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McDonald's new flagship: Not ketchup-red or mustard-yellow, but green — and not quite cooked

Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Home and Consumer News

Behold the new McDonald's flagship in Chicago!

This temple of the Big Mac is billed as a model of energy-saving architecture -- sustainability! It's supposed to bring people together -- community! It even aims to be visually subtle, which amounts to a revolution for a company whose stores, once decked out in ketchup red and mustard yellow, blighted America's highways and byways.

"I defy you to find another McDonald's on Earth as beautiful as this one," said downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly at Wednesday's press preview.

That's a lot of hype to live up to, and the flagship restaurant that opened to the public Thursday doesn't always deliver.

The building, a white pavilion with pencil-thin steel columns, environmentally friendly timber and an array of 1,062 rooftop solar panels, is architecturally adventurous -- a big improvement on the supersized, backward-looking store it replaced. Its airy, plant-showcasing interior is miles better than the plastic-heavy McDonald's of old. Yet the flagship's outdoor plaza isn't nearly as inviting as it should be. And its green credentials, while impressive, are undercut by the fact that it remains tied to the energy-wasting car culture.

I give this building, whose costs were largely shouldered by McDonald's rather than franchise owner Nick Karavites, an "A" for effort and a "B" for execution. There are lots of good ideas bubbling here, but they're not (excuse the restaurant metaphor) fully cooked.

Located on the block bounded by Ohio, Ontario, Clark and LaSalle streets, the McDonald's occupies a strange spot in Chicago -- a place I once dubbed "the blurbs" for the way its blurs the line between urban charm and the tacky suburban strip. The neighbors include a gas station and a Rainforest Cafe with a hideous green frog on its roof. The original McDonald's on this site, a low-slung affair that opened in 1983, played a leading role in this visual cacophony.

Its display of rock 'n' roll memorabilia bestowed a sheen of glamour on the grubby business of serving up burgers and fries. Affectionately nicknamed the "Rock 'n' Roll McDonald's," it lasted until 2004 when it was demolished for a new outlet, an on-steroids version of the McDonald's that Ray Kroc built in northwest suburban Des Plaines in 1955. That building and its massive Golden Arches looked backward. The new one, with a commendable push from McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook, looks forward.

The architect, Chicago's Carol Ross Barney, is widely recognized for her work on the Chicago Riverwalk, one of the city's finest new public spaces. It's less widely known that Barney's eponymous firm assisted London-based Foster + Partners on the design of the new Apple flagship store on North Michigan Avenue. Both flagships don't just aim to project a brand identity. They seek to give something back to the community in the form of usable public space -- a fitting gesture for McDonald's, which in June moved its headquarters to the city's hip Fulton Market district from the sleepy confines of west suburban Oak Brook.

For Barney, the company's directive about "community" meant striking a new balance between cars and pedestrians. She sought to create an urban oasis where people could eat, drink and meet. On the site's west side, she got McDonald's to cut the amount of parking by about one-third. She increased the number of trees and shrubs. She replaced ugly asphalt with permeable concrete pavers that cover the site like a gray rug, giving it the feel of an urbane outdoor plaza. Even the drive-through lanes have those pavers, making them resemble a "shared street," where pedestrians, bikes and cars have an equal claim to the road.

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