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Chicago Navy Pier Design Progresses

Aerial view rendering of the Navy Pier in Chicago, which displays about 200 new trees
The project includes 200 new trees and efforts to conceal the infrastructure used by the robust cruise industry at the pier. © James Corner Field Operations

The Navy Pier in Chicago, one of the most popular attractions in the Midwest, will soon get a makeover with both modern and historical elements.

June 11, 2013—Designers are finalizing details for a two-phase project to redevelop the venerable Navy Pier in Chicago, embracing the historical character of what was once the longest pier in the world while adding dramatic updated elements and extensive green features.

“We are taking what is good and reshaping it into something great,” said Marilynn Gardner, the president and chief executive officer of Navy Pier Inc., in a press release announcing details of the project. “Navy Pier is a jewel, but one we must protect by reimagining it from time to time to ensure it remains a vital public space and commercial success for years to come.”

James Corner Field Operations (JCFO), in New York City, was selected in 2012 following an international design competition to provide landscape architecture and urban design on the project, with significant input from the Navy Pier, Inc., board and staff and the city of Chicago.

Phase one includes a dramatic new fountain in Gateway Park, the entrance to the pier. Design details are still being finalized, but initial plans called for a 75 ft diameter fountain with jets rising at least 12 ft into the air. 

Rendering of a large fountain in Gateway Park, at the entrance to the Pier

The project includes a large fountain in Gateway Park, at the
entrance to the Pier. Initial plans called for a 75 ft diameter
fountain with jets pulsing at least 12 ft into the air. 
© James Corner Field Operations

“This fountain is going to be really spectacular—a showstopper,” says Sarah Weidner Astheimer, RLA, a senior associate for JCFO. ”The jets of the fountain will emit water in a fluttering way, in very organic sequences, that are [evocative of] flocks of birds or schools of fish. It will be dramatically lit at night. There is also an idea that sometimes the jets won’t be on, but there could be a mist cloud that occupies the space of the plaza.”

Another impressive element included in phase one is the “Wave Wall,” a flowing design element of glazing and large steel louvers that serves as a seamless transition between retail market space and an open stairway, inspired by the Spanish Steps in Rome. The Wave Wall will be approximately 500 ft long and about 20 ft tall.

“The stair is a place to meet, gather, and socialize,” Astheimer says. “The stair is aligned with the Ferris wheel, so when you are standing on south dock, they are going to look straight up the middle of the stair and see the Ferris wheel at the top.”  

The pier draws 8 million visitors annually, making it one of the most popular attractions in the Midwest. It has a storied history. The pier was originally envisioned as a mixed commercial and entertainment facility in Chicago’s 1909 master plan by city planner Daniel Burnham. Five piers were proposed, but only one was built.

The pier was a popular destination with Chicagoans during the 1920s, who could arrive via a dedicated street car line. The pier drew an estimated 3.2 million visitors per year during the 1920s. The current project will remove design elements added over the years during past renovation projects to return some of the buildings to their 1920s luster.

Rendering of the Navy Pier in Chicago, which displays a fountain in Gateway Park that would become an ice rink

In winter, the fountain in Gateway Park would become an ice rink,
drawing local residents after the tourist season has ended.
© James Corner Field Operations

“What we are doing is respecting the historic architecture,” Astheimer says. “Part of our plans call for the removal of a lot of signage and clutter from the historic facade. Part of our project is relighting the head house facade and possibly the facade of the Grand Ballroom. These are the two historic anchors at each end of the pier—the remnants from Burnham—and we are relighting them in a really dramatic and beautiful way that will enhance the historical quality and presence. Our idea is that we really respect it and embrace it.”

The project includes the introduction of plantings, including 200 new trees. This presents an engineering challenge, as plans call for the trunks to be flush with the pier’s structural slab. To accomplish this, the team is engineering a solution to cut holes into the structural slab and hang planters below the pier to support the trees.

The dock is home to a robust pleasure cruise industry on Lake Michigan, which presents another engineering challenge. The range of types of boats that dock at the pier have an equally large array of mechanical requirements. As this utility infrastructure has developed over the years, it has contributed to a sense of clutter on the pier, Astheimer says. Concealing that infrastructure is a design priority.

The approximately $165-million phase one of the project is being funded through a public-private partnership known was Elevate Chicago, announced recently by Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s mayor. Phase one is projected to be complete by summer 2015, in anticipation of the pier’s 100th anniversary the following year.


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