Deborah Berke and Her Work

As a teen in New York City, Deborah Berke was naturally drawn to architecture as she studied and sketched the houses of varying styles in her own neighborhood. She was inspired to enter the field upon learning that a woman, Natalie DuBois of SOM, had been the lead architect of one of her favorite buildings in the City.

In her practice, Berke is keenly attuned to architecture that nurtures the process of creating. “I have long been interested in work and the workplace. I am drawn to places where people make things–from schools and studios to factories and boatyards. There is nothing more fulfilling for me as an architect than creating spaces for making. I also care passionately about cities, and am interested in the workplace as a creator of community and of urban revitalization,” explained Berke in her proposal to the Berkeley-Rupp Prize Committee.

Deborah Berke

Deborah Berke’s passion for the interrelation of architecture and the creative act is embodied in Yale University’s new School of Art and New Theater, completed in 2000. The project—housing the graduate painting, photography, and graphic design programs, undergraduate art programs, and the Drama School’s New Theater—preserves and adapts several architecturally significant areas within existing building and ties in an adjacent new building. The result is a single school that functions in the background to what is most important: art and the making of art.

Berke’s work is recognized for its refined aesthetic—a deliberate and subtle crafting that doesn’t overshadow the use of the space. Style, in her attention to detail and use of materials, is rigorous but not pretentious. “Beauty must be a function of simplicity, composition, and quality rather than expensive materials or structural gymnastics,” Berke explains. 48 Bond Street, an 11-story ground-up residential building in the NoHo area of New York City designed in 2008, demonstrates this aesthetic. It features a taut facade of flamed charcoal-grey granite with canted bay windows providing a play of shadows on the granite throughout the course of a day. A structurally-glazed glass and zinc curtain-wall at the street-level and setback provides a delicate juxtaposition for the hovering stone.

The selection committee was impressed by Deborah Berke’s focus on the character of place. Berke holds strongly to the belief that architecture must be of the “here and now”—grounded in its place and time, connected to its physical situation, shaped by its location. She creates buildings that would not be complete anywhere else except where they are; where place defines the design of a building more than the signature of the architect.

This approach has naturally kept Berke and her work below the radar of those obsessed with celebrity architectural statements. The impact of Berke’s projects are experienced through their subtle beauty, attention to detail, sense of place and not least important, the experience of being in the space itself. She has a deep respect for the individuals who work, live and create in the spaces she designs.

Berke’s “here and now” philosophy, born from her love of New York City and its singularly unique and varied urban design experiences, is seen in the Marianne Boesky Gallery in West Chelsea designed in 2006. The exterior’s glazed white brick is supplemented by materials that are at home among the old warehouses, garages, and the elevated railroad that lend the neighborhood its industrial character.

Deborah Berke’s approach to sustainability was influential in cementing the committee’s choice. Berke is a proponent of adaptive re-use and has successfully reshaped many buildings including Industria Superstudio, an auto shop she transformed in 1991 into a photo studio and restaurant. Many of her projects demonstrate the connection between the reuse and reinterpretation of the built environment, and environmental responsibility.

The award-winning 21 C Museum Hotel in Louisville Kentucky is an excellent example of her talent for redefining legacy structures. In 2007, four contiguous historic buildings were readapted to become a ninety-room hotel, 6,000 sf art gallery and a world-class restaurant. The project was awarded AIA Kentucky Design Awards’ Honor Award and AIANYS Design Awards’ Excellence for Historic Preservation/Adaptive Reuse.

Berke’s commitment to sustainability carries though in her teaching where, as adjunct professor of architectural design at Yale since 1987, she develops studios that deal with industry and social sustainability. “The 21st century workplace must be sustainable and environmentally responsible and must contribute positively to the urban condition,” she declares.