Glass, Steel, and Memories | Architecture | Chicago Reader

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Glass, Steel, and Memories

Carol Ross Barney's design for the new federal building in Oklahoma City required her to look far beyond simple questions of material and dimension.

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Chicago architect Carol Ross Barney has built a national reputation on local work--including the Cesar Chavez Multicultural Academic Center in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, the Little Village Family Resource Center, and the Jubilee Family Resource Center in North Lawndale. Often working within a tight budget on unpromising sites, she's used form, color, and light in place of expensive materials to give her buildings visual depth and excitement. Her vocabulary includes contrasting strips of colored brick, bright yellow roofs, windows cut into the wall at odd angles, and sunny, colorful interiors. Her keen sense of balance keeps anything from appearing capricious or extraneous.

Seven years ago, Ross Barney's designs for Chicago schools won her the daunting job of designing a new Oklahoma City federal building to replace the Alfred P. Murrah building, destroyed by a truck bomb in what was then the deadliest act of terrorism on U.S. soil. The selection panel felt that her schools were "inviting, but obviously very strong and secure," she says. "They thought, rightfully, that this was going to be about security, and about feeling secure." When the new office campus opened in December, it became the first project the 54-year-old architect had completed outside Illinois.

"When I started," Ross Barney says, "I felt a bit insecure because I had always worked in Chicago. I was born here, lived here, and I always felt quite able to interpret the city for the purposes of making a building, even when I was working in the Hispanic neighborhoods. This entire idea of learning the language from your community, having the symbols of your community...it was easy for me to see that."

All that changed in Oklahoma: "When I got there, I realized that I didn't understand being in Oklahoma, or from Oklahoma, or in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995--I didn't know any of that stuff. And so we spent considerable time doing research [that] hadn't been done as extensively on our other projects. It changed our working methodology. Now we do that for every project, even ones in Chicago. I think it's really improved our work."

The employees housed in the Murrah building had been dispersed throughout the city for nearly nine years, and many didn't want to return to the site where so many of their coworkers had perished. Ross Barney's research team faced a delicate and complicated task. "We could ask how many pencil drawers you needed," she says, "but we really wanted to know what they thought the building should be.... We did questionnaires: What do you think this building should symbolize? What do you think this building should represent? But people don't think about buildings like that, so we had to do almost multiple choice: Do you think the building should be reverent? Progressive?"

Of the preferences that became apparent in the interviews, says Ross Barney, "the one I remember most distinctly is they didn't want it to be a memorial. They wanted it to be forward- looking. In a way that freed us, because it gave us the rationale for what we did. This building will be good for Oklahoma City this year, but also in 50 years. Making decisions that way is a lot different than saying, 'I'm worried about survivors moving into this building.'"

Architect Shigeru Ban, widely known for the simple paper-tube shelters he designed for survivors of the 1995 Kobe earthquake, has noted the negative role architecture often plays in disasters. "People are not killed by the earthquake itself," he said in a local lecture last year. "Most people are killed by the collapse of buildings." That was the case in the Murrah building, where the failure of a single column caused the nine floors to "pancake" into one another and shards of glass flew like shrapnel.

Ross Barney wanted to meet her client's tougher Level IV security standards, but she didn't want to build a glorified bunker. The most visible protective element is the necklace of stubby concrete bollards that encircles the entire building. Along the street elevations, the walls are concrete--"it looks like suede," Ross Barney says proudly--set with enough windows to impart a normal urban feel.

On the side intended as the building's main entrance, along Seventh Avenue, Ross Barney defies the fortress mentality with a huge landscaped ellipse that begins as a park a block to the north and then crosses Seventh to form an open-air courtyard, around which the building is faced entirely in glass. "The glass is laminated," she explains, "so it's pretty much like your auto windshield. If it's impacted it'll shatter, but it won't break into pieces."

Should the glass in fact shatter, extra measures have been taken to ensure that it stays in place. "To do that, you have to make sure that the frame is there to hold the glass, and so the frame . . . has become rather massive because of the resistance it has to provide," Ross Barney continues. "Ours, we think, is very beautiful, because we worked on making it that way, by expressing the strength of the steel--not covering it--and exposing the galvanized finish." Uniting the two ends of the horseshoe, a flat roof floats atop tall thin concrete columns in a modernist rethinking of the classical arcade.

Ross Barney put the building's lobby at the innermost point of the courtyard--that is, at the tip of the ellipse. "Since we had to have a lobby that was blast resistant, which is basically concrete, we made it almost cathedralesque in its proportions," she says. It's narrow, but it's three stories tall, with a pair of sky bridges, and it's flooded with natural light--Piranesi without the bulk and gloom. It's this tough-minded optimism that may be the building's most important quality--showing that modern architecture can be made safer and still reflect the democratic qualities of openness and transparency.

Still, as Ross Barney bluntly puts it, "ultimately you can destroy any building." Special work arrangements have been made for several HUD employees who've simply refused to move in to the new offices. Their response isn't entirely rational, but the architect says she can empathize. When I talked to her, her memory had just been jogged by an obituary for the Reverend Joseph Ognibene, who helped children escape the Our Lady of the Angels fire in 1958. Despite his best efforts, ninety-two students and three nuns died. Ross Barney was five, but she remembers the tragedy. "It was terrifying to see the picture on the front page of the Sun-Times of all the caskets, and I thought, oh my God, these kids are my age. I was reminded reading the obituary that [Ognibene] went on to be pastor of all these other churches, but he never allowed candles in his church. He wouldn't allow open flame."

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, when pressed on the night of September 11 for a head count of the dead, would reply only that "it will be more than we can bear." In Oklahoma City, where the Murrah building once stood, grass grows around 168 empty bronze and stone chairs--one for each victim, smaller ones for each of the 19 children lost. Across the street, the great sunlit ellipse of the new federal building faces the opposite way.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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