Improving lives: Carol Ross Barney

Mar 12, 2023

Design principal and founder of Ross Barney Architects (Chicago, IL), an architecture, urban design, and landscape architecture studio.

By Liisa Andreassen

Since founding Ross Barney Architects in 1981, Carol Ross Barney has been a driving force in civic space design. And, with a career that spans nearly 50 years, she has no plans to retire – ever. Over the years, she’s made significant contributions to the built environment, the profession, and architectural education and continues to advocate that excellent design is a right, not a privilege. She’s passionate about that and communicates her philosophies through teaching, mentoring, and empowering young architects.

The American Institute of Architects recently awarded her the 2023 AIA Gold Medal, making her the first living woman to win the award as an individual (Julia Morgan received the recognition decades after her death; Denise Scott Brown in 2016 and Angela Brooks in 2022 each won with their partners).

Ross Barney says she takes particular pride in being only one of four women to receive the prize – recalling that she was one of 12 women out of 312 students in her first architecture course at the University of Illinois.

The AIA cites her “architecture that betters the daily life of all who interact with it. With her focus on design excellence, social responsibility, and generosity, Barney is an unrivaled architect for the people.”

Making the world a better place. “Some of our projects may not even be considered architecture, but they’re spaces and that defines them as problems we should undertake,” she says. “We’ve done parks and transit, and each of these is as important as a building.”

One of the firm’s crowning achievements is the Chicago Riverwalk along a mile and a quarter of the Chicago River. Designed as a series of outdoor rooms, Ross Barney (who partnered with the landscape architecture firm Sasaki) delivered a terraced amphitheater, a kayak launch, a floating fish habitat, and more. In addition to design, there was also a good deal of lobbying that occurred to make this happen. As a result of her efforts, 30 feet of public space is required for any new development along the Chicago River, ensuring that future building continues to maintain this strip of open space.

Her firm has also worked closely with the Chicago Transit Authority to design 20 stations, including the tubular Green Line station on Cermak Road near McCormick Place.

Completed in 2021, another project – the Railyard Park in Rogers, Arkansas – re-centered the downtown area with a new park that enhances economic development, spurs placemaking, and improves connectivity. The new park now has the potential to capitalize on recent public space investments and help to make downtown Rogers a regional destination. It’s been met with celebration and embraced from neighbors and residents across Northwest Arkansas.

“These are the types of projects that improve people’s lives,” she says.

And, she wants the younger generation of leaders to know that “design always matters,” and that they have superpowers – the ability to solve problems for people.

“We’re currently in the process of revising the organization to allow younger architects to join ownership and management,” she says. “We’ve never really had a formal program – we have an intimate culture and a lot of collaboration happens.”

She says it’s not good to work alone.

“I can’t do it,” she says. “I’m a collaborator. I want people to participate and to hear their ideas. I guess I buy talent. No one has all the tools in their toolbox.”

That’s likely why she outsources certain things like firm valuations.

“I’m not a big manager,” she says. “I like to think of myself as a spiritual leader or visionary and see my main management role as keeping the firm on track.”

Mentorship matters. Ross Barney shares that teaching and mentorship are so important to the future of the industry. And she’s had many of her own mentors over the years. Her first boss out of college was John Holabird, a Chicago architectural legend.

“His company had more than 200 employees at the time and I was one of two women,” she says. “He trusted me and he also told me when he thought I was wrong. We remained friends until he passed away.”

Two other mentors that Ross Barney cites for having a great effect on her were Natalie de Blois and Ken Groggs. De Blois founded the group “Chicago Women in Architecture” and Ross Barney and she became friends. Groggs was the first African American person to serve as Illinois State Architect and Ross Barney says he was always so open with sharing his knowledge as well as his contacts.

“I recall going into his office one day and he opened up his Rolodex – just like that,” she says. “He was always so helpful.”

When it comes to communicating with the younger generation of architects, she says there are a few things she wants them to know:

  • You have to be in it for the long haul. It takes determination and staying power – never give up.
  • When failures happen, ignore them and move on. You can’t let them kill you. Get on with it.

So, what is she doing to attract the younger set to her company? She believes that it’s the company culture that draws them in.

“I hire people to think,” she says. “I have to trust them. People like that.”

She shares that they’re also having fun. Some current projects include working on an airport expansion at O’Hare along with a city park project at the mouth of the Chicago River.

“There’s been a great deal of community engagement with the park project,” she says. “We’re addressing questions like, ‘What makes Chicago different? What are the city’s special qualities?’ We’re working to create a landscape that tells a story and inspires.”

When asked what her greatest concern for the future of the industry is she says, “the future of cities.”

“The digital age is bringing about some real challenges post-COVID,” she says. “And the challenge of sustainability is real. When people say, ‘We can’t afford sustainability when it comes to design,’ I tell them we have to afford everything – or there will be no future to worry about.” 

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