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Architect Deborah Berke Creates Beauty Out of Simplicity

Over the past 25 years, Deborah Berke has built a successful career as an architect. Her designs have won acclaim worldwide for their elegance and practicality. They also have reflected her philosophy that architecture is not an end in itself, but a setting that is enhanced by its use. Yale University Press - which usually publishes retrospectives on great architects - has just released a book on Berke's work, its first on a living architect.

Berke has designed and produced dozens of projects through the architectural firm she established in 1982 in New York, the city where she was born and raised, and where she was inspired to become an architect.

"I grew up in a neighborhood in Queens, a modest neighborhood with small houses close together on the streets. Every house was different," she says. "As a young teenager on summer nights, I'd walk up and down the streets, fascinated by the relationship between what the house looked like on the outside, what lights were on and what I could ascertain about the inside."

"I remember so clearly an August evening. I was 14 years old. I went home and said to my parents, 'I am going to be an architect,'" she recalls, laughing.

Design plays vital, if subtle, role in life

Since then, Berke says she has never lost this fascination with the relationship between buildings and people. She says buildings play a vital role in our lives. They are where we live, work, think, worship, enjoy arts and listen to music.

"There are those buildings that we absolutely sort of engage in an intimate way: our home, our workplace and so on," she says. "And there are those buildings that are less of an intimate part of our lives, but nevertheless are a part of our lives. You walk past them on your way to the office, or it's the building next to where you drop your child at school. It still has a presence in your consciousness."

Being aware of that, she says, makes architects more careful about the impact their designs have on people.

"I think architects need to and do address both of these things simultaneously: I, the architect, make something for you, the user. And then also, I care about what you feel when you walk by my building," she says. "You don't even have to go in it. You don't even have to know what goes on inside of it, but there should be something about its surface, its proportion, its relationship to the context that still speaks to you and gives you comfort."

Everyday architecture

That's the essence of the architecture, Berke says, and the cornerstone of her own philosophy. She calls it architecture of the everyday. She favors simple, elegant buildings that look like they belong exactly where they are and couldn't have been built anywhere else.

"I think we are currently existing in a world where various places have become all the same," she says. "A kind of 'placelessness' is the most familiar condition, and I can't stand that. I want to get back to each place being unique. That doesn't mean to build old-fashioned-looking buildings in the 21st century, but it does mean that you would want to acknowledge local materials, or local ways of dealing with the climate, whether it would be deep overhangs in the South or no north[-facing] windows in the North."

New book traces Berke's career

Twenty-one projects that span Berke's career and reflect her philosophy of design are featured in a new book by Yale University Press. Images of the project that brought her to national attention - a group of austere buildings for the planned community of Seaside, Florida - are included in Deborah Berke by Tracy Myers. There's also the Irwin Union Bank in Columbus, Indiana, which features a huge translucent glass box that seems to float above the building and allow natural light into the interior... and the 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky.

"We took 19th-century warehouses that had been abandoned and idle in the heart of downtown Louisville and turned them into a contemporary hotel that has an art museum in it," she says. "So there is a lot of embedded energy in an old building. A lot of effort went into making it. There's a lot of materials there. To tear it down is to throw all of that energy away. To rethink how you might use it saves that energy and allows it to be rolled back into contemporary society."

Berke's design for the Yale School of Art is also included in the book.

"I felt enormously, not only comfortable with, but happy working on behalf of creative people," she says. "In other words, the spaces that I was making for them in the Art School were not about making spaces that said, 'Look at me. I'm a great architect. Look at this.' It was more spaces that could be in the background, beautifully made, beautifully proportioned but very much background spaces so that the work of these young artists could be the thing that was in the foreground."

Designing for the 21st century

Berke says she believes her simple style of design is more needed today than it was when she began her career more than 20 years ago.

"The 21st century didn't start in the year 2000. It started probably this fall, when the global economy collapsed and we really now need to start thinking differently about how we build buildings," she says. "Some of that is the issues of energy. Some of that is also a visible austerity, which to me would be a positive thing.

"I think we want an architecture that's matter-of-fact, sensitive to its context, an architecture that makes a virtue out of economic necessity, an architecture where beauty is the result of simplicity and composition and quality of making, rather than expensive materials or crazy structural gymnastics. I think that's what this current, 21st century, wants."

Berke says she hopes the book of her works will inspire young architects to adopt a simpler yet still beautiful approach in designing. She'd also like it to inspire people everywhere to pay more attention to the buildings in their neighborhoods, and try to influence the way they are designed.