CHICAGO -- A lot of flagship stores boost their brand and pay scant attention to the character of their cities. But the five-story Starbucks coffee palace that opens Friday in the former Crate & Barrel store on North Michigan Avenue feels at home in Chicago.
It's not just that this emporium, which houses an array of coffee bars as well as a bakery and equipment that will roast about 200,000 pounds of coffee beans a year, is the world's largest Starbucks.
Instead, the 35,000-square-foot facility can be deemed an architectural success for more subtle reasons: It's visually theatrical, crisply designed and carefully tailored to its host city even though it springs from a well-worn corporate template. The flagship reminds us that modern architecture celebrates the process of making things, unlike beaux-arts buildings that hide such things behind pretty facades.
Once vinyl sheets that block the view into the store are removed in time for Friday's opening, passersby will be able to look inside and glimpse such things as a towering coffee bean cask that resembles a rocket on a launch pad. Also visible will be ceiling pipes (some see-through) that carry roasted beans to silos at coffee counters, and a spiral escalator, billed as the first of its kind in the Midwest.
Here, the steel-and-glass sobriety of mid-20th century modernism gives way to a playful yet stylish aesthetic -- "Willie Wonka and & the Chocolate Factory" meets the sophisticated, bent-wood warmth of the Scandinavian design championed by Crate & Barrel's founders, Gordon and Carole Segal. Even noncoffee drinkers like me may be tempted to step inside, just to glimpse the retail theater.
Officially known as the Starbucks Reserve Roastery Chicago, the store is the sixth roastery built by the Seattle-based coffee giant since 2014. (The others are in Seattle, Shanghai, Tokyo, Milan and New York.) Based on an advance look I got, it seems likely to attract visitors beyond the core of Starbucks devotees whose days are incomplete without a latte or nitro cold brew.
The project's success boils down to a crucial decision taken by an in-house team led by Starbucks Chief Design Officer Liz Muller and Vice President Jill Enomoto. They chose to build on the architectural character of the Crate & Barrel store, which opened in 1990 and was designed by Chicago architects Solomon Cordwell Buenz.
With a glass-enclosed corner cylinder punctuating its outer walls, Crate & Barrel was a dramatic departure from the decorous, limestone-clad buildings of North Michigan Avenue. Taking note of its white metal facade panels, the American Institute of Architects' Guide to Chicago compared the building to a man in summer whites attending a black-tie party, calling it "shamelessly transparent."
But the store was a business success, using skylights and an escalator in the corner rotunda to draw people upstairs to buy clean-lined sofas and other tasteful fare. Last year, though, the store closed, a victim of changing retail habits. By that time, Gordon Segal, who still owns the building, had persuaded his friend Howard Schultz, then Starbucks' chief, to fill the store with a flagship roastery.
To its credit, Starbucks has not plastered the exterior with the company's ubiquitous green-and-white siren logo. Small black letters on the top of the cylinder spell out the name "Starbucks Reserve Roastery." There may be more signage, but nothing grotesquely oversized. The idea is to let the activity within the store speak for itself.