Campus, Oklahoma City Oklahoma
City National Memorial Carol
Ross Barney: I became an architect because I think that it's one area
where you can provide the stage for a good lifestyle, which is social
justice. We just were commissioned to do the new synagogue for the Jewish
Reformationist Congregation in Evanston. I'm not Jewish, so they're getting
very brave to hire me. It's an American movement, the JRC, and it's really
based on the idea of social justice, extending to the environment. In
fact their whole idea is to repair the world, so I think that commission
will be really important to us because it gets to combine all the things
that we like. They're talking about having the greenest synagogue in the
Q: What do you remember about April 19, 1995?
CRB: I don't remember that day at all. There's only two that are
really crystal clear for me - one, because of my age, Kennedy's assassination
and then of course September 11th. But what I do remember shortly thereafter
is that my friend Julie Stash, who was number two in the GSA then - she
went there, and I remember her talking about it what is like to go there.
Q: When you first heard about the bombing, did you think about
it as an architect?
CRB: Oh, yeah. We discussed that. We routinely discuss all failures
here. It did fail in one spot, and it was kind of remarkable. He was really
lucky, the bomber, that he put the bomb in this strategic location. There
was a transfer girder there, which made the span larger than it would
have been, but I'm not sure the outcome would have been any different
Q: When you were working in Oklahoma City, did you see yourself
as an architect, or as a healer, as well?
CRB: Depends on who you're talking to. How I felt about that myself
changed. Sometimes I felt like a scribe, like there's nothing I can add
to the discussion, and I need to write it down, and put it in the building.
And sometimes I saw myself as the person that kept the thing on a futurist
route, so it didn't get caught down in the past about the bombing, which
was my charge from the beginning.
Q: There were tight budgetary constraints?
CRB: Basically, this building cost $180 a square foot, which is
cheap. Concrete was our choice of material. We're very pleased the way
it turns out, it looks like suede. But it is pure, unadulterated concrete.
In the lobby, we wanted to contrast that and play with the natural feeling
on concrete. We were trying to make it beautiful. We moved the forms down
four inches from the structural, the core wall, and we loaded that space
with local rock, and then we poured a grout down the form, and then we
sandblasted away the surface.
Do you remember the pictures of Frank Lloyd Wright working on Taliesin?
And the desert creep he invented there with the big rocks at Taliesin
West? In a way, this is a new version of that. When we start talking
about just laying up stone here, our blast consultant didn't like that
idea because when you're standing in the space you haven't been through
security, so you could be holding a package bomb or something like that,
and they were afraid if we use stone in this completely closed-in space,
the airspace behind it would cause it to turn in shrapnel, blast it off
the wall, so they wanted something more solid, and this is really, really
solid when it's gravity closed like that.
Q: Did Oklahoma City have any effect on how you view the world?
CRB: No doubt, no doubt. It did a lot for me. Working on such an
important building makes me humble again, that's for sure.
I really don't know how successful the building is. I liked it. I don't
like all my work when its done, but I do like this building. I guess time
will tell, but it's given me more confidence in working on these ideas
I thought always were important, the process, social justice, and sort
of the last thing, tradition, for the history of people. It's like working
on someone's house. Now, if you're working on someone's house, it's all
their money. Why should I say anything about their personal house? This
is their personal expression. So when I worked on private commissions,
I had a lot of trouble sometimes coming up with the idea. When I worked
on public work - and I've always enjoyed working on public work - I always
felt like I had to project the integrity - why give something to people
that isn't as good as the Farnsworth?
Q: Is typecasting a problem for architects?
CRB: People feel comfortable picking architects who have done that
building type before. I think that's so silly, because the building type
is almost meaningless. So you've done a school before, but that doesn't
mean you know that community. It's predictable. Architects don't think
like that. They sort of reluctantly fall into those categories. They see
themselves as problem solvers. It's not formulaic. You were talking about
would never do a formulaic building. Everything is a process, and he wants
to invent a new building. In a way, (Oklahoma City has) put us in a position
where people do ask us to do that. More often now, people will call us
because they have something where they don't know what the answer is,
which is good. There's a lot of commissions I'd like to do. They're all
about process. They're never about building type.
We're working right
now in Duluth, we're
working at the University of Florida, we're working at St.
Sault Marie Michigan, so I spend a lot of time flying around. It would
be nice to be here from a sort of ease-of-life standpoint, but no, I don't
mind the buildings being far away. I want to have a purpose and I don't
want to be bored. That's my major criteria of selection for commissions.
I love my neighborhood buildings in Chicago. I'd like to do a building
in my home town that would be somewhat important - I guess it's as close
as I can get to ego.
Q: More like a trophy building?
CRB: Trophy building, maybe. I can't believe I'm saying that. I'd
like the opportunity to do some of the things we've done for neighborhoods
at a bigger scale in my town.
Q: Reinventing it? Tweaking it?
CRB: I think that sensibilities come and go. When we were working
on Schurz, (restoring architect Dwight
Schurz High School on Chicago's Northwest side) we did a lot of research
on Perkins. He had radical social ideas and radical ideas about systems.
He put the cafeteria at the top of the building because there the children
would be able to dine, not in the smog and soot that was then at the lower
level. That was a revolutionary thought. You don't put kitchens and dining
rooms at the top of the building. It didn't make it; they eventually closed
the windows up, but there was a lot more to Schurz than just what's remembered.
There are times when the functioning of the building supersedes the remnant
I have a lot of trouble sometimes with saving buildings, like the Farnsworth
House, I do like that people can visit, but I don't think you'll ever
be able to really appreciate it the way it was intended, which was to
live in, which was a lot different than just going out there and seeing
how lovely it us. It's become an artifact. I'm sure that many a building
can exist as artifacts (but) that's when it starts losing it's usefulness,
and somewhat, it's meaning. People are asked to make decisions that they're
not prepared in any way to make about buildings - that's why the leadership
is so important.
CRB: Leadership about what buildings mean to us. It depends on
how bold you are. Our leaders give us comfort. When people comment on
buildings, they're really talking about their comfort level. Do you like
this? You go, "Oh my God I've never seen anything like this before
- I'm not comfortable with it. I don't like it." Then you show them
Building - are you comfortable with this? Even though that building was
as radical . . . when it was built, they say, "I really like that
building, it's brick, it has nice windows." What they're really saying
is, "It's nothing I haven't seen before, so it's OK with me!"
And so the leadership, the level of thinking that you're getting at, is
really essential in the public sector.
South Michigan landmarks ordinance is a good example of trying to
preserve something that doesn't exist anymore. Those building methods
don't exist. Those building types don't exist. So the only way you can
justify some of these . . . buildings is to say, well they do reflect
people then, they weren't very sure of themselves and architecture does
sort of push forward from that. When you look at the buildings that were
done for the World's Fair, the 1893 Columbian
Exposition, (you see) a city that was trying to prove that it was
as good as New York. We're not a cow town anymore, look at us. I don't
believe Chicago is there now. I think this is an important city and an
importance influence, and that's why I can't build that stuff. When I
go to look at suburban schools, I can't build that stuff either because
I think those kids are worth more than that. I think I'm not wrong, so
I have to keep on doing this for a while.