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Deborah Berke, could you describe yourself and your practice?
I’ve been practicing architecture for more than twenty years. The practice has grown
from being a desk in the middle of my studio apartment to a thirty-five-person office
that provides services that include master planning, urban design, traditional archi-
tecture as it’s understood, interior design, and actually even decorating; we offer a
full range of services. Some of our clients elect to take only one and others elect to
take advantage of more.
Who were your mentors in teaching you about design?
Judith Wolin, who was my teacher at the Rhode Island School of Design, was my
literal, most direct mentor. I was at RISD in the 1970sit was very much an artsy
environment. What Judy made appreciable to me was the idea that your work was
good if you brought an intelligence to it, and if you brought to it the idea of revisiting
and editing and reconsidering; in other words, a rigorous form of self-critique.
I then taught at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies. Spending five
years in the company of Peter Eisenman, Anthony Vidler, Kenneth Frampton, Mario
Gandelsonas and Julia Bloomfieldin an environment that valued intelligence and
inquirywas the next chapter of mentoring. After that, I took a radical departure
from that kind of straightforward education and it became about taking what I had
learned in that environment and applying it to the things that I have always intuitively
cared about, which is the found and not the consciously created. Now I would rather
wander the back part of the city to discover the decrepit oddities. I’m taking the
word “mentoring” and morphing it into inspiration.
At what point in your life did you feel confident about starting your own company?
When I got out of school there wasn’t any work for architects, so my first job was in
the graphic design department of an enormous multinational engineering firm that
had its headquarters in New York. This job was not intellectually challenging, and
I started hanging out at the IAUS, taking courses. Eventually, I got a job as admin-
istrator of the educational programs under Mario Gandelsonas and then became
a teacher there. Augmenting that salary, I taught in two elementary schools; the
NEA in those days put artists and architects into public schoolsthey paid $100 a
day, which was a lofty sum. The courage to open my own practice came less from a
sense that I finally have a job and I can open the doors, than I finally have enough
other kinds of jobs. I can print up some business cards, put a straightedge on my
coffee table, and say that I’m in practice. Thats how it worked for me.
I think it’s very cyclical, to the extent of depending on the coincidence of when you are ready in
terms of confidence, experience, and opportunity, and when the natural cycles of the economy
give you the sense that you can sustain it—that doing the garage addition for your cousins
next-door neighbor is not going to be your one and only chance to design something, that
there will be a job after that. When those two things are in sync, then you are ready.
What phase of a design project do you find to be the most satisfying? The most educational?
The most challenging?
I love the very, very beginning. I love seeing the site for the first time, whatever the site might
be. I love talking to people in the very beginning and I love schematic design. I love study
models. I like sketching. I like thinking. I like falling asleep with forms in my head as I doze off.
I find the well-executed detail or the exquisite piecing together of a large set of documents
interesting, but its not my thing. There are terrific people in my office who do that well, and I
can work with them to make sure that I feel there is the kind of wholeness and integrity to the
project that I want it to have. But I do that more as a critic, whereas in the early stages of the
project, Im the creator. Is it the most educational? Yes, in that its the most challenging and
forces me to think.
What is your approach for starting a project?
I don’t arrive at a project with a preconceived notion. I try to educate my clients about the fact
that they should have no preconceived notions either. If somebody comes to you and they
want a house, theres clearly going to be some place where food is stored and prepared and
some place where people are going to sleep, but beyond that there are many notions you dis-
pense with when you begin to examine the program and the forms that people automatically
associate with the program.
I think that, for me, all design processes are reiterative processes, and for how I work, the
client needs to participate in that process. I’m not the kind of designer who says, “Here it is,
take it or leave it.” What I become in the reiterative process is a salesman, to ensure that
the result I see is the result I can get them to agree to. There’s the candid truth: At a certain
point, you get the client to embrace the idea and form as enthusiastically as you are embrac-
ing it.
What is the role of technology in your practice? Is it a tool for design, or does software allow for
a more creative exploration of the design process?
One of my partners lives in Reykjavik, Iceland. He spends one week of each month in New
York, and the rest of the time he’s on our server from his office there. That has proven to be
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