21 questions with architect Deborah Berke

Photo illustration: slowed down; Photo: Winnie Au

New York’21 Questions’ is back with an eye on creative New Yorkers. Deborah Berke is the founder of Deborah Berke Partnersthe architectural office behind 40 East End Avenuethe 21C Museum Hotelsthe Yale School of Artand the interior at 432 Park Avenue† She has been the Dean of the Yale School of Architecture since 2016 and is the first woman to hold the position.

Name: Deborah Berke
Age: 68
Neighbourhood: Yorkville
Activity: Architect

What’s hanging above your couch?

There are windows above my couch and I live in a ground floor maisonette, so people and dogs walk up there.

What’s the first job you had in New York?

The National Endowment for the Arts used to have a program called Artists and Schools. It would pay young architects, designers and artists of all kinds – poets, dancers, choreographers – to go to public schools and teach. After architecture school, I taught young children “architecture principles” in Flatlands, Brooklyn.

What color are you always attracted to?

I like the lightest aquamarine blue imaginable. I have a thing for water, not so much the color of water but the color of the light on the surface of the water. In the most unique types of sunsets, the color on the horizon is actually neither pink nor blue – it’s this pale aquamarine with a hint of green that is mysterious and beautiful.

What art or artifact are you most surprised to own?

When I was a very little girl, we lived in a house in Flushing, Queens, which had been built by a man who was plaster and made the decorative motifs you might see in the Plaza Hotel – the streamers, the curls, the 3D musical instruments all made of plaster and attached to the walls. The basement of the house was filled with boxes of decorative plaster. I kept a few pieces when we moved. I have had a rosary that is two inches wide and 16 inches long and very fragile. Knowing my architecture there’s nothing ornate about it at all, that’s why this is unusual for me.

Which New Yorker would you like to hang out with?

Laurie Anderson – she’s totally cool and inspiring and endlessly creative. I want to know how she lives her life.

What’s the last thing you made with your hands?

My mother died last year at the age of 99 and lived in the same house for 60 years. She saved everything† I found an architectural model I made in school in the attic. It is an eccentric dome made of wood. It was broken, so I glued it back together. Now we print components in 3D and assemble them together, and I’m not involved in that anymore. Fixing the model was so much fun that I told my husband I needed a studio, not for architecture, but just to make things.

Is there one thing you have multiple versions of?

I have so much glassware. I inherited something from my mother, mother-in-law and grandmother. I buy glassware at yard sales – the thin Finnish stuff and the colorful Italian pieces. I could throw a party and everyone would have a different glass.

Which museum in New York City do you always go back to?

I keep going back to the Museum of the City of New York. It’s always somehow about New York, but you’re constantly learning something, whether it’s about Mannahatta Island before the settlers arrived, or about jazz or hip-hop or doll houses. It is a very focused look at very broad matters.

What do you always have next to your computer?

Three things: coffee, a writing pad and a pencil. I find typing responses to emails deeply and deeply unsatisfying. The only satisfying thing about email is deleting it. So I always write notes for myself or sketch an idea. I need a pencil in one hand to balance the screen.

Where is the best view of the city?

There is a certain flight pattern when you usually come from anywhere in the rest of the United States, descend the Hudson River and you fly parallel to the avenues. If you sit on the east side of the plane, you can see through the streets of the crosstown. I love that view of New York. I have endless pictures of it in my phone, only I was staring out the window at that pattern.

What building or object do you want to redesign every time you see it?

Can I only have one answer?! There are many abandoned power plants around New York. Some have unfortunately broken down. But there is one on the south side of 31st Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. It probably had something to do with Penn Station. I don’t want to redesign it; I just want to think of something fun, whimsical and playful that people can do before they get on or after they get off a train. It would be a shame not to do something nice with that building.

What would you change about your field?

Anyone who wants to become an architect should be able to become one. I think there are many hurdles on that path. One is the cost of architectural education and what it takes to get into the field. So what I would change about my field is to make it more accessible. There would be a more diverse group of people who practice architecture and think about architecture and the built environment. If people could gain a better understanding of how to create and shape the built environment, they would not feel helpless or have no voice. They can be one of the creators and creators, or they can be outspoken critics and participants.

If you could live anywhere in New York City, where would it be?

In the 79th Street Boat Basin, in a boat I would design.

What would you hoard if it’s no longer being produced?

Blackwing pencils, sure. The eraser is a rectangle, even though the pencil is round. The outside is glossy black and the lead is the perfect softness.

What do you do to get out of a creative rut?

I walk along the water.

Where was your first NYC apartment and how much was the rent?

I grew up in New York, but my first apartment on my own was on Spring Street between Mott and Mulberry, in what was then Little Italy. It was a small three story brick house built in the 1820s. I rented the top floor, which was literally in the roof. It was amazing. It had wooden beams and small dormers and a deck at the back. I paid $300. It belonged to an older woman who was an artist. The building was demolished some time ago.

Where in the city are you going to be alone?

Well, if I lived on a boat in the 79th Street Boat Basin and wanted to be alone, I’d just sail down the river and I’d For real alone. Since I don’t have my boat in the boat basin yet, I walk along the East River. I’m not alone, but when I look at the water, I can be alone in my thoughts.

What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever received?

“Wear a skirt.” It belonged to an elderly relative who said, “You always have to look good when you go to work.” It was presented as career advice, but it was sexist and overbearing.

What have you given away to someone that you wish you could get back?

I gave my father’s little golden pillbox to a not very good fellow who was my friend at the time. It’s not that I need a pill box, but it would be nice to have something small that belonged to my father that I could hold for a physical connection.

What is your favorite restaurant in NYC and what is your regular order?

There is an Italian neighborhood not far from my apartment called Nica Trattoria. It probably has six tables inside and maybe four outside since COVID. It is small, and the man who owns it has a big personality. It’s a classic New York experience. Every time I go there I get the cauliflower as an appetizer.

What descriptive phrase would you like on the headline of your obituary?

Generous.

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