Pier Review

A renovation of Chicago’s Navy Pier by James Corner Field Operations is out to attract a new audience that’s local, urbane, and into design.

By Zach Mortice / Photography by Sahar Coston-Hardy

The Wave Wall stairs act as a social space as well as a visual centerpiece. Photo © Sahar Coston-Hardy for Navy Pier, Inc., and James Corner Field Operations.

New Yorkers avoid Times Square, and Chicagoans stay away from Navy Pier. It’s an ironclad rule. The public spaces that are most popular are there to attract tourists. Locals don’t go there.

In Chicago, going to Navy Pier had been something like a grudging civic responsibility you accept when you have out-of-town guests. It’s always been the most meta of Chicago’s architectural landmarks—essentially a large viewing platform, at more than half a mile long, for the city’s epic skyline, the finest way to see it all without a boat. But best to keep your eyes on the horizon, and not look at the motley collection of cotton candy vendors and garish signs that crowded the waterfront.

But today Navy Pier is looking and acting more like an authentic part of the city, for locals and tourists alike. A renovation by James Corner Field Operations has turned it from a tourist mall to a designed art walk. Cleared of consumerist refuse, South Dock (its main pedestrian corridor) is a refined stroll through an updated waterfront, framed by new performance spaces and an uproarious park.

Inside the pier’s halls, shoppers still weave among tchotchkes emblazoned with Chicago sports logos, and the airy Crystal Gardens atrium has more than a few plastic plants. But outside it’s a radically different place.

It’s clear from the additional green space and careful editing that this is the first time in the pier’s 101-year history that it’s considered itself a landscape first. Navy Pier—the crazy tourist trap, the 3,300-foot expanse that slides out into Lake Michigan like a cash register drawer opening—has grown up, and found a new civic vitality.

With lusher plantings and a more unified material and formal palette, the renovation of Navy Pier allows consideration of the site as a landscape above all. Photo © Sahar Coston-Hardy for Navy Pier, Inc., and James Corner Field Operations.

Throughout its history Navy Pier has been a dock for freight and passenger ships and held a hospital, a prison for draft dodgers, and a university. George H. W. Bush learned how to fly there, and GIs taking classes dubbed it “Harvard on the Rocks.”

When Chicago was the Shenzhen of the early 20th century, the idea of a pier that served as both a public promenade and shipping infrastructure seemed so vital that it couldn’t just arise from one mind. Plans by the urban planner Daniel Burnham and the Chicago shipping magnate James A. Pugh both pitched proposals to combine commerce and culture on the pier, a key balance that has characterized its development ever since. Upon Burnham’s death in 1912, the city hired Charles Sumner Frost to design two massive freight warehouses in the center of the pier and more refined, classically proportioned buildings at its foot and head.

The pier was requisitioned for the navy’s use in World War II, and after the war many veterans stuck around to take classes at the branch campus of the University of Illinois. By the time the university moved to the mainland in 1965, convention activity had been funneled to the city’s main convention center, and a drop in shipping traffic made Navy Pier something of an old appendage. Its dilapidated headhouse was the exclamation point on six blocks of blight reaching into the lake. And its fate wasn’t far off from the city around it.

From the 1970s through the 1990s, Chicago bled money and people. Ten percent of its populace left between 1970 and 1980. In 1992, there were more than 900 murders. These dire trends forced leaders to ask: Could the city of Chicago itself support Navy Pier? And if not, who else could? A 1989 study by the Urban Land Institute hit upon a solution. Navy Pier would become a flamboyant “festival marketplace” to lure people to visit and spend their money on amusements.

Image © James Corner Field Operations, courtesy Navy Pier, Inc.

But again, the conflict between public space and commercial revenue dominated the run-up to the pier’s next iteration. Through the late 1980s and early 1990s, the rhetoric that pier boosters used was centered on a parklike vision of the place. In 1986, the Chicago Tribune architecture critic Paul Gapp wanted a pier for “strollers, joggers, bicyclists, picnickers, fishermen, and other lovers of simple pier pleasures.” Echoing Burnham’s ambitions, Mayor Harold Washington advocated for “total public use.”

That’s not what happened. As James M. Smith’s “Public Rhetoric, Private Development, and Urban Government in the Postindustrial City” (a 2005 University of Illinois at Chicago paper about the Navy Pier) detailed, Washington’s vision was subsumed by detractors who thought the only way to pay for the pier would be by installing more commercial programming. The Tribune urged Washington to drop his “dewy-eyed” vision, while “the plan’s critics saw it as a utopian ideal that would neither generate revenue for the city nor draw visitors,” Smith writes.

This festival marketplace method of keeping central cities afloat by restoring legacy infrastructure was gaining traction across the nation, as architecture firms such as Benjamin Thompson and Associates (BTA) applied it to Baltimore’s Harborplace and the South Street Seaport in New York. These developments had obvious merits. “The festival marketplace idea, even though it’s easily mocked today as being tacky and commercial, made a lot of sense in the ’80s in terms of how people were using cities and how they understood cities at that time,” says James Corner, ASLA. They could provide new money and energy for struggling cities. But because they focused on tourists, they didn’t offer much investment in the neighborhood infrastructure that Chicagoans used every day.

And when the new Navy Pier broke ground in 1992, it was with a plan by BTA, and its local partners VOA Associates, who left the pure civic focus of Mayor Washington behind. The exposition hall generated revenue by gobbling up much of the planned park space, and a boardwalk that would get people closer to the water was tossed out as carnival rides piled up on the pier’s roof, according to the Chicago Tribune. The initial budget for the pier was $92 million for one million square feet (though it eventually cost $200 million). That meant many of the landscape elements that would engender a parklike atmosphere were eliminated, says the architect Rick Fawell, who worked at BTA and then VOA as the project progressed. “There was always a desire to create as much landscaped public space as possible,” he says. “Like a lot of projects, the landscape got short shrift.”

The pier reopened in 1995, with millions in corporate sponsorships. The Tribune praised the renovation as “a bazaar of specialty shops, restaurants, art galleries, and museums.” But it was a visual cacophony with “too little to do, and too much going on,” as Chicago Magazine’s Whet Moser put it. Its beer gardens, outdoor cafés, and pushcarts, wrote the Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, lured visitors with “the sense of being on an urban street, albeit one that is squeaky clean and unthreatening.” The pier was a terrarium of simulated city life, not all that different from the suburban malls helping to drain Chicago of its tax base.

Given the pier’s setting, Fawell thought its success was assured. All he had to do was set up programming that would support people’s natural attraction to water. “From day one, I told Ben Thompson, ‘Think of this as the common man’s boat.’”

Fawell was right. It drew 9.3 million people in 2016, and had dwarfed the attendance of downtown Chicago’s other civic front yard, Millennium Park, until that year. So why the urgency to renovate after only 20 years and a record of consistent success? Steve Haemmerle, Navy Pier’s executive vice president of design and construction, says he wanted the pier to chart a new course from a position of strength, and that 20 years is a long time in the life of any blockbuster amenity. “Public places are living, breathing things, and in order to remain relevant throughout time, they need to adapt and be flexible,” he says.

In Chicago and elsewhere today, there are many amenity-rich neighborhoods catering effectively to the young professionals that cities crave; they aren’t interested in the novelty of urban simulacra because they have the real thing outside their doorstep. So to draw in more locals and a wider range of age and income groups, the pier’s managers looked toward offering new social activity in exactingly designed landscape environments.

“Landscape architecture was not seen as as much of an agent of revitalization as architecture,” says Mimi Hoang of nArchitects, a member of the Field Operations design team. “And I think that’s an amazing thing that’s happened in the last 15 to 20 years.”

The plan is the product of careful decluttering as much as it’s a showcase for new space. Before Field Operations’s plan, the South Dock promenade was crammed with poles, kiosks, stages, carts, and ramps. Pavilions were hokey, gable-roofed affairs, and decorative entrance gates were fire engine red. The carnival often made it hard to see the lake.

The pier’s leadership wanted less: a narrower palette of materials, signage, and color. “Our initial approach to the project was to strip this away and simplify the space,” says Field Operations principal Sarah Weidner Astheimer, ASLA.

South Dock is the glue that holds the pier together. It’s an intensely linear experience by the designer who defined the urban restoration art walk at the High Line in New York. This path is framed by an allée of trees: a red maple cultivar near the entrance and a sycamore cultivar with brilliant white bark in the middle. Along the way, sharp, asymmetrical planters as well as benches and deck furniture in rich, red ipe are ideal for a contemplative gaze at the water, drink in hand.

The new centerpiece is the Wave Wall, by Hoang’s nArchitects. Its two parametric steel ribbons converge at a wide stair that frames the famous Navy Pier Ferris wheel, crafting a perfect spot for selfies. The multilayered lighting here apes the county fair midway in a way that’s familiar to the old Navy Pier, though now it’s straightened and abstracted into topographic lines of light. The uplighting on the trees and the planting beds with goldenrods and grasses on the upper level amusement park temper the carnival atmosphere and soften the space.

Commercial vendors on the dock are cleverly consolidated. A series of pavilions (designed by nArchitects) runs the length of the promenade, which supports high ceilings with two stout legs that each house a vendor. On the underside of these flat roofs are reflective panels woven together a bit like a pattern of interlocking teeth, which give the surface texture. They reflect views of the lake if you face south, and views of pedestrians if you face north. It’s an entirely new depth of inquiry into materials, structure, and setting than was here before. “We wanted to collapse the views of the boat activity coming in on the water with views of people walking on the promenade,” Hoang says.

“It’s less about trying to create a representation of Chicago and more to do with just creating a place that Chicagoans can get a kick out of, and feel that it’s an authentic part of their city,” Corner says. Today, that means less commercial emphasis. “It’s more about social interaction,” Haemmerle says.

But in terms of raw square footage, there’s no less commercial space. This consolidation only makes it seem so. “If there’s the illusion of less,” Astheimer says, “that’s sort of what we were going for.”

It’s a return to the Burnham dictum that the lakefront should be “forever open, clear, and free.” But the gravity with which Chicagoans regard Burnham’s edict has spawned new lakeside landscapes that have irrevocably improved downtown Chicago’s suite of parks since Navy Pier’s last reinvestment. Millennium Park and the Chicago Riverwalk already offer large plots of high-quality public space with top-shelf design in the area. Did Navy Pier’s renaissance come too late?

Astheimer says she’s not concerned about too much of a good thing. If anything, these forerunners prepared Chicago for this Navy Pier. Chicagoans are “already believers in design,” she says.

But because Navy Pier is a train and a bus ride away for most Chicagoans, unlike Millennium Park, an extra hurdle it has to deal with is transit links that lead to a welcoming front door. For that, there’s Polk Bros. Park and its circular water feature by Fluidity Design Consultants. From the outset, this water feature puts Navy Pier’s emphasis on engaging and interactive social spaces. It’s 100 feet in circumference, outlined by a set of 3-D modeled concrete berms worth scrambling over, with 147 water jets that create parabolic arcs that expand and contract. These concentric arcs are nearly architectural expressions themselves: tunnels that are the perfect size for children to run through in cloaks of mist emitted from the fountain’s center.

Closer to the water, a two-sided amphitheater provides informal performance venues. Paths lead from these venues to the pier, a contrast to ruler-crisp South Dock. They are planted with native flora such as milkweed and asters. “As it grows in, there’s going to be a color gradient, from yellow to purple plantings,” Astheimer says.

On the top amusement park level, plant beds help soften the space. Photo © Sahar Coston-Hardy for Navy Pier, Inc., and James Corner Field Operations.

Now that Navy Pier has settled on a coherent design identity, it can answer some questions it had largely avoided—namely, is Navy Pier built for today or tomorrow?

There’s an arty, curated vibe (easily recognizable from Corner’s High Line, and any other infrastructure turnaround that cities now build their brands on) that had been totally absent. And the pier is nothing if not consistent. It’s awash in parallelograms: Benches, bike racks, and planters are shaped like sharp and squashed rectangles. There are functional reasons for this. It’s derived from the herringbone pavers along South Dock, and also creates the illusion of more slender-looking geometry in a way that reinforces the linear nature of the experience, with plenty of asymmetry. But it calls attention to itself in a way that’s undeniably contemporary, bordering on trendy. The endless subway tiles and Edison bulbs in the food hall (which neither nArchitects nor Field Operations designed) echo this. Even the food hall exhaust fan situated amid the theme park rides is an art object: a silvery, monolithic oval that pumps out French fry fumes. This clean and geometric presentation of landscape refers only to its own artifice.

The mix of new stuff and carnival ride nostalgia might take a while to persuade the natives it wants. On a warm August night, a Chicago native, Susan Cable, says she likes the added open space, but points to the Wave Wall that twists like melting taffy and says, “It’s too futuristic. It seems a little cold.”

To her, Navy Pier is a nostalgic place, a quality the pier—with its wild litany of past uses—has had little time for. Astheimer says her version of the pier could last as few as 25 years. And given its intense traffic and flexibility brought on by the decline of its industrial use, a “timeless” approach for a longer-lasting plan would likely be folly.

Corner’s landscape has moved the pier across a continuum of commerce to culture that addresses a fundamental landscape equity issue—that anything geared to commercial consumption is going to be inherently unequal. Today, that’s an issue public space is asked to combat.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @zachmortice.

Project Credits

Client Navy Pier, Inc., Chicago. Project Lead/Landscape Architect James Corner Field Operations, New York. Local Landscape Architect Terry Guen Design Associates, Chicago. Landscape Architect (Irrigation, Soils, Stormwater Cistern) Jeffrey L. Bruce & Company LLC, Kansas City, Missouri. Water Feature Consultant Fluidity Design Consultants, Los Angeles. Lighting Design L’Observatoire International, New York. Graphic Design Pentagram, New York. Architect nArchitects, Brooklyn, New York. Local Architect Gensler, Chicago. Sites® Consultant Re:Vision Architecture, Philadelphia. Structural Engineer (Phase 1) Buro Happold, Chicago. Structural Engineer (Phase 2) Thornton Tomasetti, Chicago. MEP Engineer Environmental Systems Design, Chicago. MEP and Civil Engineer (Phase 1) Primera, Chicago. Civil Engineer (Phase 2) Milhouse, Chicago. Transportation Engineer Kimley-Horn, Chicago. Geotechnical Engineer Wang Engineering, Chicago. Industrial Design Billings Jackson, New York. Project and Cost Management CCS, Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois. Permit Coordination D’Escoto, Chicago.


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