The founder of Deborah Berke Partners, a New York-based design firm, Deborah Berke is a lecturer across the United States and a professor at the Yale School of Architecture. She will begin her tenure as Dean of the School of Architecture in July of 2016, replacing former Dean Robert Stern. WKND sat down for an interview with Deborah – in her sleek, minimalist office on 5th Ave – to talk about her new role and goals as dean.
Q: Have you always been interested in the educational as well as the creative side of architecture?
A: I have been teaching architecture for as long as I can remember. When I got out of architecture school, I immediately started teaching. There were not that many jobs available in architecture — the economy was tough and there was a National Endowment for the Arts program, which put poets and dancers and architects in public schools. So I was teaching kindergartners in Flatlands, Brooklyn and fourth graders in Babylon, Rhode Island through this NEA program when I was in my early twenties. That led to developing a program for high school students at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies. That led to teaching college students at the Institute. That in turn led to post-graduate school and then teaching at the University of Maryland, Miami, RISD and eventually at Yale. So I’ve always been teaching and I like it.
Q: Will you continue to teach in addition to being dean of the School of Architecture?
A: I will start teaching again in a few years. I feel like I have a lot to learn about being dean and a lot of responsibilities to take on. So I’m going to stop teaching for a while and then resume.
Q: How have you been preparing to assume the office of dean?
A: I have been meeting individually with every single faculty member in a confidential conversation. I would describe it as building a mosaic portrait of the school through a lot of different opinions. It’s been fascinating and fantastic. In a few weeks, I’ll be meeting with the students in small groups to learn their thoughts and opinions on the school. So my preparation has really been an in-depth careful look at what we think we’re doing internally. And I’ve also been looking at other schools, what they do well, what we can learn from them.
Q: There have been a lot of conversations on campus about the role race and diversity play at Yale. Is that a discussion you’re interested in furthering at the School of Architecture?
A: Absolutely. I think architecture, as a profession, needs to be a better reflection of society as a whole. We need greater diversity in genders, in race, ethnic background, socioeconomic background. We, architecture, need to look more like the population we serve.
I think there are many ways to address that. My initial goals will be to try to recruit a more diverse faculty, and, as importantly, if not more so, students from more diverse backgrounds.
Q: What did you most like about the way Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65 moved the school forward, and which of his initiatives would you like to carry over into your own term?
A: I think that Dean Stern did a great job, and he really strengthened the reputation of the school and the rigor of the program. I’m going to build on that, and just broaden the outlook.
Q: Stern emphasized the role of hand drawing and traditional methods. But after talking with a lot of students, I’ve found many are frustrated with the lack of emphasis on technical skill and urban policy classes. How will you create a balance between these two areas?
A: Well you asked two very different questions. One [relates to] technical skills and to staying as current as possible with the broad reaches of digital technologies. I’m certainly going to do more of that, and I’m also interested in the broad reaches of building technology.
But the second half of that questions is about the urban politics and urban policy, and I think the school can increase offerings in that area, and offer courses that will be of interest to students outside the school of architecture. I think there’s an enormous interest across the board in urban politics, and I think the School of Architecture can play a role in that discussion.
Q: Columbia, Penn, UVA and Princeton all have women in lead roles at their architecture schools. Now you’re taking a leadership position at Yale. What does the changing status of women in architecture mean to you?
A: Well, it’s funny; the question about the female deans at all of the leading schools has been asked fairly frequently. I would say, women are qualified for these jobs, and they have been for a long time, and it’s being recognized and that’s good. I think women in architecture — as practitioners, theorists, academics and observers of the discipline — need more and better representation. It’s happening at a few of the leading schools, and that’s great, and I hope it becomes an opportunity to lead by example, so that more schools do this — hire more female faculty members — and through that process encourage women not only study architecture, but to also stay in the field. That’s where the numbers grow weak. Women start in architecture and don’t stay. Either they don’t complete their degree or they don’t get licensed.
Q: Is there an architect whose work or teaching inspires you most?
A: No, and not because I’m not inspired by a lot of people. I’m inspired by a lot of people, but not in terms of my own work. I am most inspired by the quirks and the anonymous in the built environment. The sort of gritty, dirty, unobserved places are where I find inspiration. That’s one answer.
This sounds so hokey, but I’m going to say it. My mother is 94. She taught fashion design at FIT for 25 years coming out of WWII. She was a fashion designer during the war. She worked doing engineering drawings as part of the war effort, and she remains creative to this day. She draws everyday — not digitally. She is a role model for never losing her creative spirit.
Q: Do you and your mom have the same aesthetic?
A: I think I’m a little more minimal than my mom. But she’s a purist and she’s a believer in great craftsmanship.
Q: Speaking from personal experience, what advice would you give to undergraduate students today?
A: I would advise undergraduates to go out and get a job that stretches their definition of themselves. Stretch the definition of yourself, because when you’re young, you have the chance to do that. I would say for grad students — and I think this might be a place where I disagree with Stern -— if you’re finishing architecture school, spread your wings a little bit. You don’t have to come to New York, you don’t have to work for a big firm, but always stay actively creative.
Q: What do you want grad and undergrad students to walk away with when they leave the School of Architecture?
A: For graduate students, I want them to be highly knowledgeable as architects as well as profoundly culturally literate people. One of the great things about being at Yale is that, in addition to working on your architecture projects and courses, you can go to theater performances, museums and lectures in an incredibly broad array of disciplines. I want our students to do that and go out in the world with that kind of knowledge base.
And honestly when I think about Yale college students and the broad type of offerings, I think Yale College students lead three lives: They have their academic life, extracurricular life and their social life. It’s like every day is three and a half days long and fully packed. That’s great, but I think the same rules apply, which is push yourself to take advantage of the things you don’t typically think you’re interested in. If you don’t think you have any interest in economics, go to a lecture at the School of Management. If you’re not a science brain, still go to a science lecture. The offerings are so broad and the opportunities for intellectual stimulation are so extraordinary. Life doesn’t present that very often, so I would say take advantage of that.
Q: Did you ever have any flirtations with another career, or did you always know you’d be an architect?
A: I thought I was going to be an artist. I am hugely appreciative of what artists do. But I was destined to be an architect.