Setting a Gold Standard: Architecture Faculty Member Receives Prestigious AIA Honor



By Thaddeus Mast
Carol Ross Barney

In 1960 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was honored with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Gold Medal, one of the most prestigious awards in architecture. It would take 62 years for another Chicago architect to earn the prize—College of Architecture Adjunct Professor Carol Ross Barney.

“It’s really great to shine the light on Chicago,” Ross Barney says. “There are so many great ideas happening here. We’re an exporter of ideas, and there are a lot of local practitioners that should have won.”

The connection to Mies’ win—both as a native Chicagoan and as a faculty member at the College of Architecture—is not lost on Ross Barney. While Mies crafted much of the university’s historic campus, Barney has spent the past 30 years passing her knowledge to students in the famed S. R. Crown Hall.

Much of Ross Barney Architects’ work is in the Chicago area, such as the 15-years-in-the-making Chicago Riverwalk,  which has transformed the city’s formerly industrial waterway from a place to avoid into a popular destination for locals and visitors alike. Most of the studio’s work focuses on public infrastructure, including the riverfront, transit stations, power plants, and many other examples of “the stuff that people think don’t need any real design,” but are vital to a city’s vibrancy and culture. “There is a huge misconception about design. It’s not just to make things look pretty. It has to be truly functional and belong to the people that use it,” Ross Barney says.

The Gold Medal demonstrates AIA’s recognition of the importance of civic design in an era of heightened social and cultural tension. “My first thought was, ‘I never thought I’d get this award,’” Ross Barney says. “The second thought was, ‘I’m really pleased that this kind of work is getting some appreciation.’”

While Ross Barney is proud to bring the Gold Medal back to Chicago, she also notes that her position as the first living woman to win the prize without a partner emphasizes changing attitudes toward gender in architecture. “These types of accomplishments are important to legitimize women in the field. [The AIA Gold Medal] represents one more step we have to go through, one more barrier to tear down. I’m glad to participate in that,” Barney says.

Fifty years ago Ross Barney helped found Chicago Women in Architecture to help women gain entry into a profession where an office of 300 people might employ only one or two women. Today, women comprise more than a third of the profession, and at Illinois Institute of Technology, Ross Barney’s courses are now split evenly between men and women. There are still barriers, however, such as a lack of women partners in leading firms. Women like Jeanne Gang, whose studio has designed some of the most striking buildings in the Chicago skyline, are “very important to women in architecture. We need more Studio Gangs. It has to happen,” Ross Barney says.

Photo: Carol Ross Barney (provided)