Corner Dives in at Navy Pier

James Corner Field Operations’ winning proposal for Chicago’s Navy Pier.
Courtesy James Corner Field Operations

The team led by James Corner Field Operations has been selected to redesign the public spaces at Chicago’s Navy Pier. With a fine-grained proposal that mixes pragmatism with enough conceptual punch the Corner team prevailed over competitors AECOM/BIG, Aedas, Xavier Vendrell, and !melk.

Visited by more than 9 million people annually, Navy Pier is in many ways already highly successful. Non-profit Navy Pier Inc. organized the competition to improve the public spaces to appeal to both local Chicagoans and tourists, as well as generate new revenues and interest in the pier’s large, historic exhibition hall.

An Aerial view of James Corner’s redesigned Navy Pier (left) and a proposed pool overlooking the Chicago skyline (right).

The Field Operations proposal seeks to strengthen the pier’s connection to the city and to the lakefront, as well as emphasize the experience of being out in the lake. A dramatic light installation designed by Leo Villareal and an improved tunnel under Lake Shore Drive would make the Pier more accessible at all hours. The park at the pier’s entrance would be redesigned with new textured pavers and a changeable fountain/skating rink/splash pool. The pier itself is divided into a series of programmatic rooms, including a renovated Crystal Garden with suspended planter pods that can be raised and lowered for events or to create differing visitor experiences. Beyond that, the amusement area would keep its iconic Ferris Wheels, swing ride, and carousel and gain biomorphic planting beds. Perhaps the most dramatic element would be a floating pool at the end of the pier. “It really extends the horizon and allows you to think about the scale of the lake in a new way,” said Justine Heilner, development director at Field Operations.

Many of the competitors sought to extend the pier or remake its edge with zig-zagging paths or constructed wetlands. The Corner team’s scheme, however, retains the existing footprint of the pier. “We knew that once you start extending out into the water, you immediately involve the Army Corps of Engineers, and that slows things down and makes things very expensive, very quickly,” Heilner said.

As in any competition, time will tell what survives from the original proposal. “All the teams put a tremendous amount of work into their designs,” Heilner said. “So the client will have a lot of elements to pick and choose from.”

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