“Our Buildings are Filled with Joyful Moments of Discovery”: A Conversation with Deborah Berke
There are several reasons why I wanted to talk to New York architect Deborah Berke. Her busy office has been in practice for 40 years, six years ago she became the first woman dean at the Yale School of Architecture (where she has been a professor since 1987), and three years ago she joined the Pritzker Prize jury.
Born in Queens in 1954, Berke attended the Rhode Island School of Design, earning a BFA in 1975 and a BArch in 1977; she followed those up with a Master of Urban Planning in Urban Design from the City University of New York in 1984, two years after opening her own practice. Berke also worked at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, an independent research and education centre established by Peter Eisenman that was active from 1967 to 1984, shuttered for 20 years and then reopened in 2003. There, she co-founded a program for high school students, taught in the undergraduate program, and served as the administrator of educational programs and guidance counsellor.
Over the decades, her firm has become known for such works as the Distribution Headquarters for Cummins Inc. in Indianapolis, Indiana; the Rockefeller Arts Center in Fredonia, New York; 21c Museum Hotels across the South and Midwest of the U.S.; the Yale School of Art; and numerous private homes. Her Irwin Union Bank regional branch featured prominently in the 2017 film Columbus by director Kogonada. She has won numerous honours, including a National Design Award from the Cooper-Hewitt. Her current projects include the New Residential Colleges at Princeton University, the Lewis International Law Center at Harvard Law School, and NXTHVN, a not-for-profit arts and community incubator in New Haven, Connecticut.
In our interview, we discussed what the architect’s buildings have in common, what architects should learn from artists, and why identifying the most prominent buildings and architects of our time should be avoided.
Architect Deborah Berke. Portrait by Winnie Au
Vladimir Belogolovsky: You studied art and architecture at RISD and then urban planning at the City University of New York. How was that experience and was there one particularly important lesson that stands out now?
RISD attracted me with its making environment. As students, we were encouraged to make things. But what I learned there, in addition to creating in the studio, was the importance of research. I realized that design didn’t come from your gut; it came from a serious investigation and analysis. At the City University, I learned that multidisciplinary interaction is necessary for a successful project — community engagement, planning, law, landscape, transportation, and so on. I also studied at the AA in London for one year under Elias Zenghelis and Rem Koolhaas, from whom I learned a lot about teaching; Peter Cook, who was on my review at RISD, had recommended I spend a year there. What I learned from Elias most importantly was generosity. His model of critique was a generous exchange of ideas. It is a kind of critique that gets better work out of students, rather than demanding judgmentalism.
What kind of architecture are you most passionate about?
I am passionate about the built environment more than any architecture. Because it is the built environment that impacts so many aspects of the lives of so many people. People often feel powerless and blame others for what is happening in their neighbourhood, on their street, or in their school for example. So, what I am most passionate about is how to make people aware of their built environment and participate in shaping it. I don’t care about building styles.
NXTHVN is a not-for-profit arts and community incubator Berke has designed in New Haven Connecticut. Photo by Chris Cooper
Do you have any examples that could serve as a model for a desirable built environment?
For sure they would not be the monuments that people typically want to see in so-called trophy cities and tourist destinations such as New York, Paris, Shanghai or Dubai. Instead, what I like in cities when I travel is the urban fabric, walking the streets in regular neighbourhoods. I love making discoveries. I like urban experience.
You once said that in order to get work you have to brag about your experience. What do you typically say about your architecture to a potential client?
Did I really say that? I am very uncomfortable about bragging. [Laughs.] But I would describe the work of our office as strong without being aggressive. It is accessible in a way that is intelligible. And that does not mean that architecture should be giving everything away all at once. I think our buildings are filled with moments of discovery that allow you to go back and find something new the next time.
The Cummins Global Distribution Headquarters in Indianapolis, by Deborah Berke, features a landscape that collects, treats and reuses stormwater. Photo by Chris Cooper
You have said, “Our work is transformative: from the reimagination of old buildings to the creation of exquisite new ones.” What do you mean by transformative?
Of course, in adaptive reuse projects, it is easy to see the work as transformative. They are transformed quite literally in terms of their programs. A former mental asylum becomes a hotel, or a warehouse turns into an art school. That’s a very literal transformation. But the idea is to identify joyful moments of discovery that people haven’t seen before, as in the case when a structure, previously hidden, gets revealed. Of course, when you build something new, discovery is equally possible.
For example, when we designed our new headquarters for Cummins’ global distribution headquarters in Indianapolis, we decided to build it on a small footprint to reinforce the “street wall” of a major downtown thoroughfare, Market Street, and to preserve open space on the rest of the block and turn it into a new public park. So, the project became transformative for the city’s downtown district. It was an interesting experiment of creating a new building in the old downtown.
What would you say your buildings have in common and is there conscious progress that you try to achieve going from one project to the next?
Of course, you always want to get better! [Laughs.] As far as progress, I want to work on building types I haven’t done before. I work with the context without being a slave to it. But what we are consistently trying to improve is to make buildings more responsive, responsible, and sustainable. I care about achieving a lower carbon footprint for our buildings.
Would you then say that your most successful buildings were built more recently?
I would. I do think that with experience one can raise the bar for design quality. We now get to design bigger projects with more inventive details, and higher sustainability standards. So, I am very proud of our latest projects, like Cummins and the new Residential Colleges at Princeton University. I think these buildings are modern and beautiful.
The Irwin Union Bank in Columbus, Indiana, is topped with a luminous volume. Photo by Chris-Floyd
That’s the one. I wonder what’s inside its charismatic lantern.
Nothing! Well, that’s not true. When you use drive-in banking, you pass under the pneumatic tubes that transfer checks and cash. So, these pipes are in the glass lantern, and the space is not habitable. The idea was to design this tiny building exactly as you describe it — like a lantern. You drive under a glazed ceiling and inside is just lighting. The only place where you can see what’s in it is from the banking hall. You look up and see this enormous beautiful light monitor floating directly above. All around the bank, there are enormous big-box retail stores and factories. So, we had to do something that would not dwarf this building by just about everything that’s around it.
You have said that there’s nothing ornamental about your architecture. Could you elaborate?
The word “ornament” does not apply to my work well. I would say that our buildings are not superfluously decorated. In a way, they are ornamented by expressive brick detailing, joint detailing, and the depth of a window recess, for example. So, I use the tools of architectural detailing to ornament my buildings.
Would you say your work is minimalist?
My work has been described that way. But I feel that the word minimalism has lost its meaning. In the 1980s and ’90s, minimalism meant something more extreme. Projects like John Pawson’s Calvin Klein Collections Store on Madison Ave in Manhattan or Claudio Silvestrin’s White Cube Gallery in London were the embodiment of minimalism. I don’t quite know what it means anymore. There is no longer an explicit definition.
The Rockefeller Arts Center features an arts complex addition, while dramatically re-conceiving the 1968 I.M. Pei complex on the SUNY Fredonia campus. Photo by Chris Cooper
You’ve also said that architecture should be messy and unfinished. What other words would you use to describe a kind of architecture that you try to achieve?
Not messy like a teenager’s bedroom. My idea of messiness is to use details that provoke scrutiny. I want to reveal traces of the process of making. In that way, I would not call myself a minimalist. Other words would be “inviting” and “generously challenging.” The idea is this — come, have a look, and think.
You became the dean at Yale six years ago. How would you describe what you have accomplished there so far and what are some of your priorities?
I increased the amount of financial aid and I want to continue doing that. I don’t want people to be discouraged from pursuing a career in architecture because of the burden of debt. But what I am really passionate about is expanding the conversation, especially through an interdisciplinary approach on our campus. The idea is that we, architects, can learn from our academic colleagues and we can teach them something about how to improve our built environment. I think these conversations and exchanges of ideas are what a university is all about.
For example, we’re doing some design courses with the School of Public Health on issues of accessibility, and we’re working with the Law School on examining and addressing slavery in contemporary construction around the world. Also, you can do a joint degree with the Yale School of the Environment. And we work closely with Yale’s two art museums to expose students to their world-class collections. They’re full of inspiration. What’s important is to be engaged in these conversations with students and faculty.
Who would you say is the coolest professor at Yale right now?
I am not going anywhere near this question. There are so many of them! This fall we will have Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, Peter Eisenman is teaching with a guest cameo appearance by Frank Gehry, and we will have Francis Kéré teaching together with Martin Finio. Our advanced studios often have more than one leading professor. I have no favourites among them, but it is the conversations that are great.
You’ve been teaching architecture at Yale for over 30 years. Do you have a favourite building in New Haven?
My favourite building on campus is Rudolph Hall, which is what the original Art and Architecture Building is now called. The spaces inside are extraordinary for teaching and for community building due to its series of shared double-height spaces. I am also a big fan of Morse and Ezra Stiles Residential Colleges by Eero Saarinen. They are beautiful and I like walking by them. I am a fan of Saarinen, in general. People like the Ingalls Rink, a hockey rink, known as the Yale Whale, but that’s easy to like. And I do. [Laughs.] But another building that I really like is New Haven’s Union Station — a shoebox of a building but with such enormous windows that let in the most beautiful light and the sheer volume and its enormous ceiling height of, I’m guessing, at least 40 feet is volumetrically simple and beautiful. This one big room is beautiful.
The serene North Penn House, a low-slung residence in Indianapolis. Photo by GLINTStudios
Saarinen or Kahn; who do you prefer?
I love Kahn and I was inspired by his buildings even before studying architecture. I had a childhood friend who went to Exeter in New Hampshire. I saw it when the library was just completed. When I saw it, I was just stunned. So, I like the work of both architects, and both are inspirational to me. But if you force me to choose one… OK, Kahn is the one. But I like Saarinen’s buildings at Yale a tiny bit more than the ones by Kahn. Still, I like other buildings by Kahn more. The two Kahn buildings on campus — Yale Center for British Art and the Yale University Art Gallery — are great but I go there for peace, not for provocation, which is what I like about Saarinen.
You have served on the Pritzker Prize jury since 2020, awarding the Prize to Grafton Architects that year, Lacaton & Vassal last year, and Francis Kéré this year. What do you think about these decisions and do they indicate any particular changes in the profession?
I think these decisions indicate the broadening of the kind of work that the jury looks at. The jury looks at the overall quality of the work, not a specific characteristic. Grafton Architects, I think, both fit and challenge their context well. Lacaton & Vassal do adaptive reuse projects passionately and elegantly. And Francis Kéré does his work in Africa with humble materials and it is genuinely beautiful. So, the kinds of work and careers that are now celebrated may be different from the times when Philip Johnson was awarded the prize.
Now the laureates may have more diverse backgrounds, which has been true for a long time. Kéré is from Africa, the first time for a Pritzker winner. But that wasn’t the reason for the prize. There are no quotas of any kind. It is all about the collective decision of the jury. So, these latest prizes are not indicative of changes, but they represent an evolution of the profession.
A rendering of Berke’s New Residential Colleges at Princeton, which comprise eight buildings on the southern end of the campus.
What one building would you nominate as the most significant structure built in America since 2000?
I would never do anything like that in my life. What a crazy idea! I think questions like this are a part of a problem. When I hear this sort of question, I don’t hear the question of direction, influence, or impact, but that we need another superstar. I think such an approach to making or viewing culture is wrong and destructive.
You once referenced the performance artist Laurie Anderson as the New Yorker you’d most want to hang out with. You said, “She’s totally cool and inspirational and endlessly creative. I want to know how she inhabits her life.” What can architects learn from artists?
To spend more time focused on their work and less on chasing the next project.
And, typically, artists are much more proactive by simply doing the work and not waiting for a commission, right?
That’s right. As a writer or a painter, you go to your studio, you close the door, and you write your novel or paint your painting. If no one ever reads your novel or your painting doesn’t get to a gallery, you still go to your studio and you do your work. And if you have to earn your living you can work as a cab driver or a waiter. That self-motivation is important for architects as well, whether it is a sketch every morning or a walk to look at buildings, but it is absolutely necessary to do work beyond responding to a commission. That’s what architects should learn from artists of all kinds.