vibe, Wines said, he made it slightly unfinished-looking, “rough and tumble.” The exterior was clad with corrugated zinc panels, so it had an exposed metallic surface like the siding of 1950s diners and the cars parked in front of them. The windows were one continuous band of glass, so patrons could see through to the park beyond and the top of the building would appear to float above the windows. The roof peak was a sharp edge.
Wines also incorporated a number of architectural details that were intended to convey what the building is and help it fit into the urban park. He called for English ivy to be planted on the roof surfaces as a way of letting some of the park “bleed” into the building. He specified deep ridges in the corrugated metal sides in a nod to the ”rib-like” banding on Daniel Burnham’s Flatiron Building. Around the edge of the canopy, he and Scher mounted letters forming a frieze that also spells out the food choices inside, creating a “menu as the building.” He used I beams to hold up the letters, so there would be a play of light and shadow on the words and that, along with the distinctive Neutra font, would help them stand out.
It’s those carefully considered details, said Wines, that are missing from Shake Shack 2.0. After the remodeling, he said, the building is taller and deeper and the surface, to him, does not have the same “metallic” feel. Framing around the windows is more pronounced, and the bands of glass no longer run the length of each side, making it less of a see-through structure and negating the intended lightweight and floating effect. The peak of the roof has been chamfered. The I beams that framed the canopy have been replaced with flatter bars that provide less depth and shadow for the letters, reducing their visual impact.
Wines said each of the original details was important to the integrity of the design, and when they disappeared or were altered in the new version, that undermined the original design and affected the building’s character. As a result, he said, the remodeled building appears to be the product of “slick and orthodox commercial design,” as if it’s a “once-removed copy” or caricature of the original. “They say God is in the details,” he said. "These are subtle nuances, but all these little things add up. The details are not the same. It doesn’t look the same. The ensemble effect is totally different. It’s blanded out. It’s slick-ified. It’s dee-signed without any feeling or sensibility. They sucked the flavor out of it.”
Wines also thinks the building has lost much of what made it iconic before, with additions such as hanging pennants that partially obscure the frieze. “It’s very weird,” he said, “to take an icon and do everything you can to make it not an icon.”
Wines’ work with Shake Shack began in 2003, when he joined with Scher to create a permanent food stand in Madison Square Park. The business had started as a hot dog cart but obtained approval to build a 457-square-foot structure, at a reported cost of $750,000, with a portion of the proceeds going to maintain the park. Its operators even got permission to serve beer and wine.
From day one it was a hit. Lines formed early and extended throughout the day. People waited for their orders in the park, where they could mingle with other “guests.” Its success led to more Shake Shacks and a billion dollar stock offering. The company, part of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, now has locations in Moscow, Istanbul, and Dubai, and others in the planning stages. The building in Madison Square Park received widespread attention too, including press coverage in foreign countries and a design award from the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects. It ranks as one of the “most Instagrammed” restaurants in New York City.
The heavy use eventually took a toll. The building had many more visitors than expected. Last year, Shake Shack representatives announced that they would be closing the location temporarily for renovations. On the company website, Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti explained that when the company renewed its lease for the city-owned site, it “committed to a complete renovation to restore the original Shack and prepare for the decade to come.” Plans included expanding the food preparation area, repairing weather damage, installing a new service window system and adding basement space. It reopened on May 20.
Bragg said in an email that the principal consulting designer for the renovated Shake Shack was Denise Lee, who worked on the original building with Wines at SITE and now is affiliated with Studio SSMC. “Denise Lee played a significant role in designing the original Madison Square Park Shack’s design, as a colleague of James Wines,” he wrote.
Bragg said the new building is approximately 18 inches higher than the original and a 4-foot extension was added to the back, but the roof’s pitch is the same and ivy and other plants will grow all over the roof as before. The building’s footprint increased from 457 square feet to 499 square feet, and much of the work took place underground, he noted. “We reused the original prefabricated structure and enhanced it,” he wrote. “A majority of the construction focused on the basement for both Shake Shack and Madison Square Park Conservancy facilities.”
Bragg said the windows are different because “a better system was put in place for durability and insulation.” He said the horizontal bars that hold up the ‘menu’ letters are different because “a new structural attachment was necessary” with “a slightly different profile.”
He said the outer wall surface is still “corrugated zinc paneling,” but “we took this opportunity to replace all of the old, rusting and corroded panels.” He said the profile of the corrugated paneling, including the depth of the ridges, is the same as before. He added that the “Shack Cam,” which provides photos from the roof, has been updated with “a higher quality picture” that allows people to see the line online at shakeshack.com.
Bragg said the design was closely coordinated with the city’s parks department, the Madison Square Park Conservancy, and the Public Design Commission, and Shake Shack is happy with the result. “We are thrilled with the Madison Square Park Shack renovation and being able to give it back to the people who come to the park,” he wrote. “It now provides a new and improved facility for our employees, which we hope will translate to a better experience for our guests, and most importantly allow the flagship Shake Shack to be a part of Madison Square Park and its community for years to come."
The Architectural Condition
Asked whether he said anything to Shake Shack or Union Square representatives to express his feelings about the remodeled building, Wines replied that he has not. “What am I going to say?”
Wines said he is not surprised that company officials are happy with the reconstructed building because it still draws long lines. “The byword is, ‘What difference does it make?’… Art gets lost in the shuffle.”
Wines noted that works of visual art generally tend to get more protection from insensitive changes than works of architecture, unless the architecture is protected by landmark designation and proposed changes are subject to a public review process. “Art is protected, but there’s nothing you can do with architecture,” he said. “Developers can do whatever they want. They own it.”
Wines does not deny that he is miffed that Shake Shack did not contact him about the renovation. “The bothersome aspect,” he said, “is that there is a total lack of respect in not being asked.”
But he said his complaints are about more than just a bruised ego and not getting a commission. He said they are motivated by wanting to protect and maintain a successful work of design. He said the original lead designer typically is in the best position to know the intent behind a project and make sure future changes do not weaken it. He said any design compromises could have been avoided if Shake Shack representatives had let him know what they were planning to do.
"It’s like redoing a painting or a sculpture or any art piece," he said. "If it needs to be repaired, do you go to just anybody? If you can, you go back to the original artist… Why didn’t they just call me and say, ‘James, we’re going to change it and we want your input’? All they had to do was call me.”
Wines said that he probably would have worked on the renovation for free if he had been asked. “The principle argument of the whole thing is: To what degree is the integrity of the original creation respected?” he said. “I can guarantee you that if I had been contacted, it wouldn’t have cost any more and we would have figured out a way to make it work. I would have had very good suggestions for them.”
Ultimately, Wines said, he believes every designer who works on a successful project hopes the client will consult him or her about future changes. “It’s an important issue,” he said. “Why wouldn’t a client come back to the original designer and say, ‘I want to fix it and do it the right way’? Architects have instant respect for anybody who does that … I can’t think of an architect in the world who wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to save the day.”