Arch prof Deborah Berke wins U.C. Berkeley prize

School of Architecture professor Deborah Berke won a $100,000 prize from UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design for her efforts in sustainable architecture and advancing women in the field.
School of Architecture professor Deborah Berke won a $100,000 prize from UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design for her efforts in sustainable architecture and advancing women in the field. Photo by Yale School of Architecture.

On Monday, the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley, awarded School of Architecture professor Deborah Berke with the first-ever Berkeley-Rupp Architecture Professorship and Prize. The jury for the $100,000 prize selected Berke for her commitment to the advancement of women in architecture, as well as her focus on sustainability. Berke, the founder of Deborah Berke and Partners, will teach a class at Berkeley this spring before returning to Yale in spring 2014, where she has taught for the past 25 years.

Q What are some of the challenges facing women architects today?

A I think the issue for me is less about the specific challenges that women architects face ­— although there certainly are those challenges — and more about making sure that both women and others whose backgrounds are underrepresented in the current practice of architecture have the opportunity feel like being an architect is possible if that is what they want. There must be challenges, because 50% of architecture students are women, but only about 20% of licensed architects are women. Women disappear somewhere along the way. I think there are a host of reasons — having a family is one, but there are a host of other small reasons that accumulate to have an impact. My hope is that the field of architecture is open to all communities.

Q How has the presence of women architects changed since you were in school?

A There has absolutely been progress. Overall, there is more diversity — women, multiple ethnicities and a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds are better represented in architecture than they were. But I don’t think this has been as true [for architecture] as for law and medicine. It’s definitely better, but it could be more better.

Q Why do you think it has been difficult for the field of architecture to attract and accept a more diverse group?

A I think that at all but the highest echelons of the profession, architecture is less well compensated than other professions. There are some people who are born to be architects the way Mozart was destined to be a composer. But if you’re an intelligent gifted person who could do architecture but could also do something else, you would perhaps do something else because of either the compensation or the quality of life. I find architecture a deeply fulfilling life to have led, and I think that’s a reason people should pursue it, but I think people are turned off by the long hours, the relatively low pay, and the difficulty of finding work in hard times. This certainly could affect [the number of diverse professionals in the field]. That’s my gut reaction. I’m not a professor of gender studies.

Q Shifting gears a little, one element of the Berkeley-Rupp prize involves teaching a class at Berkeley. What are your plans thus far?

A I’m very interested in teaching a design studio that will be about buildings and spaces where people make things, a studio about manufacturing and the process of making in an urban environment. I think since being a child I’ve been drawn to the sort of gritty aspects of cities, the making aspects of cities. I’m still fascinated by those kinds of spaces, so teaching a studio in that would allow me to further explore what I’m interested in.

Q How will you incorporate sustainability into this exploration of manufacturing spaces?

A I think I see sustainability at a very broad level that includes sustainable communities, the engagement of architects in their communities, and the use of old buildings. I’m interested in sustainability as it relates to technology, but more in looking at it with the broadest possible definition.

Q You taught a studio at Yale last semester involving manufacturing, specifically on the design of bourbon distilleries. How did the topic of sustainability play out in that class?

A For some of the students, their buildings were driven explicitly by sustainability within the distilling process. Other students were interested in the other aspects of sustainability, such as reuse of the site and creating urban jobs.

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