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'Give me more': Chicago architect Carol Ross Barney is inspired by the city, its people and poignant circumstances

Chicago architect Carol Ross Barney is inspired by the city, its people and poignant circumstances
Chicago architect Carol Ross Barney is inspired by the city, its people and poignant circumstances 04:13

CHICAGO (CBS) -- As we celebrate Women's History Month, we want you to meet a legend of Chicago architecture.

Carol Ross Barney recently won the highest award given by the American Institute of Architects. She calls it a shining light for Chicago and for women in the field.

Our Marie Saavedra recently caught up with Barney and talked about her work and her vision.

"When I'm drawing a building, I forget where I am. I lose track of time," Barney said. "If you can find something like that, you really are luckier than most people."

Barney's success might have a little to do with luck, but it has a lot to do with her love of architecture, and the city where she was born -- Chicago.

"I think the great ideas happen in this city," she said.


Barney discovered design as a child.

"I always loved to make things; making environments," she said.

It was at Regina Dominican High School in Wilmette that Barney decided on her career and told a guidance counselor.

"I said, 'Sister, I think I want to be an architect.' And she looked at me and she said, 'Okay, I'll find out what colleges you should apply to," Barney said. "She didn't tell me girls didn't become architects, or that there wouldn't be other women in the class."

Barney went to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the fall of 1966.

"My class was 300," she said. "There were 12 women." 

Barney said that while those numbers have improved, architecture can still be a tough field for women.

"People say: 'Well, should a girl be an architect? Should a woman be an architect?' Of course," Barney said. "It's connected to construction. So people think that's hard to think about. Are young going to be out in the field where they're building? Yeah, you are."

Barney's projects help communities. They include schools on the city's South Side and West Side, and CTA 'L' stations designed with easy access. 

Then there's her crown jewel -- the Chicago Riverwalk.


"I am amazed about the Chicago Riverwalk; how it's become important to people in their lives," Barney said. "We changed the structure of the walk. We wanted it to reflect the river, so you would feel like you were actually walking through the river."

Another favorite project: A sustainable synagogue for the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston. Members said Barney cared. 

"She listened, you know? She sat down. She wanted to know who we were. She wanted to know about us," said Elliot Frolichstein-Appel of Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation. "Carol is brilliant. She got it."


"The sanctuary is on the third floor. It's very light-filled. They have this big window and it overlooks the treetops," added Barney. "You feel like you're in God's sunlight. It feels like this really wonderful, outlooking, hopeful space."

Perhaps the most poignant project, the Oklahoma City Federal Building, designed after the Murrah Building was destroyed in a terrorist attack in 1995.

Barney took the time to meet with survivors.

"Hearing their stories and trying to make a building that felt secure and open really became our goal," Barney said. "It was an important job, for me personally."

Steve Hall

After decades of magnificent work, Barney will be awarded the American Institute of Architects 2023 Gold Medal in June.

"Even though I knew I was being considered, when I won, it's like, 'Oh my God, how did I get here?' And so that was quite thrilling," Barney said. "I'm the first living woman to win it as an individual. I think that's important. It's making a crack in the ceiling -- and I hope there's a lot more women who win it now."

What's next for Carol Ross Barney? She hopes even more opportunities to create incredible spaces.

"So yeah, more. Give me more," she said. "I need more."

Carol Ross Barney also teaches at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and tells her students, both women and men, when it comes to their careers, they have to find what they love. 

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