I was in Chicago last week and from a distance glimpsed something I thought at first was a hallucination. It got bigger as I got closer, and then finally, there it was: the most enormous McDonald's I have ever seen.
This was no mirage, but a newly-opened restaurant built to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of McDonald's. And this it does with a vengence, deploying 24,000 square feet of space, two 60-foot golden arches, seating for 300, two escalators, a (first ever!) double-lane drive-thru, and — lest anyone fear that Chicago's extraordinary design legacy is being ignored — a "living room" area with furniture by Mies van der Rohe.
Photographs and even the online animated fly-through fail to do it justice. This thing is just unbelievably big. And naturally, the design community has reacted with horror. But I find something funny and charming and peculiarly exhuberant about the place — and something strangely familiar, too.
Although the Fiftieth Anniversary McDonald's is credited to Dan Wohlfeil, the McDonald's Director of Worldwide Architecture, it may as well have been created by our country's greatest unacknowledged design visionary, Bruce McCall.
Perhaps it's appropriate that McCall, the visual poet of American gigantism, the father of the Bulgemobile and the R.M.S. Tyrannic ("The Biggest Thing in All the World!"), was born and raised in Canada. Growing up in Simcoe, Ontario, in the forties, he became suspicious of his inherited sense of Canadian superiority. "The few Canadian comic books were black-and-white, vapid, and hopelessly wholesome," he writes in his wonderful memoir, Thin Ice. The advertising in American comic books, on the other hand, painted a colorful world where kids "guzzled Royal Crown Cola, rode balloon-tired Schwinn bikes with sirens and headlights or deluxe coaster wagons or futuristic scooters. They shot pearl-handled cap guns drawn from tooled-leather holsters or Daisy air rifles, wore aviator goggles, flew gasoline-powered model airplanes."
"I was beginning to discern," he writes, "that this bounty showered down upon American boyhood was a mere by-product of a system so inconceivably rich and generous that it was almost carelessly throwing off wealth in every direction, nonstop."
Yearning for the glories of his homeland's inaccessible neighbor to the south, and trapped in a house with a remote, mercurial father and an alcoholic mother, McCall withdrew into a "compulsive passion for drawing," eventually dropping out of high school to take a job as a commercial artist. Windsor Advertising Artists Ltd. must have seemed like heaven: "They'd even pay me — thirty-five dollars a week, plus all the art supplies I wanted, free! Sweeter still, they'd pay me to draw and paint cars!" The studio's sole account was Dodge, and McCall soon learned he was in an environment where "creativity had as much to do with commercial art — or car art — as it did with Martinizing shirts," learning illustration techniques that were "as formalized and unresponsive to improvisation as a Japanese tea ceremony." After it all came to a crashing halt in 1959 (the year Dodge "went photographic" and fired its army of illustrators), McCall remained in the car business as an artist and a writer, eventually working in an ad agency in New York where he headed up the firm's Mercedes account.
It was in1970s New York that he finally synthesized his profoundly mixed feelings about the commercial behemoth that had so long haunted his dreams, and began to produce feverish after-hours work for the National Lampoon: impeccably illustrated brochures for an imaginary line of fifties-era cars, the Bulgemobiles. Impossibly huge and encrusted with acres of chrome, the Bulgemobiles were always drawn with carefree aristrocrats at the wheel who were invariably blowing past Dust Bowl refugees or forlorn chain gangs. With tragically plausible brand names (Fireblast, Flashbolt, Blastfire, Firewood) and complemented by pitch-perfect slogans ("So All-Fired New They Make Tomorrow Seem Like Yesterday!" and "Too Great Not To Be Changed! Too Changed Not To Be Great!"), the Bulgemobiles epitomized McCall's vision of America as Brobdingnag: enormous, energetic, and a little bit stupid.
It is this vision that in one way or another has informed all of McCall's best illustrations: commuter flights by Zeppellin to Muncie, Indiana; private subway stations for the Fifth Avenue plutocracy; elegant al fresco dining on the wings of airborne planes; block-long limousines; jousting autogiros and polo played on vintage tanks; and my favorite, the R.M.S. Tyrannic, an ocean liner bigger than a mountain. Strictly speaking, the Tyrannic is a tribute to British, not American, imperial power, but it is classic McCall, with comically vast interior views that abuse one-point perspective in ways unimagined by Raphael or Carpaccio. His imagination ultimately landed him a coveted private office at The New Yorker, where his work as a writer and cover artist regularly appear.
In the nineteenth century, Albert Bierstadt's epic landscape paintings of the Rocky Mountains and the Yosemite Valley were met with suspicion by New York critics: surely the American West couldn't be...well, that big. Imagine their surprise when the paintings turned out to be accurate.
With Bruce McCall, the process works in reverse. He purposely tries to imagine an America so supersized that it could never be possible. I wonder how he feels when places like McDonald's keep proving him wrong.