Carol Ross Barney ’66 named a Chicagoan of the Year by the Chicago Tribune.
Article from Chicago Tribune, December 22, 2016 by Blair Kamin
Year’s architecture standouts are women — but that’s incidental
Hillary Clinton didn’t crack the glass ceiling at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but 2016 proved to be a standout year for women in another male-dominated field: Chicago architecture.
Architect Jeanne Gang completed three exceptional projects, including the dramatic Writers Theatre in Glencoe, and saw construction begin on her 98-story Vista Tower, the condo and hotel high-rise that will be Chicago’s third-tallest skyscraper upon its expected completion in 2020.
Architect Carol Ross Barney finished the latest extension of Chicago’s downtown Riverwalk, an urbane pedestrian and bike promenade that she co-designed with Sasaki Associates of Watertown, Mass.
Open-space advocate Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks, led the successful fight against George Lucas’ planned narrative art museum on the lakefront, dealing a major setback to the “Star Wars” creator and the project’s biggest political backer, Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
What unites these achievements? Probably the fact that gender, in the end, had little to do with them. In other words, the three Chicagoans of the Year succeeded not as women architects or women advocates but as architects and advocates who happen to be women.
That constitutes progress — and a departure from the still-gloomy bigger picture: U.S. women architects are typically paid less than their male counterparts. They are often forced to choose between career advancement and raising children. And they are underrepresented in leadership roles, especially at big corporate firms.
“It’s not easy for women, even today,” said Barney, president of Chicago’s Ross Barney Architects and the first president of Chicago Women in Architecture. “Women have more power now than they did. On the other hand, if you do a statistical analysis of it, women are lacking in the halls of power in every endeavor.”
In the past, women architects have been regarded as helpmates rather than heroines. Consider the early 20th century architect Marion Mahony Griffin, the first woman registered to practice architecture in Illinois, who was featured in an exhibition this year at the Elmhurst History Museum. Despite extraordinary talent, including brilliant drawings for Frank Lloyd Wright, Mahony Griffin was hindered by a world that was not ready for women architects and, consequently, she left few completed works.
Things had improved only slightly by the 1950s when Chicago architect Gertrude Kerbis designed the dining hall for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s futuristic U.S. Air Force Academy campus in Colorado Springs, Colo. Kerbis, who died in June at 89, took pride in the structure, although she found it amusing that she, a woman, was assigned to shape the campus building associated with the kitchen.
“Gertrude Kerbis used to tell that she made it easier for me,” said Barney. “Her theory was that everybody bumps the ceiling up a couple of inches.”
Today, women hold several of Chicago’s top architecture jobs: Zoe Ryan, the Art Institute of Chicago’s chief curator of architecture and design; Lynn Osmond, president of the Chicago Architecture Foundation; Sarah Herda, director of the Graham Foundation; and Bonnie McDonald, president of Landmarks Illinois. And Gang has become one of the city’s most celebrated architects.
In typical thoughtful fashion, Gang, a MacArthur “genius grant” winner, turned around a question about the barriers women still face in architecture.
“One of the barriers is that we are constantly asked about being women architects, as if that’s the only thing that defines us,” she said. “I just trained myself to not let it bother me. Sometimes, the men in our office … notice (sexist behavior) more than I do.”
Yet barriers remain. Notwithstanding Gang’s acclaimed Aqua Tower, for example, few women get the chance to design high-rises, creating a vicious circle where lack of experience breeds a lack of opportunity.
“Hiring a firm that’s run by a women is pretty risky,” Barney said. “It’s not because they’ve failed in the past. It’s because there is no past.”
While Irizarry follows a trail blazed by Friends of the Parks’ longtime Executive Director Erma Tranter, she acknowledges facing other challenges: There are few other Latinas in the field of city planning. And she stands 4 feet 11 inches tall and looks much younger than her 48 years.
“My stature and my age — or people’s sense of my age — is often a bigger barrier than gender,” she said. “They don’t take me seriously or I have to prove myself.”
She doesn’t to prove herself now, not after facing down Emanuel in the Lucas fight.
“I always imagine that there’s a dart board with my picture on it in the mayor’s office,” Irizarry said.
Blair Kamin is a Tribune critic.