"Architecture is an important part of the search for answers to how people can live modern life."
Carol Ross Barney, FAIA, was a young girl when President John F. Kennedy first spoke the most famous words of his presidency: "Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country." As she imagined her life's path, she was inspired to consider what careers could best serve Kennedy's call for a greater public good. She envisioned being an architect, designing buildings not just for the elite but for all citizens to appreciate and thrive in.
As founder and principal of Ross Barney Architects, she has maintained that dedication to a socially responsible vision for the built environment. Among her many accolades, she won the 2015 American Institute of Architects (AIA) Illinois' prestigious Gold Medal, the organization's highest honor, for outstanding lifetime service to architecture.
Ross Barney traces that trajectory back to her beginnings at the University of Illinois. While many of her professors helped to shape her education, she remembers Claude Winklehake as the first to introduce her to design. "The class wasn't necessarily about architecture specifically, so much as this idea that design can be a problem-solving, tactile, beautiful thing," she recalls.
Chicago Riverwalk. Photo by Kate Joyce Photography.
Her thesis critic, Jack Baker, was also an important influence. Baker not only taught on the faculty but also owned a local architecture firm. "As a practitioner in the field he was able to give students practical experience through real world projects," she explains. "Working with him made me feel like an architect."
After graduating, Ross Barney joined the Peace Corps in Costa Rica to support early conservation work in national parks. The efforts included habitat and wildlife preservation and projects like building worker housing, restoring a farmhouse, and creating a plan for coral reef protection. She was part of a collaborative team that included a landscape architect, a biologist, a botanist, and a planner. This experience instilled in her the power of multidisciplinary teams—a lesson that continues to impact her work today.
On her return to Chicago, Ross Barney sought an architecture position. At the time, classified ads were divided by gender—and the architecture jobs were listed only under the category for men. She applied to positions nonetheless and landed her first job at the Holabird architecture firm.
Shortly after, she received an invitation to a new organization—Chicago Women in Architecture (CWA). The first meeting was held at the office of Gertrude "Gert" Lempp Kerbis (BS, 1948), FAIA, who had earned her architectural engineering degree from Illinois. Kerbis, who died in June 2016, was a notable figure in architecture both as a practitioner and as a distinguished teacher (read more about her many accomplishments). At CWA, Ross Barney also met trailblazing architect Natalie de Blois. She credits her close friendships with Kerbis and de Blois as integral to navigating her early career. "I was so intrigued by the power of architecture that that became more important to me than the challenges of being a woman in the field," she explains. "Each woman pushes the ceiling a little higher. You can't do it alone."
In addition to her service as CWA's first president, Ross Barney holds other impressive firsts. She was the first female recipient of the Illinois School of Architecture's Francis J. Plym Traveling Fellowship in 1982, and she was the first woman to design a federal building: the new Oklahoma City Federal Building, a replacement for the Alfred P. Murrah Building that was the target of a bombing in 1995.
Cermak-McCormick CTA station. Photo by Kate Joyce Photography.
Ross Barney's portfolio ranges from large government and educational projects to the smaller, overlooked spaces of everyday life. "Lately, my studio has been interested in infrastructure: bus stations, power stations—the 'guts' of a city. We can make those spaces look and feel ordered." Indeed, if you've ever waited at the Cermak-McCormick CTA station or strolled the Chicago Riverwalk, you have experienced her work.
"There are measurable things like heating, cooling, and room size that are important to enfranchising people. But there are also emotional characteristics of buildings," she notes. For example, being in a great space "can make you feel peaceful," she explains. And this experience is not just for the elite. "Often this idea of design, of commissioning a designer, has been regarded as a luxury. And it shouldn't be."
That spirit of public access to a thoughtfully built environment is reflected in her user-centered approach. A typical project will involve a client or community meeting early in the process. "We'll go to a community meeting and show three or four ideas that we'd love to build," she says, "and then we ask the community to contribute their thoughts in their own language and capabilities."
In public school design projects, her firm has even included feedback from children. "It's important to give them the tools to intelligently voice what they know," she stresses. "If you can build a strong consensus around what the important issues and questions are, then you can build a strong consensus answer."
That approach may be the reason her work has garnered dozens of accolades and recognition. In addition to the recent Gold Medal award, she was recognized with the AIA's Jefferson Award for Public Architecture.
Ross Barney is also helping shape future architects as an adjunct professor of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where she has been teaching advanced design since 1993. "Architecture holds a valuable role in the future of communities and cities, but it has to change with the times. Our practices need to become more multidisciplinary," she urges.
Photo of Carol Ross Barney by Kate Joyce Photography.