May 28, 2016

Reclaiming urban space: Carol Ross Barney at 51st monthly CreativeMornings in Chicago

Every new project brings with it an inheritance of some sort—a blessing or a curse. Carol Ross Barney is the Founder and President of Ross Barney Architects, who led the redesign, in collaboration with her associate John Fried, of the pedestrian space along the Chicago River, stretching from Michigan Avenue west to Lake Street. Launched in 2009, Phase 1 provided a continuous river-side path from State Street to the lakefront. Phase 2, between State Street and LaSalle Street, was opened to the public during June of 2015. Phase 3, from LaSalle Street to Lake Street, is expected to be completed in 2016. This project, at a cost of $175 million, came with a potent architectural history, amplified by numerous legal and political challenges. She spoke about this grand effort, bound to an inherited past, at the 51st monthly gathering of the Chicago chapter of CreativeMornings at the end of March 2016.

Barney started her presentation by highlighting archived images of the Chicago River. She identified inherited elements of the physical infrastructure, especially the “leftover” bridge towers, that her team had no choice but to accept and consider throughout their challenge-solving. Her diagnosis was supplemented by showing landscape and topographic engravings (sample above) of how the Chicago River and its surroundings looked around the 1830s. It was during this decade that the poet Emily Dickinson was born. In her poem “Time and Eternity” is this passage, which fits the experience of an ongoing civic initiative and its construction, phase by urban phase, block by city block:
“Our journey had advanced;
Our feet were almost come
To that odd fork in Being’s road,
Eternity by term.”
Barney and her design team inherited more than a century’s worth of history—an “odd fork.” Inheritance of this kind is intimidating. Barney spoke of how she advanced her studio’s collective vision, coping with bleary layers of legalities, technicalities and politics. In navigating a detailed workflow for a complex project, Barney and her collaborators kept returning to a common question: How can this physical set of circumstances, an inherited space, be repurposed for the enduring benefit of Chicago’s inhabitants?

Based on the video concluding her talk, the multi-phased results look fantastic. It’s remarkable to see architectural renderings become architectural reality. Each waterfront block or, as put by Barney in the project’s lingo, “room”—defines a distinct waterfront activity, from kayaking to resting to fishing.

One architectural reality is a segue into another. In this case, inherited and reborn as the modern Chicago Riverwalk, even when adjacent to a feature, both natural and human-made, but flowing with the residual reputation of pollution. Or as one visitor, who rested at one of the Riverwalk’s spaces after a run, aptly noted, “Look at the river, just not closely.”

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“It is insufficient for architecture today to directly implement an existing building typology; it instead requires architects to carefully examine the whole area with new interventions and programmatic typologies” 
—Zaha Hadid, Architect, (October 31, 1950–March 31, 2016)

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Big thanks: to Leo Burnett Department of Design (Host), Braintree, Green Sheep Water, Lyft, for being Partners of Chicago CreativeMornings #51; to organizers Kim Knoll and Kyle Eertmoed who both spoke at Chicago CreativeMornings #7; to the team of volunteers for greatly helping to make CreativeMornings happen monthly in Chicago.

Especially big thanks: to Tina Roth Eisenberg—Swissmiss—for inventing CreativeMornings in 2008. The fifth chapter was launched in Chicago, June 2011—my write-up and photos.

Read more about the people who make the Chicago chapter of CreativeMornings possible.

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My coverage: view photos of CreativeMornings/Chicago gatherings; read more write-ups about CreativeMornings.

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2011 was Chicago CreativeMornings’ debut year. Download the entire collection of selected insights.