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Chicago Architecture Beyond the Boys Club

In a city known for steel spans and broad shoulders, women’s design sensibilities aren’t the first things that usually come to mind—but Chicago has been intensely shaped by women architects

By Laurie Petersen

In time for AIA Convention 2014 in Chicago, the organization Chicago Women in Architecture (CWA) is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. It began when Gertrude Lempp Kerbis, FAIA, invited other female architects to meet informally at her office. She knew the challenges of working in the male-dominated field, and wanted to form a network of like-minded women. Kerbis had been among a very small number of female architecture students at the University of Illinois, where she received a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering; and then at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where she received a masters degree in architecture in 1954. Kerbis established her own practice in 1967 after working for two of Chicago’s largest firms and feeling frustrated by the lack of opportunities for advancement. She is now semi-retired, but her legacy lives on in the many female-led firms in Chicago.

Kerbis had joined SOM in 1954 and worked on the team that planned and designed the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. Her dining hall on the campus was SOM’s first long-span structure. When the academy was completed, Kerbis and many colleagues left SOM to be part of the team at C.F. Murphy Associates that was designing O’Hare Airport.

Kerbis’ most important work in Chicago is at O'Hare, where her Rotunda building still makes a strong structural design statement. The Rotunda was completed in 1963 as a link between Terminals 2 and 3. Its round shape was well-suited to providing a variety of restaurants and services for both terminals. The unusual challenge was to design a column-free, 200-foot-diameter span. The concrete slab roof is suspended from steel cables that run from a central tension ring to a circular concrete beam supported by exterior columns. The ceiling’s oculus and concrete ribs, along with an elegant double stair, are still prominent features. The most famous of the original dining venues was the glamorous Seven Continents Restaurant, for which the building was originally named. In an inevitable evolution of travel amenities, the Rotunda has recently been rebranded to emphasize wellness and sustainability, with a bamboo-floored yoga room and an aeroponic garden—the world’s first to be located in an airport.

One of the younger women to answer Kerbis’ call and join CWA was Carol Ross Barney, FAIA, who has gone on to run one of Chicago’s most vital architecture practices. Her firm, Ross Barney Architects, has won numerous local and national design awards for school and university buildings, libraries, transit projects, and government commissions, including the replacement U.S. federal building in Oklahoma City, Okla. High-visibility local work includes two stations for the Chicago Transit Authority’s elevated Green line: a new station currently under construction at Cermak Road that will serve the McCormick Place convention center and the widely publicized Morgan Street Station. The Cermak station will be partially enclosed by an enormous steel tube, whereas the Morgan station makes extensive use of glass, polycarbonate, and perforated stainless steel to maximize transparency. It makes an appropriate aesthetic statement for the West Loop neighborhood that is transitioning from gritty wholesale markets to cutting-edge restaurants and boutiques.

Two other Ross Barney infrastructure projects are creating recreational spaces from underutilized land. The Chicago Riverwalk is transforming eight blocks of Loop waterfront into parkland. Land reclaimed by rerouting Wacker Drive is now the tranquil oasis of Veterans Memorial Park, and pedestrians walking east are protected from the bridges above by stainless steel canopies. The master plan for the remaining six blocks (formulated in conjunction with Sasaki Associates) calls for a public amphitheater, among other amenities. Also under construction is the Bloomingdale Trail, a 2.7-mile linear park on a former raised freight rail bed. Ross Barney Architects led the design team that created the framework plan for the trail, which is officially named The 606 after all City of Chicago zip codes. The trail will weave through four Chicago neighborhoods on the city’s northwest side, offering residents biking and walking trails as well as spaces for public art and leisure. It is perhaps the most salient example yet of how the city is harnessing its disused industrial infrastructure to create more livable and healthy neighborhoods.

Jeanne Gang, FAIA, Chicago’s best-known female architect, and one of the most celebrated women architects in the world, also has a large-scale landscape transformation under construction. Northerly Island, a manmade peninsula in Lake Michigan created for the 1933 World's Fair, lies offshore just north of McCormick Place. Plans by Studio Gang Architects and SmithGroupJJR envision a nature preserve on the southern 40 acres of the 91-acre site. Trails, boardwalks, and a new bridge will provide access to camping areas, wetlands, and coastal habitats, including a manmade reef.

On a smaller scale, her South Pond Nature Boardwalk in Lincoln Park showcases a restored wetland habitat, while the curved shell of the Peoples Gas Education Pavilion frames the downtown skyline. Gang’s best-known completed project is the Aqua tower, which is the tallest building designed by a woman-owned architecture firm. She is now designing another residential skyscraper for the same Lakeshore East development, which convention attendees might hear more about during her convention keynote speech on June 26.

Patricia Saldaña Natke, AIA, focuses her vision on Chicago’s underserved communities. Pilsen is a traditional port-of-entry neighborhood that continues to attract a large immigrant population, especially from Mexico. La Casa Student Housing was designed by Saldaña Natke’s firm, UrbanWorks, as a new model for upward economic mobility. Students from the community live in suites and receive support services as they attend various colleges and universities around the city. On a larger scale, Saldaña Natke envisions the transformation of a disused railway corridor in Pilsen into a textile creation center and fashion incubator.

UrbanWorks has also designed many charter and public schools in Chicago. A multiple-award winner is UNO Veterans Memorial Campus, a former bakery the firm remodeled to house two elementary schools and a high school, with community spaces available after hours. A double-height glassy addition trumpets the campus’ identity and accessibility to the neighborhood. The more recent UNO Galewood Elementary School also became an instant neighborhood icon.

The preceding projects present just a small sample of the accomplishments of Chicago women architects. Cynthia Weese, FAIA, has distinguished herself as an educator (dean of the Washington University in St. Louis architecture school), a civic leader (like Kerbis, as president of AIA Chicago), and a designer. After a few years of working for her brother-in-law, Harry Weese, she resumed her independent practice and was joined three years later by her husband, Ben Weese, FAIA. Their firm, which is now Weese Langley Weese, is well known for its educational, civic, and middle- and low-income residential work. Her Chicago City Day School addition on the North Side is a small gem of a building that creates an identity and civic presence for a previously unremarkable campus.

Among Chicago’s preservation architects, Anne Sullivan, FAIA, is highly regarded for her work on Henry Hobson Richardson’s Glessner House and the preservation plan for James Renwick’s Second Presbyterian Church. She is a respected educator and the director of the graduate program in historic preservation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

One of Chicago’s rising design stars is Jackie Koo, AIA. Her Wit hotel brought a jolt of visual energy to the North Loop, with its chartreuse lightning-bolt façade. At the other end of the economic spectrum, she has designed subsidized housing for the Park Boulevard development on the city’s West Side.

Laurie Petersen is the editor of the third edition of the AIA Guide to Chicago, to be published in June by the University of Illinois Press.

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Gertrude Lempp Kerbis’, FAIA, Rotunda at O’Hare Airport. Image Nate Lielasus, AIA.

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A canopy under the Wabash Avenue Bridge, part of the Riverwalk designed by Ross Barney Architects. Image courtesy of Kate Joyce/Hedrich Blessing.

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Jeanne Gang’s, FAIA, Lincoln Park pavilion. Image courtesy of Steve Hall, copyright Hedrich Blessing.

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Patricia Saldaña Natke’s, AIA, La Casa Student Housing. Image courtesy of Anthony May.

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