Navy Pier reimagined, redesigned

By Amanda Murphy

Chicago has long been known as a city that puts great stock in its architecture. The Navy Pier redesign plans released Jan. 30 propose to push Chicago further into the architectural spotlight, no matter how big or seemingly outrageous they might be.

The proposed plans range from a glacier sculpture on the lake, off the east end of the pier, to a series of interlacing boardwalks extending over the water, to a public hot tub and swimming pool complete with a sandy beach.

Nick Shields, Navy Pier’s director of external communications, said construction will be completed by 2016, the 100-year anniversary of the prominent Chicago landmark. The project will start some time next year, most likely after Memorial Day.

The estimated cost for the redesign is $85 million, approximately $65 million of which will come from the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the agency that owns the pier. Additional funding will come from a variety of donors, sponsors, grants and philanthropists, Shields said.

Steven Davis, a partner with Davis Brody Bonds, one of the design firms competing for the design contract, said a location like Navy Pier, the most visited tourist attraction in Illinois, could be made an even more important facet of Chicago’s landscape.

“We were thinking about how to invigorate and optimize all of the experiences Navy Pier provides,” Davis said. “We saw an opportunity to set Navy Pier apart and integrate it into the fabric, a central area of Chicago.”

When designing their plans, Davis said they took everything about Navy Pier into account, such as how to make it a year-round attraction, revitalize the east end and create a meaningful relationship between the Crystal Gardens and Pier Park, the area with the iconic Ferris wheel.

Focusing on those priorities, Davis Brody Bonds/Aedas/Martha Schwartz designed a variety of elements. To ease Chicago’s winter woes, they proposed an outdoor spa that would include a hot tub and ice skating rink in the wintertime, both located at the east end. For summertime use, the collaborators designed descending steps resembling a Greek amphitheater at the far east end leading from the pier down to the water.

Shields said more than half of Navy Pier’s roughly 9 million annual tourists are Chicago and Illinois residents. Both Shields and Davis touched on expanding the attraction level to make Navy Pier not only something Chicagoans are proud of but also something people come from around the world to see.

“Navy Pier is not broken,” Davis said. “It doesn’t need to be fixed. It can evolve into something more, and that was our principal attitude.”

The plans are not set in stone yet, with the proposed designs from the five architecture firms—Davis Brody Bond/Aedas/Martha Schwartz, Xavier Vendrell Studio/Grimshaw Architects, James Corner Field Operations, !melk/HOK/UrbanLab and AECOM/BIG—serving as a starting point for officials to determine who will be the final team the Pier will hire.

Shields said input from the people of Chicago is very important in this case and will help determine the different aspects they would consider in choosing the winning design team or teams.

From there, the parties will work together on creating a Navy Pier that would be appealing, interesting and complementary, as well as one that, most importantly, fits into the budget. That decision will be made by the end of this month or the beginning of March, he said.

“Chicago has been a pioneer in architecture, design, and development since its founding,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement from his office. “The competition to design Navy Pier’s public spaces shows that our frontier spirit is alive and well. This competition will help ensure that Navy Pier continues to attract and inspire visitors and Chicagoans alike.”

To find locations where the plans are displayed, visit or go to the Chicago Architecture Foundation which is currently displaying the plans and models. For more information, visit To contact Navy Pier with your thoughts on the plans, email