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What Will it Take to Make Navy Pier a Real Place?

The Gensler-designed Family Pavilion, immediately inside the Pier’s front doors, will be refreshed and de-cluttered, extending the marketplace feel of the redesigned South Arcade but with a greater focus on retail. The focus will be on showcasing all things Chicago. Image © Gensler

In 1916, Navy Pier was the only pier built of the original five called for in Daniel Burnham’s plan for the city of Chicago. Deemed “The People’s Pier,” Navy Pier has seen several incarnations since its construction, from temporary jail to college campus. After a massive reconstruction in the early 1990s, the Pier has been Chicago’s warm-weather playground, positioned in one of the most unique settings in the world between the Great Lakes and a stunning city skyline. Visitors come from around the country to ride its Ferris Wheel, enjoy maritime offerings, and explore its children’s museum, to name a few. These 50 acres on Lake Michigan are the most popular tourist attraction in the Midwest, hosting over 8.5 million visitors a year.

While the Pier is beloved by out-of-towners, many Chicagoans feel disconnected from it. This impression is heightened by architecture that takes it cue from carnivals and programming that takes its cue from theme parks. It does not have an authenticity that reflects Chicago’s culture. The Pier enjoys great financial success, but it is not a global destination.

Navy Pier’s 100-year anniversary is an opportunity to revisit the Pier’s legacy and transform this regional playground into a world-class icon that’s as treasured as it is popular. Gensler was hired in 2010 to lead the visioning process for this transformation. What we created, together with Navy Pier stakeholders and Jones Lang LaSalle, was a vision and aspirational identity, a strategic and flexible framework to guide the Pier’s future growth. The mission is to be a year-round public place, to expand Navy Pier’s audience and offerings, and to elevate an already-notable landmark to global iconicity.

Our design plan became The Centennial Vision, a written framework for reimagining Navy Pier. This plan provides more than simple cosmetic changes; it recasts the essence of the Pier. It pares away physical and visual clutter to sharpen the Pier’s purpose. The Centennial Vision creates zones, or “neighborhoods”, that echo Chicago’s urban fabric and clarify user experience. These zones streamline pedestrian flow in response to challenges in clarity, cadence, opaqueness and mobility.

Crafting The Centennial Vision presented challenges for our discipline as well. After all, we are trained as architects and urban designers to author, create and plan. It’s more difficult to create theoretical frameworks divorced from concrete design solutions. In this project, we were called upon to articulate a vision and define an identity that was somewhat metaphysical, but had to be completely flexible to incorporate constantly-evolving agendas and programs, along with participation from other design authors and voices. Ultimately, it became a scaffold for future design that provides principles and parameters to guide work for the Pier without dictating it. It creates flexible space for others to imagine, create and succeed around a unified set of standards.

Navy Pier is a real place, and it could be a showcase that celebrates Chicago culture. The Centennial Vision simply clarifies and reveals this fact, redefining the essence of the Pier and helping shepherd it into the next century. The Centennial Vision gives the lakefront back to the city, improved, and proves that the descriptions ‘popular’ and ‘high-quality’ need not be mutually exclusive.

Elva Rubio is a Principal and Regional Design Director in Gensler’s Chicago office. As design director for The Center on Halsted, 618 S. Michigan Avenue and The Centennial Vision, she is an award-winning designer who plays a key role in elevating our architecture and urban planning work. Contact her at elva_rubio@Gensler.com.

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