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Navy Pier’s “Pierscape” Design Project Selects a Winner

James Corner Field Operations(JCFO) has been selected to redesign Navy Pier’s public spaces, a project named “Pierscape.” Corner and his team were among the five finalists in Navy Pier’s search for a Pierscape design team that will help reimagine the Pier’s public spaces.

Navy Pier is the most popular attraction in Chicago, drawing nearly nine million visitors annually. The project is a central part of the city’s broader Centennial Vision, which will involve developing new entertainment spaces and asking local museums to create new cultural spaces on the pier.

Recently-elected Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel basically said Chicago is hoping for a new public space as successful as the High Line: “Public spaces do not only help define a city – they are the heart and soul of a city. We have a remarkable opportunity to make Navy Pier one of those unique public spaces. Having an internationally renowned design firm like James Corner Field Operations working with one of our city’s greatest icons demonstrates that Chicago has the energy and vision to continue to lead on the world stage.”

Governor Pat Quinn added that the Navy Pier is already a top draw but could be better: “More families visit Navy Pier every year than any other site in Illinois, and, for many, it is one of their first impressions of our state.” As a result, the Navy Pier needs to be great. “We have a responsibility to make Navy Pier a modern, appealing and sustainable attraction that takes advantage of one of our state’s most valuable natural resources – Lake Michigan.”

The multidisciplinary team led by Corner and Lisa Switkin (the lead landscape architect on the High Line), which also includes architects, engineers, artists, lighting designers, will re-design Gateway Park, the west entrance of the pier, Crystal Gardens, Pier Park, East End Park and the South Dock, in addition to the smaller public spaces along the pier’s length. All the street-scape will be revamped, featuring new water elements, public art by multimedia artist Leo Villareal, lighting by L’Observatoire International, along with vivid planting schemes by Patrick Blanc, who’s famous in some circles for his green walls.

Sarah Garvey, chair of Navy Pier Inc, the development group, said choosing Corner’s team over other competitors was hard but Field Operations distinguished themselves in a few ways. The board said JCFO offered ”an interesting and appropriate balance between creativity and practicality; a thorough understanding of the complexity of Navy Pier; relevant experience with several successful high profile, large-scale and complex projects; and a strong sense of flexibility and collaboration.”

The early design proposals will certainly transform what is now a sometimes icky outdoor mall packed with tourists and mediocre restaurants into a rich and varied set of public spaces, all with different functions.

A grand entryway will serve as a “front-door porch,” a space for hosting festivals, events, and cultural programs. The centerpiece of an area filled with lawns and places to walk and bike is a fountain that can shape-shift, enabling water play or simply sitting still for market days.


JCFO and team seem to be forging connections between the pier and Lake Michigan wherever possible. A new set of Lake pavilions bring people down to the water where they can access boats.


The wildest part of this wild vision is a new “living sensorium” set in the Crystal Palace. JCFO proposes a “series of large-scale vegetal pods that hang from an elevated structure.” The pods will be able to move up out of the way for events. Another idea is to include a waterfall and lots of birds. Designed to be a “must-see” attraction in Chicago, the garden will provide “magical” sensory experiences for both adults and kids. You can already imagine the lines.


The Ferris Wheel and other rides will be renovated, updated with a fresher, more contemporary look, and will be set within lush vegetation.


At the end of the pier are spaces for interacting with nature, but in different ways. Way at the end, there’s a space for contemplation, providing an unadulterated view of Lake Michigan. In this concept, it almost looks like a clear platform visitors can walk out on.


At the south-west end, there’s a vast pool that leads up to the edge of the lake for swimming in the summer and ice-skating in the winter.



Lastly, JCFO says sustainability is also a key element running through the design proposals. Given the firm is among the first landscape architecture firms to have a SITES-certified project, this will most likely be the case, but one can only hope the designers redoing this iconic showcase will delve into all its complexities while keeping one eye on SITES benchmarks and guidelines.


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