Navy Pier Pierscape finalist: Pier+ / AECOM and BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group)


AECOM / Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) places an aquaponic vertical urban farm in the Crystal Gardens, which would provide food for Navy Pier’s restaurants. (Surely not Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Bar & Grill?) The team incorporates the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s planned extension into a manmade hill suitable for people-watching or sledding, depending on the season; visitors can descend via a giant slide. A “loyalty program” app enables people to control a snazzy fountain at the pier’s East End and post messages on a screen incorporated into the Ferris wheel. AECOM / BIG swears it can deliver these improvements, among other features, within Pierscape’s $85 million budget.

Design leadership: AECOM and BIG
Lighting design: Speirs + Major
Signage: Project Projects
Programmed events and art: Lead Pencil Studio
Water feature design: WET Design
Economics: Tivoli International and AECOM
Horticulture: Eden Project and Christy Webber Landscapes
Cost Estimating: Davis Langdon, an AECOM company

A team led by AECOM and New York-based Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) is one of five shortlisted teams invited to participate in an international design competition to renovate and reactivate Chicago’s landmark Navy Pier. This is a once-in-a-century opportunity that will redefine the character and focus of Chicago’s waterfront. It is part of an ambitious effort to create a new Navy Pier for the 21st century, and in doing so, to redefine what the pier and the waterfront means to the city.

Unveiled to the public on January 31, 2012 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the AECOM-BIG design vision aims to “re-colonize the people’s pier,” by maximizing opportunity through a holistic approach. The result is Pier+, a vibrant urban destination that creates a new amenity shared by all while making a positive and progressive statement about Chicago to the world.

Navy Pier is prominently situated along Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes. The largest destination in  and the world’s longest pier, and a centerpiece of Daniel Burnham’s forward-thinking grand plan, this has been a much-loved piece of Chicago history. In recent years, though, the pier’s popularity has waned, marked by congested experiences that are cut off from the rest of the city.

The AECOM-BIG design proposal seeks to strike a new chapter in this storied history. Our ambition is to create a new reality at Navy Pier that lives up to the poetics of its beautiful lakefront setting by giving a world-class place back to Chicago.

Key aspects of the design include:

  • Gateway Park: A welcoming, well-connected arrival experience through focused interventions.
  • Crystal Garden: Part sculptural indoor park, part futuristic urban farm – a sustainable food production hub for entertainment, education and culinary delight.
  • Skyline Gardens: An extraordinary tapestry of the world’s finest roof gardens.
  • Pier Park: A Grand Stair and Boardwalk (pictured) that give the city a truly world-class setting and the finest views in town, through integrated, holistic thinking.
  • East End Park: An archipelago meeting both the water’s edge and horizon line.
  • South Dock: A playful ribbon of connectivity, expanded program and shaded pathways.

East End Park: The East End Park will take visitors over the water, and into the water. The existing obstruction to the view is eliminated, revealing a breathtaking view of the lake, the water blending seamlessly into the sky. A lifted corner creates a space below at ground level, housing a café/restaurant.

Recalling the east end’s not-so-distant history when portions of it were closer to water for smaller boats and wading, we propose a stepped soft threshold that can accommodate fluctuation in water levels. This new public space will allow visitors to engage much more closely with the water; sculpturally, it will be the yin to the yang of the lifted corner to the south. This “North Dip” becomes a completely intimate and free experience allowing for relaxation in the sun on a man-made beach park. Stepped seating will allow for viewing a spectacular 500-foot-high water show (designed by WET) located off the end of the pier in the lake.

Pier Park Grand Stairs: At the heart of Pier+ is the Grand Stairs, combining a large stepped zone for seating, a flat zone of slides and medium-size steps straight to a rooftop with uninterrupted views. The massive scale of the buildings currently constructed on the pier restricts the views back to the city. Lifting the public realm over the existing pier provides a respite, a relief from the city that is not available anywhere else: it becomes a place that will make the pier a destination among day-to-day residents, rather than just the occasional tourist.

The Grand Stairs is thus a park with a city view, doubling as a “Spanish Steps” style place to rest, to look, to play and to relax – a new landmark that is as iconic as it is public.

The hill (doubling as the roof of the proposed Shakespeare Theater) accommodates a series of restaurants and dining terraces looking back to the city, from where you will be able to enjoy dramatic views of the sun setting behind the Chicago skyline.

Any proposed program within the Pier Park – from organized concerts to personal picnics – will be immediately unique. In the Chicago winter, for example, this can become a place to play. The smooth portion of the Grand Stair to the south will have a permanent set of slides as a groomed area in snowy months for a giant set of tubing slides. In warmer months, the slides will be transformed as a playful amenity for all ages to enjoy.

Life After Dark: As an integral part of the team, renowned lighting designers Speirs + Major have developed a comprehensive lighting design program that will make Navy Pier a stunning vision in the Chicago nightscape. Developing a theme of “Life After Dark,” the designers have created a night-time identity that combines the functional requirements of lighting delivered alongside leisure activities of the site.

Micro-wind turbines on the roof will produce renewable energy to power much of the lighting

Crystal Garden: The Crystal Garden will be an indoor public attraction that brings together sustainable food production, entertainment, education and culinary delight. An aquaponic nutrient/water cycle system will feed various naturally-growing fruits and vegetables, which will respond well to the microclimate, in dramatic sculptural pillars – an urban food jungle. Ground-level pedestrian circulation will enable easy visitor access; meanwhile a floating seed-like juice bar will serve products created from food grown on site. Completing the holistic system, food grown in the Crystal Garden will be used to supply the restaurants at Pier+.

Skyline Gardens: Between the Grand Stairs and East End Park will be an evolving tapestry of the world’s finest roof gardens. Arranged in an artful geometric pattern, these gardens will provide a visually interesting and rich landscape for visitors. In collaboration with the existing flower show, a phasing plan imagines the roof gardens growing through time to eventually encompass the entire rooftop of Navy Pier’s largest building.


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