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 since Ray Kroc opened his first restaurant in Des Plaines. A big blow-out 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 [SEE MORE IMAGES] 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 supersize replica of one of its original hamburger stands, with golden arches 60 feet high.
Like Alice, fallen down the rabbit hole, devouring a cake marked "Eat Me" and growing and growing faster than Morgan Spurlock, the new McDonald's is less a building than a Claes Oldenburg, a Brobdingnagian blowup of a common object. a mate to his giant Batcolumn from in front of the Harold Washington Social Security Center on Madison at Jefferson.
Inside Portillo's, the authentic and the weird combine in a hallucinogenic stew. There's loads of crime memorabilia, from an autographed photo of J. Edgar Hoover to a framed copy of big Al's Florida death certificate. There's a 20's roadster suspended from the ceiling, and the massive 1925 clock from the old Stewart-Warner factory, rescued when the North Side building was demolished in in the 1990's. There's also a large clapboard, depression-era facade above an open kitchen, complete with a barber shop where a slightly creepy mannikin cuts the hair of his mannikin customer. A clothesline with lingerie stretches high above the heads of diners.
At first glance, the new McDonald's almost seems too good for this kind of company. It includes a mayor-friendly green roof and enhanced landscaping, Wi-Fi access, and a nod to Chicago architectural tradition in the massive self-supported glass curtain wall that forms three sides of the Ontario Street facade. But here's the big difference. In their designs, Jahn and Wolf did something what architects are supposed to do. They rethought what a fast-food drive-in should look like in the 21st century, in a specific location in the heart of Chicago. Instead, McDonald's went 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. You get the joke in the first five seconds, and after that the vacuity of the concept is the joke. It's the kind of triumph of gesture over content that's the very definition of kitsch.
Otherwise, it's pretty dull stuff. In the back of the complex, along Ohio Street, a drive-through area, intended to take advantage of the traffic coming off the Kennedy Expressway, is housed in a normal-sized reproduction of the classic 50's design, but instead of a glass-enclosed entrance, ther'e s a blank wall. The drive-through is linked to the mega-arches to the north by another blank-walled connecting structure, atop of which is a second-floor seating area, circular and enclosed in glass. [SEE MORE IMAGES of the NEW ROCK N' ROLL MCDONALD'S]
As with vampires, the new McDonald's and the area's the attractions don't respond terribly well to daylight - it seems to bring out and magnify their tackiness to a dispiriting degree. Nighttime is a different story. A few evenings ago, a couple were walking down a far darker stretch of Clark Street a few blocks down, when the man caught sight of the giant neon guitar in the distance. "I'm stangely attracted to the light," he said as he tried persaude his significant other to join him in checking it out, and seconds later both were happily making their moth-like journey towards the Hard Rock and its bright, shiny environs.
West Ontario Street, on which most of the attractions are centered, is the anti-Mag Mile, probably as close to the old Las Vegas Strip as you're going to get in downtown Chicago. It's architecture as junk food - pretty surely not good for you, but as tasty as french fries, and just as additive.. It's got the
The expected critical response to all this is schoolmarmish "Tsk, Tsk, Tsk!", to which the district's attractions reply, "We're here, we're weird - get used to it.!" 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.
A building should always consider the way a it interacts with the surrounding streetscape, and the new McDonald's lucks out in its location. On Michigan Avenue, it 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.
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 Ontario Street as an official Schlock Corridor, a protected taste-free district, no tax breaks required. Who knows what new wonders it might produce? I've actually thought of four, but since there's been some dispute as to whether they're funny or lame, I've exiled them to a separate page of Schlock Corridor photographs. for which I'm solicitating your suggestions, dear readers, for your own high-concept ideas, in text or graphics, for new Schlock Corridor attractions. E-mail them to me and, unless they look like something I'll be sued for, they'll be posted promptly.
Any living city is a composite of high and low, - order and disorder in a constant battle for primacy. Chicago's Schlock corridor is loud, rude, and brimming with life in the vulgate. It doesn't veil or sugarcoat our frenzied consumerism, but offers it up raw. Celebrate it-and contain it.
© Copyright 2005-2006 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.