4 weeks ago
Text by Whet Moser
The Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s, a supersized take on the company’s space-age midcentury architecture that represented the company in its hometown and inspired the cult hit Wesley Willis song, came down recently. The company just released renderings of its replacement, and announced its architect: Carol Ross Barney, one of the most significant Chicago architects ever (and one of our 2017 Chicagoans of the Year).
It’s an interesting choice. Ross Barney’s firm is a Chicago institution because it’s worked on so many Chicago institutions; her major recent works have been the Chicago Riverwalk, three CTA stations, and a massive car-rental facility at O’Hare. The Riverwalk in particular was a star turn that ties into her greater interest in the river’s restoration. It’s enough that Zach Mortice compared her to Daniel Burnham in a recent issue of Metropolis, for her role in shaping Chicago’s 21st-century public space.
And that’s why McDonald’s came to her.
“They selected us because they were really concerned about making an amenity for the city. Their site is kind of unusual, because they have a full block in River North, which is one of the hottest areas of the city,” Barney says. “They were worried about the public space that it would have, and how they could reach out to the city and leave an amenity. So they talked to us about it, because that’s what we’ve been doing lately: infrastructure and public works.”
Barney doesn’t see it as a big shift from her recent work.
“The translation’s not that hard. There are two things that are really essential that McDonald’s said to us that really got us hooked. One is that they wanted to make this amenity; we suggested green space. They really wanted something that… I don’t know if a ‘gift’ is the right word, but this is their hometown. They wanted to be extraordinarily good citizens about this place,” Ross Barney says. “The second thing is … [they said] that sustainability is our everyday business. Those two things really attracted us.”
Those elements are at the heart of Ross Barney’s work—connecting sustainability with urbanism. “We have to use less energy, and we have to create less greenhouse gases,” she says. “To do it, you have to live in a city. That’s the most efficient way for people to live.”
Surrounding the restaurant will be a park with an outdoor dining space and permeable pavement, topped with a massive solar pergola to provide shade and feed energy back into the building.
“It’s incumbent on building design that it’s sustainable, but it’s also nice if they tell a story, if it’s instructive, if they make people more knowing about their environment,” Ross Barney says. “In a way, that’s what the solar panels are. It makes nice shade, it makes a nice canopy for the drive-through, which we do still have, but it also makes this big environmental gesture.”
On top of the restaurant is another such “story": a green roof with apple trees.
“They’re more symbolic than anything else, but they’re going to be harvestable apple trees. While the food laws are too strict for us to use the apples in the restaurant, they will be harvested and used,” Ross Barney says. “We just wanted to make the connection of how you get food, while you’re in a restaurant, as well as provide the wonder and delight that makes the space special. So when you’re sitting in the restaurant, you’ll be able to see growing apples.”
Ross Barney is working with Omni Ecosystems, a young Chicago company that previously built a 6,400-square-foot green roof on the Mies van der Rohe-designed AMA Tower, on the restaurant’s greenery. Besides the apple trees, Omni Ecosystems is designing an interior green “tapestry” of plants on an interior wall and a floating garden of birch trees that drops down into the restaurant itself.
“Again, the whole thing was to build the inside out and the outside in. I hope that when this restaurant’s built, on a day like today, you’ll be able to sit with your hamburger and watch snow falling on those trees,” Barney says.
Surrounding the floating garden is a quietly important milestone in Chicago architecture: a roof structure made of cross-laminated timber. I’ve written about CLT before and its importance as a material of the future, in the context of a theoretical tower that Skidmore, Owings & Merrill designed to be built from the material. But architectural firms are only just starting to use it in actual buildings.
“This is going to be the first commercial—maybe the first building—in Chicago that’s completed that has a cross-laminated timber structure,” Ross Barney says. “It’s kind of a dumb product, in a way that it’s like plywood on steroids, but what’s important about it is that it has a much lighter environmental footprint than structures that are made of steel or concrete. While this is not an extensive use, it’s the first time the city’s permitted a building like this. I don’t think it’ll be the last. The fact that McDonald’s is at the forefront of making these buildings I think is significant.”
So, good night to the rock ‘n’ roll era and the Golden Arches. Gone is what Lynn Becker called back in 2005—after the company passed over compelling designs by Helmut Jahn and Martin Wolf—"less a building than a Claes Oldenburg representation of a building,” a “triumph of style over content” that is “the very definition of kitsch.” What they’re getting from Ross Barney is the opposite, and one that points in the next direction for a company that’s embraced urbanity (and a corporate move downtown).
“The major message that they want to convey by their new architecture is authentic and natural, and that’s what their new prototype really stresses,” Ross Barney says, noting the choice to only use the “M” logo without any massive golden arches or other branding. “This is a mature company with really sound environmental ideas. I think that our store is a reflection of that. It’s that sophisticated and that progressive.”