If all goes as planned, the new Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s at Clark and Ontario will open this Friday, 50 years to the day that Ray Kroc opened his first restaurant in Des Plaines. A big blowout is planned, and the huge temporary tent that’s been erected for the celebration may be the only honest piece of architecture on the site. Offered several spectacular designs that would have enriched the revival of modern architecture in Chicago–including an airy steel-and-glass Helmut Jahn pavilion with projection screens for animated advertising and a slant-roofed structure of concentric transparent ovals by Martin Wolf–the Oak Brook-based chain instead settled on an in-house design: a supersized replica of one of its original hamburger stands, with golden arches 60 feet high. It’s less a building than a Claes Oldenburg representation of a building–a place you might go to chow down on his Brobdingnagian burger after a game of baseball using his giant steel bat from in front of the Social Security Administration building on Madison.
The new McDonald’s takes its place amid what’s become a rich collection of inauthentic architecture and overwrought whimsy. Ed Debevic’s on Wells, a faux 50s diner that opened in 1984, could be said to be the starting point. It was followed by a now lost treasure–Capone’s Chicago at Ohio and Clark. Housed in a cheesily phony replica of the Lexington Hotel, with additional false fronts depicting such shrines as the Saint Valentine’s Day massacre garage and the flower shop where Dion O’Bannion was gunned down, it memorialized the achievements of our city’s most gifted criminal.
Nothing that good ever lasts, though, and Capone’s Chicago was quickly replaced by the local outpost of the international Rainforest Cafe chain, a concrete box bulging with giant toadstools and guarded by a giant bug-eyed frog. North of the new McDonald’s there’s Portillo’s, a Disney-like version of an old brick roadhouse; to the east there’s the Hard Rock Cafe and its enormous Flying V guitar, a mate to the neon-trimmed Les Paul in Las Vegas. To the west, the swollen balls of the Sports Authority sign–baseball, basketball, football, soccer ball, tennis ball–complete the picture.
The expected critical response to all this is schoolmarmish clucking, but truth be told, in a city as big as Chicago, there’s room for both the sublime and the ridiculous. If you can’t be good, you should at least aspire to be entertainingly vulgar. We might want to take a cue from the way that, in the bad old days, cities used to establish red-light districts in which to sequester those shady but essential businesses catering to our most base and persistent instincts. Designate an official Schlock Corridor, a protected taste-free district, no tax breaks required.
At first glance, the new McDonald’s may seem too good for such a district. It includes a mayor-friendly green roof and enhanced landscaping, Wi-Fi access, and a nod to Chicago architectural tradition in the massive cable-supported glass curtain wall that forms three sides of the Ontario Street facade. In the end, though, it’s just a retro design with a glandular problem. You get the joke in the first five seconds, and after that the vacuity of the concept is the joke.
But then architecture is supposed to consider the way a building interacts with the streetscape around it. On Michigan Avenue, the new McDonald’s would be an atrocity. Placed across the street from an outdoor bench where you can have your picture taken sitting next to a gorilla, it fits right in. And compared to the nearby gulch of tan condo towers, it seems an oasis of life and creativity.
In their designs Jahn and Wolf did something else architects are supposed to do. They rethought what a fast-food restaurant should look like in the 21st century, in a specific location in the heart of Chicago. McDonald’s went instead for the easy nostalgia of the 1950s, cramming a contemporary, massively more complex set of functions into a grossly overscaled reproduction of an outdated design. But that kind of triumph of style over content is the very definition of kitsch. Celebrate it–and contain it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Murphy.