Deborah Berke on succeeding Stern at Yale and tackling architecture’s diversity problem
Last September the architect Deborah Berke was named the next dean of the Yale School of Architecture. The appointment was important for a couple of reasons: Berke was succeeding Robert A.M. Stern,, a man generally acknowledged to be one of the school’s most successful deans; and she is part of a new wave of women deans at leading architecture schools. Upon taking over on July 1st, Berke will continue to lead, Deborah Berke Partners, her New York-based firm. Berke’s latest book, House Rules (Rizzoli), appears in May, with a second one, Working (Artifice Books), scheduled for the fall. We spoke last week about her new job, the challenge of diversity, and the culture shifts being driven by students.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
DB: Deborah Berke
You were named dean in September. How have you spent the last 6 months preparing for your new role?
It has definitely been a long prep period. One of the things that I’ve been doing is meeting individually, privately, in complete confidence, with each member of the faculty. I’m almost done. And that has given me the chance to learn and build a mosaic portrait of the school, based on their opinions and observations. I’ve asked them: what do we do well, what do we do poorly, what they would change? And that’s allowed me to better understand the school.
How many interviews was that? That’s got to be quite a few.
More than 60.
You face the unenviable task of succeeding Bob Stern, who is generally regarded as a very successful dean. I remember all of the handwringing when he was appointed, the fear that he would impose his “style” on the school. What they conveniently forgot was, in addition to being an architect and educator, he was also a historian. Talk about succeeding Bob.
Bob brought a new vitality and breadth to the school, when he took over as dean eighteen years ago. So, yes, he will be hard to succeed. But my interests are different, and we’re in a different time. Bob was appointed in the 1990s and I will be dean in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century. That’s a big span. Many things have changed. So I feel that I am very much the first dean of the 21st century, in a way. And that will inform a lot of my decisions. But I want to build on his model, in terms of the breadth of people who come to join us. I want to increase the school’s diversity, and I want to work closely with our strong, regular faculty, and the broader faculty of Yale University.
You’re one of many women deans at architecture schools right now. Yale, Princeton and Columbia all have women deans, and there are a number of others as well. Does that mean anything? Is this a historic shift? What’s happening?
What it means is, we’re all qualified. I think people on appointment committees, college presidents and boards, noticed that there were a lot of qualified women, and it was time.
This might be a good time to talk about the recent AIA diversity survey, which illustrated what people already knew. That the field, as much as it wants to be, as much as it talks about being diverse, really isn’t very diverse. How do you address that?
You’re right. It’s not a diverse field, and it’s a complicated issue. People ask: why are there so few African American architects? Or, why are there so few Native American architects? I think it goes back to early education. Because, if you have the wherewithal to get out of a challenging environment, architecture is probably not the first thing you think about going into. You might think about medicine or law or maybe banking (if your goal is to make money). But you don’t often think about the built environment, because no one has ever told you that there are careers doing that. There are also many ways, for many different kinds of people, to be engaged with architecture. One of those ways is by becoming an architect. But it’s just as important to architecture that people who are knowledgeable about it become social workers, community activists, senators, funders of the built environment. Education about the built environment that starts early and is repeated often, is the key to increasing architecture’s diversity, as well as the diversity of architecture’s audiences.
You’re right. Once you get out of our architecture bubble, you realize that it doesn’t have the reach that it should.
The truth of the matter is, the built environment affects everybody, and yet no one knows how to talk about it, engage it, work with their elected officials so that their voices are heard. Nobody knows how to do that. We even hear it in places like New York: “They are building all of these big, horrible buildings!” Well, who’s they? Developers, yes, but it’s also the zoning code. How do you decide a zoning code? You don’t vote on it. People you elect to city council occasionally get to vote on whether to rethink it. Architects need to do a better job making people aware of the forces shaping their built environment.
It’s interesting. I’ve asked a few non-architects, non critics, people from outside the bubble, to write about these things, and most of them say they aren’t “qualified.” And I tell them: “Of course you’re qualified. You’re a user of the building.”
I totally agree with you. And the interesting thing is, we’re now an urban planet. Rapid urbanization means that the issue that you and I are discussing—the inability of citizens to engage and talk about architecture—is global issue. It’s everybody’s environment. It’s about their mental health, physical health, the health of their children, the shape of their cities. All of this now affects everybody.
You mentioned that you’re, in essence, Yale’s first 21st century dean. The field is in the midst of rapid change, due in large part to technology. What once took 30 architects to design and build, can now be done with four architects and some powerful software. What does that mean for the future of architecture? And how do schools prepare for this almost unfathomable future?
I think the question of technology is more complex than that. Digital technology has impacted architecture in two primary ways: in design, and in the documentation, coordination, and relationship with consultants. We can draw, conceive and model things that we couldn’t in the past. The point you’re making—that certain aspects of the work can be done by fewer people, in varied locations—is a piece of it. But only a piece of it. There are other aspects as well: building construction technology, new materials, high performance materials, new ways of analyzing structure and performance. At the same time, we’re living in a very paradoxical world, where in some places, ancient means of construction are still used, and in other places, the newest of the new means are being employed. So, to circle back to your question: what does it mean for architecture schools? Oy! It’s that much more to teach, in no more time.
Even twenty years ago, three years wasn’t enough. Now the body of available knowledge is constantly expanding, and it’s even more challenging.
This is also a question that can never really be answered, because there is always perpetual change and advancement. To my mind, the goal of any school needs to be both nimble and clear. Be clear about what you’re teaching, and nimble about what you’re able to accommodate in your curriculum.
There seems to be a culture shift going on in architecture. The Chicago Biennial was dedicated to the idea of social engagement, and the Venice Biennale will also look at architecture through that lens.
This is really good news. It’s one of those pendulum swings that does happen in cycles. There is intense student interest in broader social issues: technology and equal access to it; rapid global urbanization; who’s included in decisions about the built environment; the questions of sustainability and resiliency in an era of climate change. There are probably about a dozen boxes that one could check off. Having everyone refocus on these issues is a healthy thing. It’s definitely happening, and it’s good.
Featured image: 21c Museum Hotel Lexington; Lexington, Kentucky.