Winner of Navy Pier Redesign Contest Announced

The Navy Pier, Inc. Board selected design firm James Corner Field Operations to redesign Chicago's Navy Pier. The New York-based firm beat out more than 50 submissions from around the world. Chicago Tonight spoke with Justine Heilner, director of marketing and business development at James Corner Field Operations, to learn more about how the team conceptualized the design. Excerpts:

Image credit: James Corner Field OperationsTell me about the design process.

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It was a competition so there were several stages. The most important thing to us was to get a good team. We were really excited about a New York-based architect and gem-like structures on the pier, so we put the team together based on that.

What was the competition like?

I think the competition was pretty great because all the teams were super exciting. That makes us rise to the challenge. The thing we took the most care with – and what I think Navy Pier ultimately responded to – was the balance between being pragmatic and being visionary.

The site and project is complicated, and the clients made sure they didn’t want to throw out what already worked for them. So we tried to do things that respected that, but still transformed the places around them and what interacted with the pier, so it could be transformative but not totally unrealistic.

How was it conceptualized?

We get together and start with brainstorming sessions. Because it was a short time, we asked everyone to come up with their own ideas and bring them to the table before we met. We led the process in a very collaborative way, whether we met in person or video conference.

Any ideas people contributed that weren’t included?

So many [laughs]. I can’t even say at this point, I’m sure if you asked any team we probably had so many ideas that showed up on other teams’ pages. You go through a lot of ideas, and a lot gets thrown out and the ones that feel right just click.Image credit: James Corner Field Operations

How many drafts did you go through?

I don’t even know. It’s not like you do one and throw it out; it’s like each little piece changes along the way. Maybe hundreds? There are little revisions.

What are some of the highlights of your proposal in your words?

I have to first say that it probably won’t look like any of the design competition entries. We knew from the start, and they reiterated in the selection, that’s its all up for discussion and debate. One of my favorite pieces is the steps that connect the pier park to the south dock. I think the south dock is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. And those steps just create this great social, very urban space that really changes the way you can move around the pier, which right now it is very constrained.

Will this be one of your biggest projects?

It’s a big one. We’ve designed the High Line in New York. If you’re talking about just sheer size, it’s actually not one of the biggest. We’re working on Fresh Kills landfill in New York, which is 2,000 acres. And we did a plan for a city in China, which is 4,500 acres. In terms of big, as in important, this is as big as it gets. It’s a big city and very high-profile project. There are a lot of different ways to be big.

How did you find out you won?

We were getting a lot of questions from the clients and they finally let us know last night and made it public this morning. Even last night they kind of warned us it had to be ratified so we didn’t know for sure until it was ratified this morning by their board.

Image credit: James Corner Field OperationsWhat went through your mind when you found out?

We’re so excited, I mean, it’s great. We’re so excited about the team. Some of the team we’ve worked with before. Some are new as far as the collaboration.

Will your team be coming to Chicago?

I don’t think we’ll be relocating, but we’ll have a presence. We do projects across the county, but I don’t think we’ll open an office in Chicago yet. It’s not too hard to get back and forth between New York. We have several team members who are Chicago-based. That’s why it’s a good team because we can rely on them.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

And be sure to watch Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm to learn more about the redesign from Marilynn Gardner, president and chief executive officer of Navy Pier, Inc.


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