Chicago Pier makeover

An urban forest would rise inside Navy Pier's Crystal Gardens in the redesign proposed by Team X, led by the Xavier Vendrell Studio. Five teams submitted plans to redesign one of the city's top tourist attractions.

Navy Pier is in store for a makeover, and the changes could be dramatic.
Five teams of celebrated designers from Chicago and around the world unveiled competing plans for remaking the public spaces of Illinois’ most popular tourist attraction.
•Zigzagging boardwalks that would jut out from the pier, bringing visitors close to Lake Michigan and even offering opportunities for swimming in the lake.
•A grand staircase that would sweep upward from the park around the pier’s Ferris wheel and offer dazzling views of the city skyline.
•A tower, called the Glacier, which would rise out of the lake just east of the pier, becoming a jagged ice sculpture in winter.
•An aerial gondola that would carry visitors to and from the pier, lifting them over congested downtown streets.

Until a winner is chosen, Chicagoans have some spectacular design plans to ogle and a chance to debate the latest grand schemes for a city that revels in Daniel Burnham‘s often-quoted aphorism: “Make no little plans.”
The competition is “not just to pick a design or an architect. It’s also to raise public awareness,” said Stanley Collier, editor of Competitions, a Louisville, Ky.-based magazine that focuses on design contests.
The five teams are charged with re-imagining the pier’s public spaces, which stretch from the Gateway Park on the west end to the east end plaza that overlooks Lake Michigan.
The spaces also include the elevated park around the Ferris wheel, which is known as Pier Park; the Dock Street pedestrian promenade, which lines the pier’s south side; and the Crystal Gardens, an indoor space festooned with palm trees and fountains.

Here are the lead firms of each team, and the key elements of the plans:

•AECOM/BIG — The Crystal Gardens would become a “vertical urban farm” to supply produce to restaurants at the pier. A grand staircase would sweep over a proposed addition to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and offer uninterrupted skyline views. On the pier’s far east end, a tiered platform would create a “lifted corner” that would rise above the Dock Street promenade, providing another lookout. A tier on the other corner would descend directly to the water.

•Davis Brody Bond/Aedas/Martha Schwartz Partners — A series of boardwalklike extensions on the pier’s southern edge would include a variety of features, among them slips for tour boats, an outdoor theater, fishing areas and a beach. A “flyover” ramp would connect Pier Park to the boardwalks. A gondola would carry visitors to the pier from Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive.

•!melk/HOK/UrbanLab — Curved platforms would extend over the pier’s southern edge, providing lookout points. Boardwalks at the pier’s eastern end would let visitors get closer to the lake; below the platforms, and visible to the visitors, would be underwater “fish resorts” where fish would congregate. The towering structure called the Glacier would rise out of the lake off the pier’s eastern end.

•James Corner Field Operations — Undulating steps would join Pier Park with the Dock Street promenade. The plan also suggests turning the interior of the Crystal Gardens into a striking display of hanging gardens and putting oval-shaped cabs on the nearby Ferris wheel. A swimming pool with a sand beach would run along the pier’s southeast corner at lake level. A stepped amphitheater would lead down to the eastern end of the pier, where a platform would extend into the lake.

•Xavier Vendrell Studio/Grimshaw Architects — Circular arrangements of trees and plants would be installed to soften Pier Park. They would enliven the South Dock with pocket parks, terraces and kiosks. A wedge-shaped “horizon walk” platform would extend outward and upward from the pier’s east end, creating another vantage point to gaze over Lake Michigan and providing another reason for people to walk the entire length of the pier.

The contest is the most visible result of a long-range revamp of the pier that officials announced last summer.
By Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune critic (
Chicago Tribune