'An unrivaled architect for the people': Former North Shore resident wins AIA's highest honor

It was high time a woman - a living woman - earned the American Institute of Architects' highest honor.

Carol Ross Barney, who grew up in Northbrook and attended St. Norbert School in town and Regina Dominican in Wilmette, has been named winner of the AIA's 2023 Gold Medal. She lived 30 years in Wilmette until moving in 2009 to Chicago's lakefront.

A juried award, the Gold Medal salutes architects who've had a “lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture,” AIA said.

Angela Brooks received the honor in 2022, but that was in tandem with her husband, Lawrence Scarpa, who with a third partner founded the Pugh + Scarpa architectural firm in Los Angeles.

Ross Barney, who founded Ross Barney Architects in Chicago in 1981 after a stay at the landmark firm of Holabird & Root, noted the last individual woman to earn the AIA award was Julie Morgan in 2014. A San Franciscan who worked on the Hearst Castle, Morgan died in 1957.

In a city known for its architecture, the previous Chicago-based Gold Medal recipient was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1960.

“It's kind of mind-boggling,” said Ross Barney, who will receive her award at the AIA national convention in June in San Francisco. “I think we've been overlooked. I'm glad to shine a light on the city of Chicago. We export architecture. Great ideas happen here.”

Great ideas such as the Oklahoma City Federal Building. In 1997, Ross Barney had been chosen as the lead designer to replace the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, destroyed by a lone bomber on April 19, 1995.

“That time was so important. That was the first act of terrorism on United States soil,” said Ross Barney, the first woman commissioned for such a job.

Carol Ross Barney was commissioned as the lead designer for the Oklahoma City Federal Building after its predecessor, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, had been destroyed by an act of domestic terrorism. Courtesy of Steve Hall/Hedrich Blessing/Ross Barney Architects

Before constructing the new building, which was completed in 2005, she spoke with people who worked in the Murrah Building, and with those who would be working in the new one.

“We found out that what was really important was they wanted a space that was safe, that someone couldn't drive up with a bomb and destroy the building,” she said. “But they also wanted it to be open, an expression of open government, a people's building. Those were our main design ideas, and they really informed the design.”

A child of the '60s, Ross Barney entered the Peace Corps and was sent to Costa Rica after earning her bachelor's degree at the University of Illinois. For three decades, she has been an adjunct professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

She believes working with people and creating things they actually use is a high calling.

An architect's job, she said, is to solve problems.

One appeared when the city of Chicago, first under Mayor Richard M. Daley then with critical support from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, commissioned Ross Barney Architects to create the Chicago Riverwalk under the umbrella of Lower Wacker Drive reconstruction.

Commissioned by the city of Chicago, Ross Barney Architects' work on the Chicago Riverwalk helped realize Daniel Burnham's century-old vision for the Chicago River. Courtesy of Kate Joyce Studios/Ross Barney Architects

Built over three phases beginning in 2009, Ross Barney Architects and two other firms created a jewel that provides leisure, entertainment, exercise, ecology, a veteran's memorial and other facets of a plan Daniel Burnham had for the Chicago River a century before.

As the AIA said, Ross Barney is “an unrivaled architect for the people.”

She literally went old school on a recent, ongoing project - the retooling of her high school alma mater, Regina Dominican. She transformed the all-girls campus, built for 1,600 students when she attended from 1962-66, into a “small-school campus” geared toward a target enrollment of 400.

  Architect Carol Ross Barney, a Regina Dominican High School alum, designed newly constructed facilities, including the "learning stairs," at the Wilmette school. Joe Lewnard/

Launched in 2020, the first of four planned phases is nearly complete. Called "The Heart of the School," Phase I is intimate, sustainable and will provide its students' main request -- air conditioning. When all four phases are complete, the entire school will be air-conditioned for the first time.

“We are so blessed and fortunate to be working with this genius, and she is a genius,” said Joan Kitchie, the school's vice president for Institutional Advancement.

Kitchie said the capital campaign for the reconstruction, now at more than $7 million, is the most successful in Regina's 64-year history. It's in no small part due to Ross Barney's participation.

“I'm an alum,” said Kitchie, of the Class of 1977. “It's my passion project, and it's been so much fun working with her. She's so down to earth, she's so normal, there's no airs about her at all. She's pretty amazing.”

Growing up in Northbrook in the 1950s and 1960s as one of eight children, Ross Barney's family has no background in the profession.

Ross Barney Architecture has won more than 200 awards. Yet, its founder never imagined she'd win the AIA Gold Medal despite her projects spanning schools, libraries, municipal buildings, infrastructure, transportation hubs and more.

  Regina Dominican High School Vice President for Institutional Advancement Joan Kitchie views newly delivered furniture in a space designed by Carol Ross Barney that includes floor-to-ceiling windows. Joe Lewnard/

Being one of three women out of a class of 100 in the architecture program at the University of Illinois, perhaps it seemed the odds were stacked.

Things are changing, Ross Barney said, with a caveat.

“Women still have a long way to go,” she added.

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.