The Subtle Power of Deborah Berke’s Architectural Impact
In 1982, Deborah Berke began her career as an architect after graduating from Rhode Island School of Design. Today she is the dean of the Yale School of Architecture and the scale of her discipline is transforming city landscapes.
In addition to show-stopping Manhattan buildings, she’s designed many important academic buildings, such as Lewis International Law Center at Harvard Law School, Bard College Conservatory of Music, The New School College of Performing Arts, and Princeton University Residential Colleges.
As a summer resident of East Hampton, her friendship with the local BookHampton owner has led to a collaboration that indulges Berke’s love of books and architecture that is built into one of her latest Manhattan projects. The Independent was fortunate to speak with her about the project as well as her legacy as an architecture superstar.
What is your relationship to the Hamptons?
My husband, daughter, and I have a weekend house in East Hampton that I designed. They were my clients, which was fun and interesting — and at times rather complicated — but it turned out to be a place where we love to be together. We spend as much time as much time there as we can, along with our friends and extended family.
BookHampton is collaborating with you to design library bookshelves in your latest luxury apartment project, 40 East End. Tell us about it.
The owner of BookHampton is a close friend as well as a client, so it’s a wonderful collaboration. I love books and bookstores, and we were fortunate to have the opportunity to dramatically redesign BookHampton after she bought the shop. Given our shared history and interests, we were happy to be able to put them in charge of selecting the titles for the library at 40 East End Avenue, and I hope it will be a library that the residents really use and enjoy.
You are a legend in the architecture world. How did you find yourself at the top?
Well, a legend is a bit much for my taste. I have been at this for a while and have worked hard to build a practice that I love. I have superb partners and a wonderful team, and I think we have great things ahead of us.
What was the experience like growing your business to this scale as a woman?
I do think women have different experiences, and, as someone who raised a child while working full-time as an architect, I think I am sensitive to work/life balance and to creating a culture in my office where everyone can succeed.
You’re the dean of the Yale School of Architecture, where you have been a professor since 1987. How do your roles running a Manhattan architecture firm and as dean complement one another?
I come from a very different educational background than the school I now run. I studied architecture in an art school environment, at the Rhode Island School of Design, and then I studied urban planning and design at City College. I think my work reflects these two poles of my educational experience — I love making things, and I love city-making, how architecture contributes to the urban ensemble.
You are an Architecture Digest’s 100 Architect and a recent AIA Medal of Honor recipient. What is it like to win such prestigious awards?
I’m much more interested in the work than I am in recognition. But if recognition leads people to our work, I’ll take it.
What have proved to be watershed moments for your practice?
I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the past, but some of the things we’re working on now I think will be really meaningful for us. We won a competition to design The Women’s Building, a new global hub for women’s organizations, and we’re designing two new residential colleges at Princeton, which will allow the university to significantly expand its undergraduate population.
In addition to show-stopping Manhattan buildings, like 77 Greenwich and 40 East End Avenue, you’ve designed many important academic buildings. What draws you to those commissions?
I’ve always combined teaching and practice, so I love designing buildings for academic institutions. I think we’re good at designing buildings that are specific to their place and to the institutions they serve, but that are also flexible enough to evolve as technologies and pedagogies change.
How do you approach your projects?
Listen first. Keep an open mind. Design thoughtfully. Communicate clearly. Design with a vision.
What or who were your influences early in your career?
Eero Saarinen is a favorite of mine. There’s so much optimism in his work. I think people appreciate that now.
Can you talk about the opportunities and challenges your office faces now?
Architecture is inherently tied to the broader economy, so we’re always having to respond to the ups and downs of the market. We try and take a slow and steady approach to minimize risk, because, at the end of the day, our employees have lives and families to support. That’s a challenge and responsibility that we take seriously.
How have you addressed green building and the effects of climate change? Is it a different concern from town to town?
We always try to be sensitive to the environment in our work. We have designed a number of explicitly sustainable projects, including a residence hall at Dickinson College that is one the greenest in the country. I think we’re all beginning to understand that we are facing a climate emergency, and we all must do much more and demand more from each other in order for this challenge to be met.
What advice would you give to young designers just starting out?
Architecture is great and it’s a rich and rewarding field, but I think it is much healthier for architects to be broadly engaged and interested in society and in other fields. So, work hard as you design, in addition to visiting and really “seeing” buildings and spaces by others. Also read a novel. Go to a concert. Explore a part of the city you’ve never visited. It will improve your architecture in ways you can’t predict.
What do you do for fun when you’re not working? Is there time for fun?
Travel. Theater. Food. Friends. Often some combination of those things. I love to swim. It clears my head.
To reach Deborah Berke Partners or inquire about their work, call 212-229-9211 or visit www.dberke.com.