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News:

Newsmaker: Deborah Berke

By Lamar Anderson
September 13, 2012
Deborah Berke 48 Bond
Photo courtesy University of California, Berkeley, College of Environmental Design
Deborah Berke's 48 Bond residential building in New York was completed in 2008.

We may be in the era of the end of men (as recent headlines and Atlantic writer Hanna Rosin’s zeitgeisty book suggest), but it’s hard to imagine that the field of architecture will ever run out of them. Though roughly 41 percent of U.S. architecture students are women, they account for only about 17 percent of firm principals and partners, according to a membership study by the American Institute of Architects. “It’s better than it was, but it’s still not good,” says Deborah Berke, the New York–based architect who on Monday received the University of California, Berkeley, College of Environmental Design’s inaugural Berkeley-Rupp Architecture Professorship and Prize.

Deborah Berke
Photo courtesy University of California, Berkeley, College of Environmental Design
Deborah Berke received the inaugural Berkeley-Rupp Architecture Professorship and Prize from UC Berkeley.
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The honor recognizes architects and academics—Berke is also an adjunct professor of architectural design at Yale University—who advance the standing of women in architecture and whose work promotes sustainability and community. The award comes with a $100,000 prize and an exhibition at the College of Environmental Design, where this spring Berke will teach a studio course—that is, when she’s not traveling back to New York to her office at Deborah Berke Partners, the practice she founded in 1982. Berke is currently overseeing the opening of several projects, including a new music conservatory at Bard College, to be completed by year’s end.

From her office in New York, Berke spoke with Record about her upcoming studio course, the work-versus-family question, and the trouble with the idea of “women architects.”

What will you be working on at Berkeley?

I’m going to teach a design studio that will touch on two subjects that have long fascinated me. One is the nature of the workplace. I’m not so interested in ergonomic chairs, but much more in the broader sense of where people make things. In my studio at Yale this past semester I taught the design of a bourbon distillery in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, because I thought it would be great to actually understand what it takes to make a building in which a process happens.

The other is imaginative adaptation of old buildings—the term “adaptive reuse” sounds so deadly and boring—that creative rethinking of places that have been used for other things in the past, whether they’re brownfield sites or abandoned buildings or military bases or remnants of our industrial past that might be reconceived for an industrial future.

Is gender equity in the profession something you’ll be actively exploring during your residency?

It’s important to me, but I see it as being important in the context of doing good work. I don’t want to be differentiated as a woman architect, as though one is successful as a woman architect but not successful as an architect per se. [Laughs.] You don’t want to be the best Martian architect.

Around 41 percent of architecture students are women, but women represent significantly smaller percentage of working architects.

Yes, it’s really discouraging. Some people think it has to do with the ability to have a family or not, and that simplifies it too much. It’s a much more complex series of accumulated issues, not a single large one because then it would be easy to solve. I don’t think the goal should be solely one of numbers, as in, “Well, if 50 percent of architects were women, then we’d be done.” That’s not the point. Anyone who has the ability and desire to be an architect should be offered the opportunity to pursue the possibility of becoming one. And whether that’s a woman or somebody from a minority or any underrepresented group in the world of architecture—which is almost everybody is what I’m arguing for.

Things have changed a lot since you started your practice.

On one hand things have come a great distance: more than 40 percent of students are women. On the other hand, the overall impact on the profession seems still relatively limited. There are a number of notably accomplished women practicing today—Liz Diller, Jeanne Gang—the list is impressive. We’ll continue to have the exceptional woman practitioner, but I am as interested in the general ability for anybody to find fulfillment in being an architect even if she doesn’t become a star. That is a fabulously fulfilling thing to do with one’s life.

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