Ross Barney Express

Ross Barney Express

Carol Ross Barney has been designing train stations in Chicago for over 20 years. Recognition of her work, however, has often been limited to her buildings and efforts to involve more women in architecture. The past few years, though, have been more generous. When the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) opened its new Morgan station in 2012, Chicago Tribune critic Blair Kamin called it “a jewel in the West Loop’s crown.”

Ross Barney Architects designed the CTA’s first new train station in nearly 20 years, built to serve the rapidly growing West Loop neighborhood. Six years prior to this, she worked as a subcontractor for Parsons Transportation, helping rebuild the Belmont and Fullerton stations for the Brown Line renovation. In February, the firm wrapped up work on yet another new Green Line station, this time at Cermak Road, near the McCormick Convention Center. It has a radical tube enclosure, making it the CTA’s only fully enclosed outdoor ‘L’ station. But Barney said she didn’t set out to design a tube at Cermak.

The station has physical limitations stemming from a previous station’s three-track layout, in use from 1892 to 1977. To reduce infrastructure needs, the design uses the former center track’s space for a platform. The agency normally requires a 22-foot-wide center platform, but only 14 feet were available. “The dynamic envelope of the train is such that you can’t put any permanent construction [near the platform edge], so in this case there wasn’t even room for a bench,” said Barney. Weather protection and a wind barrier were necessities, but they kept columns and signage outside the track area.

“We connected the canopy and wind breaks on the side and we had a tube,” said Barney. The CTA is creating additional passenger amenity space by staggering where trains stop along the platform.

Barney’s firm has a diverse portfolio—including university buildings and the Chicago Riverwalk extension. But Barney explained that transit is the “lifeblood” of cities. “More cities are building trains now,” she said, “because they want what makes a viable, healthy city.”

In 1984, three years after Barney started her firm, Illinois required that five percent of all public contract work, including train stations, go to women-owned firms. (That portion can be higher, depending on the municipality and project.)

Before, she received work from a project subcontracted to her firm in discrete parts. Whenever it needed more than five to 10 percent design, however, the contractor’s own architects took over.

“It would be dishonest to deny that my firm benefited from sheltered marked programs,” said Barney. But the limitation imposed by lead companies had made it hard to work on transit projects.

One of three women in her graduating class of 1971 at the University of Illinois, Barney has worked to include more women in architecture, and to support their work, for three decades. She co-founded Chicago Women in Architecture and served as its first president. Women make up half her staff.

The responsive tube design, along with the Morgan station’s soaring glass towers—calling out to people blocks away—signal that Barney is no longer simply fulfilling another company’s woman-and-minority-owned business requirements, but pushing transit station design to be more functional and beautiful for riders.