In Conversation: Carol Ross Barney | Ross Barney Architects

Carol Ross Barney is the winner of the 2023 Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects (AIA), an annual honor that recognizes “individuals whose work has had a lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture,” according to the Institute. Established in 1907, the award is one of the oldest and most prestigious that can be conferred on architects. Previous winners include Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Thomas Jefferson.

In almost half a century of professional practice, Chicago-based Ross Barney has built an extraordinarily wide range of structures and urban spaces. With no specific style that defines her work, she develops multiple solutions to every project and works with her client to choose which direction to pursue together. “I paid for that for a long time,” she says. “They’d say, ‘Carol’s a good architect, but she has no signature.’” But over the course of her career, this method of practice has been recognized for its ability to create a rich dialogue between architect and client that encourages multiple voices to contribute to a decidedly democratic process. This results in more nuanced and successful projects that better serve the communities that interact with them—and that are diverse in their design approach.

Barney’s breakthrough project was the masonry-and-glass Oklahoma City Federal Building which replaced the Alfred P. Murrah Building that had been destroyed in a 1995 domestic terrorist attack. Other projects are as varied as a brightly colored masonry post office in the Chicago suburbs whose colors and façade patterns invoked the American flag and her reimagining of the Chicago Riverwalk, which has redefined the city’s relationship to the Chicago river and new public spaces throughout downtown.

McDonald’s Global Flagship Chicago
Photo Credit: Kendall McCaugherty, Hall+Merrick
McDonald’s Global Flagship Chicago
Photo Credit: Kendall McCaugherty, Hall+Merrick

More recently, Ross Barney’s designs have embraced more timber alongside other building materials, including in several McDonalds’ restaurants (not a building type that has been frequently associated with wood). Think Wood spoke with her in her office, a timber-framed loft that previously housed Chicago legend Harry Weese’s offices in Chicago’s River North neighborhood.

Think Wood: What do you see as the role of wood in architecture today?

Carol Ross Barney: The idea of making CLT or engineered timbers is a new thing for Americans, but we are using it. The codes are being amended, and people want it. It’s a human material; It was living at one time. There is some sort of comfort with it; it’s psychological and emotional. 

By its nature, architecture and design are trying to find a material or an assembly of materials that use the least amount of resources in the best way. This is the challenge for this generation—not just of architects, but of world citizens. If we don’t solve this, it’s over.

Let’s talk about some of your recent wood projects. Your design for the McDonald’s Chicago flagship that opened in 2018 creates a series of public spaces beneath a monumental canopy. The restaurant itself is a much smaller structure that sits beneath the trellis and features a steel and engineered wood frame and a CLT roof slab. How did you convince them to incorporate wood?

McDonald’s didn’t have any mandate. We told them we wanted to do a [LEED] Platinum building. I don’t like to talk about LEED because it’s about counting points and I’m more interested in concepts, but counting points helped us to do that building with timber. It’s the first CLT building in Chicago. But it’s not very big, so it was easy.

Searle Visitor Center
Photo Credit: Kendall McCaugherty, Hall+Merrick

The Searle Visitor Center, also completed in 2018 in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, provides a striking wood canopy that protects the main entrance for the city’s zoo. How did this design evolve in wood?

We told [structural engineer Bob Magruder] we wanted to create tree-like shade. We wanted do a really lightweight canopy and he suggested stressed panels. They look like they’re floating. We wanted to make the transition from building to garden, since it’s a zoological garden. When you walk through there, it looks like it’s magic.

Are you using wood construction in upcoming projects?

We have one building now that we’re designing in New York, a public building for the Hamptons. It’s a community center. The town of East Hampton has passed an ordinance requiring that their buildings be net zero [energy]. We encouraged them to look at net zero carbon, as well. If you’re going to do that, there are only a few products. Everybody naturally looks at wood because it’s basically carbon capture. 

You also took part in the recent ‘Come Home Chicago: Missing Middle Infill Housing Competition,’ sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Center, which asked architects to reimagine the city’s single-family home, two- and three-flat, rowhouse and six-flat typologies for today. While your design wasn’t chosen as a finalist, why did you decide to explore the use of CLT in your concept?

Since we’ve built in CLT, our entry was entirely about timber and the idea that you could standardize a panel. We standardized the design on a 13-foot panel, which is half the width of a city lot in Chicago. We proposed to use it both in bearing and for the floor. And we purposely made it the simplest building that you could possibly think about. We did the townhouse so that we could standardize it and build it inexpensively. This material has so many admirable and desirable qualities.

What challenges do you still see for broader wood and timber adoption in the building industry?

I’m really frustrated that you can’t use wood as an exterior material here [in Chicago]. 

But it seems like a lot of the technical challenges about wood in general—whether you’re talking about engineered wood or timber or CLT—they seem to be solved. The regulatory obstacles are not gone, but they are being addressed. 

When we suggest using it, the biggest challenge is finding manufacturing and production. The US hasn’t really developed that capacity yet and I don’t know how fast you can do it. But I hope they develop fast. I have clients that want wood buildings.

What are some of the things that influence how you think about the material?

I bought a house in New Mexico during COVID, so I had a place to go in the winter. There are all these forts that were built between the Civil War and the turn of the century. When residents abandoned them, they took the few pieces of timber—the window frames, the roof beams—with them. They bothered to disassemble it. That’s how precious wood was and how valuable it is in the Southwest. Wow.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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