“Less Is More” the Right Direction for Navy Pier Renovation

Noted Chicago architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s famous maxim “Less is more” should apply to ambitious plans for revamping Chicago’s Navy Pier, the city’s top tourist destination.  Writing in the Chicago Tribune, architectural critic Blair Kamin says “The good news about the latest vision for the pier is that it discards the excesses of a 2006 plan that would have layered a roller coaster and an indoor water park onto an attraction that already resembles a shopping mall or a carnival midway.  But it is one thing to ditch a bad plan and another thing to find the creative spark necessary to bring order and élan to Navy Pier’s architectural mishmash.”

A bold design framework is needed for the 3,300-foot-long pier, which was a vision of Daniel Burnham and was completed in 1916.  The Urban Land Institute has issued a 40-page report with recommendations  that address the ways in which the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority could enhance the Pier, which has seen a fall in attendance to 8,000,000 annually from a high of 9,000,000 in 2000.  According to Kamin, “The report’s principal recommendations lack flashes of insight about the great public work, which originally consisted of classically inspired buildings framing freight and passenger sheds.  The sheds disappeared as part of the pier’s $225 million makeover, completed in 1995.  Still, the Urban Land Institute is offering a few promising ideas that could refresh the pier’s identity as a public pleasure ground and replace its once-graceful appearance.”

Among the recommendations are replacing the white fabric-roofed Skyline Stage with a 950-seat venue that would expand the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.  This has the potential to restore the pier’s clean-lined silhouette.  Another is to replace the current Ferris wheel with a larger one similar to the London Eye.   Some of the elevated pier’s edges might be redesigned, giving visitors access to Lake Michigan.

“But as the report itself acknowledges, the next step is for architects to translate these vague notions into a reality that is both user friendly and visually striking,” Kamin says.  “Fortunately, pier officials say they will consider asking Chicago’s architects to submit redesign proposals based on the report.  And well they should, given that the city has a mother lode of design talent that’s been sidelined by the construction downturn.  It’s time to use that talent – and to use this fresh opportunity to make Navy Pier the great public space it ought to be.”