An Interview with Carol Ross Barney
 -with Lynn Becker




Related Links

  Federal Campus, Oklahoma City
  Oklahoma City National Memorial
  Ross Barney+Jankowski Architects

 ral Campus, Oklahoma City
  Oklahoma City National Memorial
Carol Ross Barney: I became an architect because I think that it's one area where you can provide the stage for a good lifestyle, which is social justice. We just were commissioned to do the new synagogue for the Jewish Reformationist Congregation in Evanston. I'm not Jewish, so they're getting very brave to hire me. It's an American movement, the JRC, and it's really based on the idea of social justice, extending to the environment. In fact their whole idea is to repair the world, so I think that commission will be really important to us because it gets to combine all the things that we like. They're talking about having the greenest synagogue in the country.

Q: What do you remember about April 19, 1995?

CRB: I don't remember that day at all. There's only two that are really crystal clear for me - one, because of my age, Kennedy's assassination and then of course September 11th. But what I do remember shortly thereafter is that my friend Julie Stash, who was number two in the GSA then - she went there, and I remember her talking about it what is like to go there.

Q: When you first heard about the bombing, did you think about it as an architect?

CRB: Oh, yeah. We discussed that. We routinely discuss all failures here. It did fail in one spot, and it was kind of remarkable. He was really lucky, the bomber, that he put the bomb in this strategic location. There was a transfer girder there, which made the span larger than it would have been, but I'm not sure the outcome would have been any different

Q: When you were working in Oklahoma City, did you see yourself as an architect, or as a healer, as well?

CRB: Depends on who you're talking to. How I felt about that myself changed. Sometimes I felt like a scribe, like there's nothing I can add to the discussion, and I need to write it down, and put it in the building. And sometimes I saw myself as the person that kept the thing on a futurist route, so it didn't get caught down in the past about the bombing, which was my charge from the beginning.

Q: There were tight budgetary constraints?

CRB: Basically, this building cost $180 a square foot, which is cheap. Concrete was our choice of material. We're very pleased the way it turns out, it looks like suede. But it is pure, unadulterated concrete. In the lobby, we wanted to contrast that and play with the natural feeling on concrete. We were trying to make it beautiful. We moved the forms down four inches from the structural, the core wall, and we loaded that space with local rock, and then we poured a grout down the form, and then we sandblasted away the surface.

Do you remember the pictures of Frank Lloyd Wright working on Taliesin? And the desert creep he invented there with the big rocks at Taliesin West? In a way, this is a new version of that. When we start talking about just laying up stone here, our blast consultant didn't like that idea because when you're standing in the space you haven't been through security, so you could be holding a package bomb or something like that, and they were afraid if we use stone in this completely closed-in space, the airspace behind it would cause it to turn in shrapnel, blast it off the wall, so they wanted something more solid, and this is really, really solid when it's gravity closed like that.

Q: Did Oklahoma City have any effect on how you view the world?

CRB: No doubt, no doubt. It did a lot for me. Working on such an important building makes me humble again, that's for sure.

I really don't know how successful the building is. I liked it. I don't like all my work when its done, but I do like this building. I guess time will tell, but it's given me more confidence in working on these ideas I thought always were important, the process, social justice, and sort of the last thing, tradition, for the history of people. It's like working on someone's house. Now, if you're working on someone's house, it's all their money. Why should I say anything about their personal house? This is their personal expression. So when I worked on private commissions, I had a lot of trouble sometimes coming up with the idea. When I worked on public work - and I've always enjoyed working on public work - I always felt like I had to project the integrity - why give something to people that isn't as good as the Farnsworth?

Q: Is typecasting a problem for architects?

CRB: People feel comfortable picking architects who have done that building type before. I think that's so silly, because the building type is almost meaningless. So you've done a school before, but that doesn't mean you know that community. It's predictable. Architects don't think like that. They sort of reluctantly fall into those categories. They see themselves as problem solvers. It's not formulaic. You were talking about Koolhaas. (He) would never do a formulaic building. Everything is a process, and he wants to invent a new building. In a way, (Oklahoma City has) put us in a position where people do ask us to do that. More often now, people will call us because they have something where they don't know what the answer is, which is good. There's a lot of commissions I'd like to do. They're all about process. They're never about building type.

We're working right now in Duluth, we're working at the University of Florida, we're working at St. Sault Marie Michigan, so I spend a lot of time flying around. It would be nice to be here from a sort of ease-of-life standpoint, but no, I don't mind the buildings being far away. I want to have a purpose and I don't want to be bored. That's my major criteria of selection for commissions. I love my neighborhood buildings in Chicago. I'd like to do a building in my home town that would be somewhat important - I guess it's as close as I can get to ego.

Q: More like a trophy building?

CRB: Trophy building, maybe. I can't believe I'm saying that. I'd like the opportunity to do some of the things we've done for neighborhoods at a bigger scale in my town.

Q: Reinventing it? Tweaking it?

CRB: I think that sensibilities come and go. When we were working on Schurz, (restoring architect Dwight Perkin's Carl Schurz High School on Chicago's Northwest side) we did a lot of research on Perkins. He had radical social ideas and radical ideas about systems. He put the cafeteria at the top of the building because there the children would be able to dine, not in the smog and soot that was then at the lower level. That was a revolutionary thought. You don't put kitchens and dining rooms at the top of the building. It didn't make it; they eventually closed the windows up, but there was a lot more to Schurz than just what's remembered. There are times when the functioning of the building supersedes the remnant form.

I have a lot of trouble sometimes with saving buildings, like the Farnsworth House, I do like that people can visit, but I don't think you'll ever be able to really appreciate it the way it was intended, which was to live in, which was a lot different than just going out there and seeing how lovely it us. It's become an artifact. I'm sure that many a building can exist as artifacts (but) that's when it starts losing it's usefulness, and somewhat, it's meaning. People are asked to make decisions that they're not prepared in any way to make about buildings - that's why the leadership is so important.

Q: Leadership?

CRB: Leadership about what buildings mean to us. It depends on how bold you are. Our leaders give us comfort. When people comment on buildings, they're really talking about their comfort level. Do you like this? You go, "Oh my God I've never seen anything like this before - I'm not comfortable with it. I don't like it." Then you show them the Monadnock Building - are you comfortable with this? Even though that building was as radical . . . when it was built, they say, "I really like that building, it's brick, it has nice windows." What they're really saying is, "It's nothing I haven't seen before, so it's OK with me!" And so the leadership, the level of thinking that you're getting at, is really essential in the public sector.

The South Michigan landmarks ordinance is a good example of trying to preserve something that doesn't exist anymore. Those building methods don't exist. Those building types don't exist. So the only way you can justify some of these . . . buildings is to say, well they do reflect people then, they weren't very sure of themselves and architecture does sort of push forward from that. When you look at the buildings that were done for the World's Fair, the 1893 Columbian Exposition, (you see) a city that was trying to prove that it was as good as New York. We're not a cow town anymore, look at us. I don't believe Chicago is there now. I think this is an important city and an importance influence, and that's why I can't build that stuff. When I go to look at suburban schools, I can't build that stuff either because I think those kids are worth more than that. I think I'm not wrong, so I have to keep on doing this for a while.



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