James Corner Field Operations is revamping Chicago's touristy Navy Pier. Phase one of the redevelopment is scheduled for completion by summer 2015, in time for the pier's centennial the following year.
From an economic standpoint, Chicago's Navy Pier is already a success. With amenities like a 150-foot Ferris wheel, a children's museum, a Shakespeare theater, and a half-mile of shops and food vendors on Lake Michigan, the pier is the most popular attraction in the Midwest (well, after the Mall of America!).
From a design standpoint, however, it's a total mess. A big overhaul in the 1990s transformed the pier into a very of-the-era waterfront tourist mall of the sort that Michael Sorkin decried in Variations on a Theme Park. "When they did the project, they gave it a carnival aesthetic, and over the years it's become very tired, very jumbled," says Elva Rubio, principal and regional design director of Gensler’s Chicago office. "It's very touristic, literally cliché—if you open up the dictionary, this is what you would see."
Yes, Navy Pier is a South Street Seaport in a High Line era. So when James Corner Field Operations emerged as the winner of an international design competition last year, it was clear that Navy Pier's board had grasped the importance of top-notch landscape architecture for our own time's big buzzphrase, urban placemaking.
A sweeping new stair, bounded by a water wall, will connect the promenade at the south dock to Pier Park.
We've seen Corner turn a disused railway into a thriving park, but Navy Pier presents a different sort of challenge. How exactly do you turn a tacky success into a really tasteful success? Thanks to the new renderings recently released by JCFO and Gensler (the project's executive architect), that story is beginning to take shape.
The overhaul will unfold in several phases over the next few years; phase one is slated to open in summer 2015, just in time for the pier's centennial in 2016. Highlights include a 17-acre lakefront park near the building's entrance, a park-like promenade along the south dock, and a new social space at the heart of the pier. There, a sweeping staircase bounded by a "wave wall" will link the promenade to Pier Park, home of the Ferris wheel. “It will be like the Spanish Steps in Rome," Corner said at last week's press briefing. Sadly, the once-rumored waterside pool is out. But a later phase promises a full makeover of the Ferris wheel by a contemporary artist, who may or may not be (but probably is) Leo Villareal.
Gensler's renovation of the Family Pavilion retail space will connect to the refurbished marketplace in the South Arcade.
With additional restaurants planned for the end of the pier, plus a fountain that will turn into an ice rink in winter, the development is gunning for new status as a year-round destination for Chicagoans, not just tourists on the prowl for deep-dish pizza. But perhaps the project's most important feature will be the way it reveals the city that's already there. Even though the site itself offers enviable views of Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline, the building's labyrinthine corridors block out much of the landscape.
James Corner Field Operations' new design is part of the pier's Centennial Vision plan, coauthored by Gensler.
That lack of clarity, combined with the carnival-crazy jumble of chain stores and trinket shops, leads to a pretty generic visitor experience. "There's nothing authentic and unique about it in itself," Rubio says of the indoor arcade. "And there's nothing Chicago about it. It doesn't really embrace Chicago culture and Chicago's own cuisine and retail." Without all the city paraphernalia, you might not know you were in Chicago at all.
Gensler's redesign of the South Arcade will open up the hall to the water and transform the space into a specialty food corridor spotlighting Chicago's culinary community. Chains won't be banished, though the pier's design scheme will require stores to fit in with the architecture, not the other way around. "We'll still have McDonald's," says Rubio, but the pier's own aesthetic will set the tone, in the manner of "other places that have done a really great job of curating their environment, like the Ferry Building in San Francisco."
Until the project opens, the pier's identity remains stuck in a jumble of analogies: Welcome to the High Line Ferry Building Spanish Steps! But if Corner has his way, one day we'll hear Bay Area tourists raving about the Vietnamese they had at that other San Francisco Navy Pier.
A new fountain in Gateway Park will transform into an ice rink in winter (above and below).
All images courtesy of James Corner Field Operations/Gensler