Architect Magazine – “Downsizing the Golden Arches”

Architect Magazine editor Karrie Jacobs visits the McDonald’s Chicago Flagship.

“In early September, I had a leisurely lunch at the new McDonald’s flagship in the River North neighborhood of Chicago, which has long been a stronghold of flamboyant chain restaurant architecture.

The new McDonald’s, a sparkling 19,000-square-foot-glass box, is a dramatic replacement for the Rock ’n’ Roll version of the franchise that previously occupied the site. It is a surprisingly exuberant work of architecture. Ross Barney Architects, whose offices are five short blocks away, designed the building in close cooperation with the McDonald’s creative team and Sydney-based interior design firm Landini Associates, which has been conjuring up a future-forward version of the hamburger purveyor, mostly in Australian and Asian cities, since 2014.

I visited on a bright afternoon and found myself in an arcade of touch screens, mounted on posts around eye level. I’d describe them as hamburger ATMs, although McDonald’s regards the setup as ‘kiosk ordering.’ I chose a Filet-O-Fish meal, found a place to sit, and waited for my sandwich, fries, and Diet Coke to be delivered to my table. It didn’t take long.

As novel, and oddly luxurious, as the kiosk/table service combination seemed to me, it’s not unique to this location; the new system has been rolled out in more than a third of the 14,000 McDonald’s in the United States. The real attraction, however, is the dining area, an epic, light-filled room beneath a 27-foot-high wood ceiling. Visible outside through the windows is a branch of the Rainforest Café with a giant frog on the roof, and a Hard Rock Cafe designed by Stanley Tigerman, FAIA, in high 1980s PoMo style, with a sign in the shape of a monster-sized, illuminated electric guitar. Nevertheless, as I ate my Filet-O-Fish, I felt as though I’d been transported from the American Midwest to Scandinavia. All around me were elemental-looking modern chairs and tables. Some longer tables were lined with lovely minimalist stools that have wire-frame legs and upholstered plywood seats. (The furnishings are mostly from a Landini design package known in-house as ‘Ray,’ for McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc.)

The space struck me as remarkably generous. It was also uncommonly quiet on the day I visited. The ambient music was so soft that I could hear a gentle murmur of voices. I later learned that the low volume of the music was an accident, a sound system malfunction. Still, my fellow customers seemed to be on best behavior (no intrusive cellphone monologues), as if they were in a library or a shrine. The effect was magical.

Ross Barney’s experience designing public space clearly colored her approach to the project. The firm conducted a study of green space in River North and realized that there wasn’t much of it. The architects determined that the best thing a new McDonald’s could do was to provide a bit of greenery in a rapidly redeveloping neighborhood that’s short on parks. They planted additional trees in and around the parking lot (which is covered with permeable pavers) and created a grassy outdoor play area. The shade structure covers part of an adjacent ‘park,’ where diners can sit at a giant communal picnic table (which might double as a stage). And, working with a local green roof expert, the firm installed a quartet of birch trees in a glass box above the digital kiosks, planted apple trees, broccoli, and Swiss chard elsewhere on the roof, and used a hanging green ‘tapestry’ to symbolically divide the big room. Including the roof, the site now boasts more than 10,000 plants.”

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