“We should look to art schools for inspiration”

An interview with Deborah Berke

Deborah Berke is one of the most prominent figures in architecture in New York. With her eponymous firm comprising eleven partners and fifty staff, she designs institutional buildings as well as private homes around the country. Over the course of her more than thirty-year career, she has maintained a practice in teaching and has been the Dean of Architecture at Yale University since 2016. Here, she talks about how learnings from the pandemic could have a positive influence on architecture.

In an interview with journalist and author Kyle Chayka, who presented his research at the Vitra Summit, you mentioned that the pandemic has held some valuable insights for you, your staff, but perhaps also for other architects and designers. Could you give an example?

As we all know, during the worst of the pandemic at 7pm each night, people here in New York – and elsewhere – would lean out their windows, stand on their fire escapes or go up on their roofs to bang pots and pans. Primarily, this was about thanking the first-line responders, nurses and doctors, but this was also about something else. It was about defining the space of the street and saying, “Public space is still ours. Even if we can't go there now, we're going to own it by sound.”

I think it was a way of defining space beyond the way we are used to, and doing it collectively. For the past few months, the streets have become more populated, and for instance in my neighbourhood, all the personal trainers who cannot use their gyms have started to train with their clients on the building site scaffoldings. So as architects and designers, this could inspire us to realise that there are many more ways to inhabit space, and to navigate it, than we are used to. To think more broadly about the way public space can be used, inhabited, and designed.

How could architects translate this into their practice?

The pandemic has forced us all to develop new relationships to our environments, to our homes, where we now also work or generally spend more time, to our work places, and to public space. This could teach us architects to be much more sensitive to other stimulants and cues and to integrate these into our work. An existing reference I would like to mention here is Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., which was founded 150 years ago and is the only liberal arts institution geared to the Deaf and hard of hearing in the US. The doorbell there used to function by dropping a lead weight on the floor, and the vibration would alert inhabitants. About ten years ago, a design movement was born at Gallaudet called DeafSpace.

The researchers involved wanted to create a new approach to architecture inspired by the particular ways deaf people perceive and inhabit space and the way they have always adapted the physical environment, which is generally designed for the hearing. But this approach does not only work for the Deaf, but for all kinds of people. Vibrating floors when someone approaches, or changing light conditions to signify a certain event, they are just completely different cues. During the pandemic, we all had to quickly adapt to new ways of inhabiting and interacting in space. So here in my firm, we used to regard the areas in which we work as quite separate. We design houses, offices, as well as schools and universities. And I think what we're starting to realise is that the distinctions between the types of spaces are blurred now. The pandemic gives us the opportunity to question our old ways. In designing, we can cross-pollinate.

Can you give an example of how this new approach has influenced the work you do?

Here at my office, we have been greatly inspired by art schools – art schools as a precedent and inspiration for all kinds of spaces, living or work spaces. I will tell you why: Firstly, art schools have different sized spaces to facilitate time spent in solitude and time spent in groups. When you go to art school, there are moments when you work by yourself, and moments when you work in groups, to critique or display work, to exchange ideas. Secondly, everything needs to be pretty flexible.

Art schools are built to be adaptable. Third: Everything is durable, you can create a mess or drive a nail into the wall. Fourth: Natural light is important. And so on. I think those kinds of spaces are inspiring because they're really about use. And what we're figuring out in this pandemic is that all of our spaces should be made with greater flexibility and nimbleness in order to deploy them for many, many uses – from working at home to being with family, for day-to-day business, and for special occasions.

Do you have any particular building in mind when you think about this?

Well, I'm going to talk about a project we are just on the verge of completing in my office where we have the great privilege of working with the artist Titus Kaphar. He is African-American artist who – together with others – started an artist residency programme in New Haven called NXTHVN (pronounced Nexthaven). The artists get individual studios to work in, but there's gallery space and also communal gathering space. And I would say NXTHVN, which is both beautiful and down-and-dirty, would be a place where we could all live at very happily. It is not pristine, but it allows you to do almost anything. A three-year old would be happy there, and a 93-year-old would be happy there, which is another way to talk about this. A good space accommodates the needs of everybody. I would say NXTHVN might be the perfect space from which we all could learn.

In case you missed a session or would like to replay one you found particularly interesting, recordings in English, German, French and Mandarin are now available at summit.vitra.com until Monday 2nd November 2020.

Publication date: 29.10.2020
Images: © Deborah Berke Partners NXTHVN; Winnie Au;

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