How Deborah Berke Became One of Architecture’s Most Visible Women

The accomplished architect and Yale School of Architecture dean opens up about how she gets the job done—roadblocks and all.

Deborah Berke in the materials library at Deborah Berke Partners. Photo: Winnie Au.

There’s something to be said for an architect who’s been commissioned by Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania. “Oh, yes, we’re hitting all the Ivies,” jokes Deborah Berke as she points to a rendering of two forthcoming residential colleges at Princeton. Indeed, the silver-haired designer with the sly smile and monochromatic black wardrobe has, over the past 30 years, earned a reputation as the architect of choice for cultural institutions, mission-driven organizations, and deep-pocketed art collectors. For the past three years, she’s also been dean of the Yale School of Architecture, where she has taught since 1987. Combined with her recent appointment to the Pritzker Prize jury, Berke is one of contemporary architecture’s most influential figures.

Unlike many of her A-list cohorts, however, Berke doesn’t design buildings known for flashy sex appeal—brainy and beautiful are more her style. And she firmly believes that stellar modern architecture ventures beyond cutting-edge materials and technology. Much of her work involves adaptive reuse, having transformed two old factory buildings in New Haven into the arts center NXTHVN and a Ford Motor plant in Oklahoma City into a museum-cum-boutique hotel for 21c Museum Hotels. Her 80-person practice, located on lower Fifth Avenue, is thriving. Recently, she and her two longtime partners, Maitland Jones and Marc Leff, added eight partners—four men and four women—to the firm. “It reflects how we are growing and evolving,” says Berke, acutely aware of the responsibility of being one of the profession’s most visible women. “I’d like to be a role model for how practices go forward.”

Exterior view of the Rockefeller Arts Center at SUNY Fredonia. Photo: Chris Cooper.

How did you decide to become an architect?

I was 14, and had an older friend who got into Cooper Union to study architecture. We’d walk around my neighborhood in Douglaston, Queens, and look at the elevation of houses. We’d try to figure out their layouts and draw them. One night, I told my parents I had decided to be an architect.

Were they supportive?

Yes. We didn’t know any architects, but I grew up in a creative household. My mother was a fashion designer and Fashion Institute of Technology professor, while my dad ran a trade organization (though if he didn’t have to support a family, I think he’d have been a novelist).

What kind of kid were you?

I was always drawing and took as many art classes as I could. After ninth grade, public school wasn’t the best fit, so I went on scholarship to an all-girls boarding school in Massachusetts. I finished high school at the end of 11th grade and enrolled at Rhode Island School of Design a year early.

How did you get your first job in architecture?

The economy wasn’t great, so I worked as a graphic designer for an engineering company. I started hanging out and attending lectures at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies—Peter Eisenman’s place. A friend and I proposed to start a program for high school students, which resulted in me running the institute’s educational programs.

Marianne Boesky Gallery. Photo: Catherine Tighe.

How did you end up teaching at Yale?

I was teaching at the University of Maryland and had a small practice in Washington, D.C., when I was invited to review first-year graduate students at Yale. I got into an enormous argument about the nature of ornament with Kent Bloomer, a wonderful professor who’s, like, the world’s expert on ornament. It was early in my minimalist phase—I was young, feisty, and argumentative. After that, the dean invited me to apply for a job.

What are your responsibilities now as dean? And how on Earth do you do both jobs?

I set curriculum, hire and manage faculty, and communicate up the food chain to the provost and president, and then throughout the school, watching out for the students, working with committees on lectures and symposia, raising money, and basically making sure everything runs smoothly. Every week is different—some weeks I’m at the practice more days, and vice versa. It’s like doing two full-time jobs. I have one daughter, who’s now 26, and I wouldn’t have accepted the deanship if she was still at home.

What’s the hardest part of practicing architecture for you?

Robert Gutman [a sociologist at Princeton devoted to the study of architecture] once said that an architect must do three things: They have to get the work, do the work, and run the office—and it’s impossible to do all three well. The part I’m terrible at is the running of the business. Happily, as this office has grown, my partners have taken over that part.

What about getting the work? What’s your secret to winning jobs?

That’s hard too—you have to brag a little bit, which is not my skill. But I’ve found that my interest in non-architectural fields has been key to getting work. For instance, I know nothing about music, but if I meet someone who runs a conservatory, I’m eager to learn about acoustics and whether there are parallels between teaching a music student versus an architecture student.

Tell us about a job that you didn’t win.

Many years ago, I was interviewing for a job to expand a family compound in New England. I was invited by the client to stay in their old house, and on the first morning of my visit I was supposed to meet the family for breakfast. When I got into the shower, I somehow got locked inside. I had to kneel on the floor and unscrew the screws on the door hinges with my fingernail, which got torn in the process. I made it to breakfast half an hour late, bloodied and bedraggled. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.

(LEFT) Detail view of the granite and glass facade of 48 Bond Street in New York, NY. Photo: Catherine Tighe. (RIGHT) A concept sketch for the unbuilt Art Sanctuary at Bard College. The project was a collaboration between Deborah Berke and Kiki Smith.

Why did you change the partnership structure of the firm?

We’ve seen generations of male architects with very long careers—I.M. Pei and César Pelli, for example—but haven’t seen the equivalent for older women. There are a handful of really accomplished women architects—how we conduct ourselves going for- ward will be important.

What are your most important criteria for hiring people?

My partners don’t let me do the hiring anymore. [Laughs] They think I’m too nice. What counts is creativity, rigor, and collegiality. People tend to overemphasize creativity. Everybody wants to be a design genius, but there are so many other aspects: running a studio, understanding contracts, dealing with contractors, and getting decent photography of a project—that also require creativity, thoughtfulness, collaboration, care, and rigor. We don’t premiate one over the other.

Architecture has the reputation of being very white and very male. But from the photos on your firm’s website, your staff seems quite diverse.

We’re evenly male/female and try to be as diverse a community as possible, given who studies architecture. Architecture has so many underrepresented minorities—socioeconomic background is a big piece of that. One of my goals at Yale is to raise as much financial aid as possible.

What have you learned about managing creative people?

Acknowledge creative accomplishment when you see it, and be respectful and supportive. [Restaurateur] Danny Meyer talks about managing with “constant, gentle pressure.” I believe in that.

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