Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
The architect and dean of the Yale School of Architecture speaks to CityLab about her work, her industry, and the cities she loves working in.
“I probably spend more time in places like Indianapolis, Louisville, Columbus, and Lexington than any other New Yorker you know,” Deborah Berke says inside the library of her firm’s office in Manhattan’s Flatiron District.
The Queens-raised architect has been running her own practice, Deborah Berke Partners, for over 30 years now, with a body of work that leans surprisingly heavy on the mid-sized cities of America’s Midwest and East Coast. Most of these projects leave a distinguishing modern mark on handsome 19th-century buildings through design interventions that give new uses and new energy to old spaces.
She’s also the dean of the Yale School of Architecture, a position she’s held since 2016; she has taught at the school since 1987. That combination of teacher/practitioner gives her a particularly valuable perspective on the state of architecture in America today. So CityLab decided to catch up with her to ask her about a few projects she’s worked on and how the world of architecture is changing.
Your firm has done quite a few college-campus projects. At SUNY Fredonia, you added something new to a 1960s campus planned by I.M Pei & Partners. How did you determine its needs for renovation versus expansion?
The campus and its concrete is really pure, slightly heavy-handed Modernism. The original I.M Pei & Partners drawing of the campus is so interesting, with the grand gesture [a circular road that defines the campus boundary]. I like it now; it was so aspirational, but that’s not the way one thinks of it today. The school built giant parking lots and ruined the master plan, so our addition addressed the fact that people were parking in the middle of the campus.
Our work on the Rockefeller Arts Center is a renovation of and a big addition to an I.M. Pei building which had a long concrete wall that was meant to be its back—it’s where the loading docks were—but because of the way parking ended up being placed, it was also where everyone entered. Pei really wanted you to enter it from the other side and then move through the building to the theaters, but this didn’t address how life really works. It was as if he thought people were going to be dropped off at school by their driver or something.
For the new addition, we took the palette of the old building, the concrete, and gave it more depth, better performance with glass and steel as well as concrete. Now, with our building, that really long wall is mostly inside as a long hallway connecting the old and the new buildings. The old character was pretty brutal and non-revealing; there was no interaction to be had with what was going on inside. But with ours, you can see people dancing, people having coffee. It’s a new front door. We added classrooms, sculpture and ceramics studios, and performance spaces.
The sons and grandsons of the local guys who did the concrete work for the original campus are also great concrete guys, so it was fun to work with them and their skill set.
New additions at SUNY schools seem to primarily function as corrections to original mistakes. That’s the main point here, right?
That was huge for us. People were literally entering an arts building through a loading dock. And this school, which is known for its performing arts, had to rent a van to move large instruments from one building to another when all you needed was a hallway. So, part of the motivation for this project was to generally bring the campus to the 21st century, but it was also like, “Hey, we shouldn’t have to rent a van every time we need to move a bass.”
In Buffalo, you turned part of a vacant mental hospital by H.H. Richardson into a contemporary hotel. What were the main challenges with that site?
We were hired to do the middle three buildings, but also, philosophically, you had to start with the central buildings with those towers, you couldn’t start at one end and make your way over.
We wanted to change the entrance from one side to the other. There was an awful addition from the ‘30s or ‘40s, with concrete block and terrible little windows. So, because something foreign to Richardson’s design had already been there, we could take that off and present something of our own—it’s consistent with the history of the building. We needed to remove that section and make a statement to solve a 21st-century problem of getting in, getting to the second floor, finding registration and event spaces, the guest rooms, et cetera. And that space needed to clearly be of another era, not something pretending to be Richardson.
I think some of the best modern designs in Buffalo are understated additions to older, canonical buildings, like Gordon Bunshaft’s black box at the Albright-Knox and Toshiko Mori’s visitors pavilion at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House. Did those approaches inspire you?
Our addition is very much of that spirit. We already had the idea for it before we first went up there, but I think one can imagine that Toshiko and I are of the same era and this is the appropriate strategy for handling these important works by major architects. It has to be of your time and highly respectful of the work you’re dealing with. You don’t ever imitate it or take away from its character. Our glass structure sits in between two corners, letting the Richardson design remain dominant. It was a tight fit to figure out, but it’s the right attitude. It’s new but H.H. Richardson is still the story.
Did preservationists put up any obstacles?
I have the utmost respect for the locals who fought to save this place for decades. I applaud what they did. There were occasional moments where the preservationists were difficult, like about our glass volume coming forward or not forward of the Richardson design, but I mostly agreed with them.
The rooms are small and the hallways are vast, facing south so that the patients could face the sunshine as part of their cure. But when we were brought in to the project, the first drawings we were shown turned the building inside out. It had the hallways turned into guest rooms and blew doors through the patient rooms to turn [them] into a hallway. We thought that that made no sense; it was insulting to the historic integrity of the building.
This was designed around the most humanitarian, forward-thinking mental health ideas of its time. The thought that you could take this space with incredible sunlit proportions and cut it into chunks? Never! You can’t do that. We were going to figure out how to make the rooms work and weren’t going to let that hallway get cut up. So that was not only us siding with the preservationists but collaborating with Richardson, as if to say to him, “We’re in this together, man. We’re keeping your hallways!”
I noticed you do a lot of work for one particular hotel chain around the country, 21c …
We’ve done all of the 21c’s so far. There are eight of them and seven are adaptive reuse projects. The new build is in Bentonville [in Arkansas].
They’re mostly in Midwestern cities, and the brand’s model is based around the idea of having contemporary, provocative, controversial art in a warm and welcoming environment to help revitalize downtowns. I think people who see the art in a 21c hotel are often people who would not go to MoMA or even visit New York—they happen to see art because the hotel restaurant is good, they like the hotel bar, or Grandma is staying there.
The first one was in Louisville, where 21c’s founders—wonderful people, urbanists at heart who intuitively understand that cities are where it’s at—are from. It was supposed to be a one-off because they just wanted to do something for their downtown. But the result was successful beyond what they imagined. Some people from Cincinnati came, saw it, and said they wanted one. So a public-private partnership was formed in Cincinnati, dealing with their theater district, and now their 21c is next to the Zaha [Hadid]-designed Contemporary Arts Center; it’s centered around the same idea of creating cultural density.
Maybe it’s because I came of age in New York when people were living in lofts, but I really love taking old buildings and reusing them for environmental and community-sustainability reasons. This has become the 21c model, doing something of your time and making a clear distinction between old and new.
How does teaching influence your practice?
I’ve been the dean at Yale for two-and-a-half years now, and that position has always been held by a practitioner. Before me [were] Bob Stern, Cesar Pelli, Charles Moore, Paul Rudolph, et cetera. I’ve been teaching forever as part of practice, starting right out of undergrad teaching at an elementary school through a National Endowment for the Arts program. There’s a heavier load as dean, but it’s not new to me. My daughter is grown and no longer home, the practice has grown, and so my partners and other senior people lead more of what happens here. So I’m not the sole head of business here.
How much do you look at the program and determine how it should stand apart from, say, what Harvard or Syracuse is doing?
I wouldn’t define it that way, partially because accredited architecture schools have to have a ton in common. I think at Yale we are distinct because of our Building Project. We’re small and came out of an art school, not an engineering school, so we emphasize the making of buildings, hand-drawing, model-building. Yale has the greatest strengths in the arts out of all the Ivy League schools.
As dean, I’m emphasizing issues of sustainability, building ecology, and environmental responsibility for architects. I think that comes naturally out of Yale’s history, but as citizens of the globe we’re desperate for architects to take on this responsibility. Similarly, with engaging communities that architects have ignored in the past. I believe that built-environment social justice is a real thing and architecture is a part of that. Everyone is entitled to a just and fair built environment, and that can be as simple as beauty—even if it’s just seeing something nice on a walk to work—or as complex as equally distributed infrastructure.
Speaking of Yale, you’re working on a really dynamic project in New Haven called NXTHVN, a neighborhood arts incubator as envisioned by an artist. How did that come about?
Titus Kaphar is a fascinating guy. He went to Yale, studied in the arts school we designed, but we actually met through the 21c people because they collect his work. Kaphar’s work fits in the kind of stuff they want—things that challenge social norms, that provoke. I met Titus at the opening of the 21c in Lexington, an old McKim, Mead & White-designed bank, and his art was in the opening exhibition. We got to talking, realized we had the Yale connection, and then he told me about his interest in doing something like what ended up becoming NXTHVN in Dixwell. I told him that’s exactly the type of work I want to be doing. One building is finished and the artists are now in it as of January. It’ll be complete by the end of the year.
When I think of New Haven, I think about all of its Brutalist architecture. Is that part of what influenced your concrete facade treatment at NXTHVN?
No, I sit in a Paul Rudolph building every day I’m up there so I didn’t feel like I needed to make more of that [laughs].
To go back a bit in your portfolio, the Irwin Union Bank branch you did in 2006 [in Columbus, Indiana] obviously has a lot of design ambition for such a straightforward project. It seems like an “only in Columbus” kind of commission. Was it?
The client really believed in architecture. At the site, there’s a giant Lowe’s, a giant K-Mart, giant parking lots, and then our teeny little building. It’s unbelievably simple: There’s a brick volume that goes one way and a glass volume that goes another. End of story. But by lighting up the building’s upper section, it has a presence beyond its size.
Actually, in the movie Columbus that came out a couple years ago, the main girl in the movie, Casey, has a thing for the building and hangs out there. [Author’s note: It is Casey’s “third-favorite” local building.]
Cummins is a Columbus company, and the Irwin family behind it almost single-handedly made it a mecca for top-notch Modernism. Was the Irwin Union Bank design how you got Cummins’s attention for its Indianapolis office building?
Sort of, in a roundabout way. We had done a library in Hope, Indiana, just outside of Columbus, and through that Cummins invited us to be part of a small competition for that building and we ended up winning. Doing something in downtown Indianapolis felt recognizable, at the right scale, and something I wanted to be a part of.
I probably spend more time in places like Indianapolis, Louisville, Columbus, and Lexington than any other New Yorker you know. I like those people and that part of the country, they feel good to me. [Doing] meaningful projects in mid-sized cities, where you really feel that saving an old building or doing an infill project to make a street feel whole again, to change a downtown and restore its vibrancy, is really rewarding.
What projects do you have coming up that you’re excited about? Things you want to do but haven’t done yet?
I’m excited about NXTHVN being fully up and running. We’re in the midst of designing the biggest project we’ve ever done, which is two new residential colleges at Princeton. It’s a big change for the school to expand by 1,000 students, and it’s a big, fun, challenging design project. We’re also doing a building at Harvard Law School. At a much smaller scale, we’re restoring a barn in Montauk and making it a residency for the Edward Albee Foundation.
As for something I haven’t done, I’m not a religious person, but I would love to do a house of worship or sacred space. A Quaker meeting house, or something like it, where you think about light, quiet, peace, serenity, and self-questioning. Since our lives are so busy and charged these days, I’m thinking of a building where you’d have to turn off your phone before entering. A big theater would be fun too.
How has the architecture industry changed since you started?
I would say it feels different because people who train to be architects train to do many more things, like work at Pixar, design consumer objects, or make video games. What an architect does with a small-letter “a” is broader than it’s ever been before, and that’s fantastic. I think concerns about the built environment are more expansive and broadly defined than ever before. The younger generation of architects is taking on that challenge.
When people ask about change in architecture, it’s phrased in terms of economic cycles, but to get the conversation away from being solely a service industry it’s more important to talk about what architects bring to the larger social discourse. The good news is that it’s a more expansive definition now—it can include nanotechnology, jewelry design, or regional planning.
Architecture has long had a reputation for being a boy’s club. Have you noticed any change since #MeToo?
Well, I’ve been practicing architecture for a long time. The number of women in the profession is increasing. In schools, too. There’s a much more vocal demand to be treated equally, fairly, to not be harassed or assaulted. All of that is really good and necessary. I think the changes one is seeing now have actually been more gradual and continuous. #MeToo is an important moment and a big uptick in this long, gradual change, but it’s not as if the number of women in architecture schools changed overnight. The number of women who are partners in big firms has been increasing and that hasn’t been overnight either—it’s not high enough, but that change is happening. It’s a combination of today’s moment and the work over the past couple of decades that got us here.
Architecture’s discrimination against women and the problems women have had (and continue to have) are signs of a bigger issue, which is that architecture needs to look like the public it serves. Why can’t the profession not only be 50-percent female, but also have more members of every minority community? Of different economic backgrounds? There’s a lot more to be done.