Civics Lesson

A look at Ross Barney Architects’ civic and urban design

Architecture Midwest Professional Practice Studio Visit
A look at Ross Barney Architects' civic and urban design. The Chicago Riverwalk. (Courtesy Ross Barney Architects)
A look at Ross Barney Architects' civic and urban design. The Chicago Riverwalk. (Courtesy Ross Barney Architects)

“I want you to give me the problem that you think does not have a reasonable solution,” quipped Carol Ross Barney in her bright, two-story lofted space in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. No list of influential Chicago architects is complete without Barney’s name. The head of the eponymous Ross Barney Architects, Barney has become the go-to for civic projects throughout Chicago and the Midwest. In the past forty-plus years she has gathered over 100 design awards, including national and local AIA honor awards, the AIA Illinois Gold Medal, and most recently AIA Chicago’s highest honor, the 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award. Her office is filled with models and one-to-one mock-ups of projects ranging from public transit stations to million-square-foot airport facilities.

At around 25 employees, the studio is very hands-on. “I just love the idea of making ideas and sharing them, and that extends to the studio,” Barney said. “In the past, we would trade concepts, you would work on a concept for a few weeks, and then we would trade projects.”

The office is, unsurprisingly, filled with young architects, considering Barney has taught at either IIT or the University of Illinois Chicago consistently since the late- 1970s. She has also taken part in the AIA Chicago Bridge Program, which provides young ambitious architects with AIA fellows as direct mentors.

“I was born into this role. I’m the oldest of eight children. I had a built-in responsibility,” Barney joked. “It has always been something that is very rewarding, but also fascinating to see the choices people make and why they make them.”

CTA Cermak-McCormick Place Station

The CTA Cermak-McCormick Place Station uses a tubular construction to avoid needing any columns in the limited platform space. (Courtesy Ross Barney Architects)

Built to serve the largest convention center in the country, the station is built without disrupting train traffic on a narrow right of way. The station includes a perforated stainless-steel and polycarbonate tube, which provides protection from wind and rain while leaving the platform completely free of supports. Glazed masonry units and granite finishes on the interior allow simple maintenance, and the station replaces one that has been closed since 1978.

Oklahoma City Federal Building

The Oklahoma City Federal Building design needed to balance security and transparency, as well as the memory of those lost in its predecessor’s destruction. (Courtesy Ross Barney Architects)

Located just two blocks from the Murrah Federal Building, which was destroyed in a domestic terrorist attack in 1995, the design of the Oklahoma City Federal Building needed to acknowledge the memory of those who were killed while looking to the future. The 185,000-square-foot project was designed to maintain a sense of openness while adhering to the most stringent security measures. The building was created in collaboration with the Benham Group and Sasaki, with a water featured designed by Brad Goldberg.

Lincoln Park Zoo

The Lincoln Park Zoo gate integrates a new information center and broad open entry. (Courtesy Ross Barney Architects)

As a new entryway for the country’s largest free zoo, Ross Barney’s design incorporates an information center and gate. Special care had to be taken in designing the gate, as standards for keeping animals in (in the unlikely case of an escape) are more stringent than those to keep humans out. Ross Barney produced numerous one-to-one mockups in studio as proof of concept for the ornately patterned portal. With operable walls, the information center can transform from an interior space to an exterior in pleasant weather.

Chicago Riverwalk

The Chicago Riverwalk represents one of the city’s largest and most successful recent
civic projects, connecting the downtown to the river below. (Courtesy Ross Barney Architects)

One of the most awarded recent projects in Chicago, the Riverwalk is part of a long-term effort by the city to enhance the public’s relationship with the water. In collaboration with Sasaki, Ross Barney oversaw the three-phase project, over the past decade. Comprised of multiple “rooms,” each section of the Riverwalk provides a different experience from a grand stair, to restaurants, and a Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Thanks to the success of the project, plans are being discussed to continue the Riverwalk further through the city.

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