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Golden arches new headquarters most ‘un-McDonald’s like’

McDonald's announced the job cuts despite the company's strong market growth. 

With its iconic golden arches and overall restaurant design, the McDonald’s Corporation is one of the world’s most visible brands. It’s a company that knows how to use a building to get attention.

But things are quite different with the company’s big new corporate headquarters, opening now on the former site of Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios on the Near West Side. Aside from modest signage at the entrances, there is relatively little to indicate the complex will be the global home for McDonald’s, and its 6,000 employees.

The nine-story complex, occupying a full block from Randolph to Washington and Carpenter to Aberdeen, is most un-McDonald’s like. Designed by the Chicago office of Gensler architects, the brick, steel and glass headquarters uses a few design tricks to hide its size as it eschews the usual McDonald’s heraldry, all with the intent of fitting in with the surrounding community of restaurants and residences. Its presence seems more whispered than shouted.

“We wanted the form of the building and the material of the building to be forward-looking and to be a good neighbor, with all the different forms and shapes and scales of the surrounding buildings,” said design architect Grant Uhlir of Gensler. “We wanted (the building) to be of this place, of here.”

The building’s main elevation, along Randolph, is perhaps its most handsome side with a six-story brick and glass office block sitting atop a two-story dark metal and glass base. And all things considered, the brickwork is well-done. It’s used like trim around the glass office box, but rather than treat the bricks like an afterthought, the architects gave the brickwork visual texture by varying patterns.

The building’s southern half is pure steel and glass curtain wall — no decorative brick — but with the same floor-to-ceiling windows and double-height spaces designed to funnel natural light deep into the building’s massive interiors where floor plates can run as large as 65,000 and 70,000 square feet.

The building is “a little more industrial on [its] south side than on the north side,” said Gensler project architect Jacob Mertens. “The trick for us was to bring the scale down. That was the biggest challenge.”

Architect Jacob Mertens (center) and Grant Uhlir (right) from Gensler architecture firm talks with architecture critic Lee Bey about exterior and design features of the new McDonald’s headquarters building in Chicago’s Fulton Market district. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

The architects met the challenge. With its varying materials, colors, setbacks, terraces and outdoor roof decks, the complex reads like connected buildings sharing a block, rather than a monolithic box.

“Like a series of (different) buildings, that just happened to all be designed and built at the same time,” Uhlir said.

Built in 18 months, the building also features indoor parking and retail space on its West Side for a future tenant. Crain’s Chicago Business reported last month that the tenant will likely be St. Roch Market, an upscale food hall based in New Orleans. The McDonald’s headquarters developer, Sterling Bay, is in talks with St. Roch, but a deal has not been finalized, a spokesman told Crain’s.

While the headquarters building is weeks from an official opening, last month the wraps came off what will likely be one of the destination’s best-known features: a 6,000-square-foot, cafe-style McDonald’s restaurant that’s open to the public. The franchise will serve special items found in McDonald’s around the world, such as Mighty Angus hamburger from Canada (meh) or a McFlurry Prestigio that can be found in Brazil.

The restaurant, which wasn’t designed by Gensler, also features table service and touch-screen kiosks for ordering food.

Interior of the new McDonald’s restaurant on the ground floor of the new corporate headquarters building in Chicago’s Fulton Market district. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

The 774,000-square-foot headquarters — with 320 underground parking spaces — is nicely put together, but surprisingly sober, particularly in light of architect Carol Ross Barney’s sun-powered, sleek and absolutely forward-looking design for the new Rock & Roll McDonald’s that will take shape in River North.

But the building and its most urban site are a startling about-face from the placid 74-acre treelined and landscaped corporate-campus-in-a-park headquarters in Oak Brook that has been McDonald’s global home since the 1980s.

A McDonald’s spokesman didn’t returns calls for this story, but the company’s U.S. president, Chris Kempczinski, in media interviews referred to the Oak Brook campus as “pastoral, sleepy” and said a move to the city could bring “a different level of energy” to the organization.

“The people that we’ve talked to who’ve moved in already, its been an interesting adjustment,” said Mertens. “It’s really a scale shift. I think some of the positive feedback (from McDonald’s employees) has been how it fits into the neighborhood and how it really is part of Restaurant Row. There’s really some excitement around that.”

Mertens said the new building’s roof top terraces are an attempt to bring back a bit of the access to outdoor space and fresh air that employees enjoyed at the Oak Brook campus.