Carol Ross Barney, FAIA, is the founder of her eponymous, Chicago-based firm Ross Barney Architects. She has won more than 200 awards over more than four decades of practice, continuing the Windy City’s storied heritage of trailblazing architects. Ross Barney is just the second woman to be individually honored with the AIA Gold Medal.
What led to the founding of your firm?
Philosophically, to help build a better world. Practically, politics during a merger.
What’s the best way to describe the personality of your practice?
Guerilla design. We sneak design in; you don’t have to ask for it. Design matters all the time.
What’s the best way to describe your approach to architecture?
Design is everything, and everything can be better.
What projects are you most drawn to?
Complicated problems with simple, elegant answers.
When did you first realize you wanted to be an architect?
During high school when I realized that I had the responsibility to improve the planet.
What impact has Chicago had on your work?
Chicago is a great laboratory with many challenges and many rewards. I love the city’s everyman personality. I love its muscularity. I want those qualities in my work.
What is the greatest challenge facing architects today?
Designing and building sustainably is our existential challenge.
What was your most rewarding collaboration?
This is an impossible question because I have had so many collaborations that opened my mind. Working with Ed Feiner, FAIA, while he was chief architect at the General Services Administration was a privilege. He focused my ideas about being a citizen architect.
What’s one building you wish you had done?
Hillary Clinton’s Presidential Library.
What’s one building you wish you hadn’t done?
Like my kids, I love them all.
What did you learn when in the Peace Corps?
How to speak Spanish and scuba dive, which are both essential life skills. My service was for the national parks of Costa Rica, so I also learned the importance and the intricacy of balanced and functioning ecosystems.
What is your greatest fear?
Like a lot of women professionals, I have a nagging case of impostor syndrome.
Which talent would you most like to have?
To be a great conversationalist and to remember names.
What does architectural misery mean?
Not enough work.
What’s the one design/project that got away?
Only one! There are so many.
What jobs did your parents have?
Dad was an accountant/CFO. Mom taught first grade.
What does architectural happiness mean?
Lots of interesting work.
What do you hope your legacy will be?
Design excellence for the people’s spaces.
What’s the one question you wish we had asked (and the answer to that question)?
What do I think is my greatest talent? I am a storyteller.
What would you have been if not an architect?
A filmmaker or a children’s book illustrator.
What’s the last drawing you did?
I draw all the time. There really isn’t a last one.
Which five architects, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?
Julia Morgan, Marion Mahony Griffin, Lina Bo Bardi, Hatshepsut, and Natalie DeBlois.
What is your favorite building?
Inland Steel in Chicago by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
What is your greatest extravagance?
My house in southern New Mexico, which is a bit of an experiment. Soon it will be net-zero energy. I also need the mountains to heal my mind.
Which book(s) are you currently reading?
I consciously try to read a work of fiction followed by a work of non-fiction. I am about to start Poverty by Matthew Desmond. I really appreciated his first book, Evicted.
Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I might be too old to change…
What does being the second woman to be individually honored with the AIA Gold Medal mean to you?
I am very proud to be the person to break this barrier in recognizing the work of women architects. I am also sure that I am just the first of many.
This article first appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of ARCHITECT.