Interview with Deborah Berke

Publication Date
October 2, 2015


EW Congratulations! What was your initial reaction to the news? Did you find out in the same abrupt way that we did?

DB There is a search process for the dean, and I went through the process, though I don’t know who else the Committee and the President considered, it is all done with the highest discretion, which I think is correct. I did learn a few days before it was announced to the University community.

AS In your opinion, what do you see the dean’s mission being? How do you envision the relationship with the student body, the faculty, Yale College, other graduate schools and the wider profession?

DB Yikes, that’s a big question. (laugh) I think it is the dean’s responsibility to both teach and connect students across the university and within the School of Architecture. The dean should also provide support to faculty along with the shared vision of what architectural education should be, both as a discipline and as a profession.

EW How do you see the YSOA in comparison with its peer institutions? What do you think the strengths of the YSOA are, and perhaps more importantly, what do you think is lacking?

DB Yale is a part of a group of what I would describe as equal institutions — Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn, and other institutions around the country, that all have different strengths, different sizes, different curricula and offerings. This is not major league football_—the goal is to attract the best students who seek what we offer. As for the second part of that question—_I’ve been an adjunct faculty member teaching part-time at Yale for a number of years. I teach only one semester out of every four, so I will immerse myself deeper into that world and landscape as I get closer to starting the job.

AS Students are mostly interested in the trajectory of the YSOA in the future, and many of the professorships have been kept empty in anticipation of the new dean. As you make new hires, what principles will be guiding your decisions?

DB I am going to look for gifted teachers and accomplished architects from as broad of a variety of backgrounds as I can find. Diversity is a word that is thrown around so constantly now that in some ways it has lost its meaning, but I would like there to be as large a variety as possible of socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds. As important, if not more so, is a strong architectural philosophy, and ideally, a gift for teaching.

EW It’s interesting you mentioned socioeconomics as part of diversity. One of the major challenges facing the students today is the unaffordable tuition at places like Yale. How do you see the YSOA being more accessible to people of different economic backgrounds? Is that something you’re willing to take specific measures about?

DB It is my goal, even though raising money specifically for scholarships is not something that can be accomplished overnight. It is, of course, one of the big issues in architecture when students get out of school in debt, because the field is not remunerative enough for them to then pay it off. It’s not like when you get into debt in business school, where you know you’re going to get a high-paying job when you get out. Architecture is a little different, and it is my objective for education to be accessible. Students should be able to get out of school with less debt, or no debt. Though I can’t achieve that overnight, it is a goal and a strong belief of mine.

EW In what ways can the YSOA foster interaction with other professional schools? Do you see our current insularity as an issue, and what can be done to break that down?

DB How to break it down_—_I don’t know yet. It’s going to be another one of the goals I have when I start the position. I think it’s not just the question of a joint degree, that’s a few people doing a small thing. I think it’s much more about dialogue, conversation, taking courses, engaging faculty and students across the disciplines that are present at Yale because that’s what university is meant to be. It’s a worthy goal that I will be figuring out how to achieve as I get to know the job better.

AS The announcement of your deanship garnered both positive and critical reactions from students. In particular, we heard mentions of your work as catering primarily to a wealthy clientele. We spoke about diversity and you being committed to making the YSOA accessible to all different backgrounds, but how do you see the work that you do relating to, or perhaps conflicting, with your pedagogical aims as a dean?

DB I don’t want to say it’s an unfair criticism, but I think it’s somewhat naive criticism. Not all of us can only do disaster relief housing and shelters for those in need. We do a lot of pro bono work in my office, only it doesn’t get the same kind of press as the other work—nor does it need to. We use some of the funds that we make from our more high-profile projects to subsidize other activities we think are important. In some ways, architecture is a profession where people come to us with a project, site or goal in mind. We don’t say yes to everything, but we say yes to the work we find interesting. It can be interesting for social reasons, aesthetic reasons, for where it is, or for whom it is. That is the first part. The second part of my answer is that my beliefs as an educator are broad, whereas what I do at my office is about my office. I think Bob is a good example, actually. Although his firm does a very specific kind of work, he has brought a fairly wide range of opinions and practitioners to the school. I would like to build on that legacy with an even greater variety of perspectives.

EW Final question from us — the theme for this issue of Paprika is the relationship between video and architecture. We have been looking for interesting contributions that explore this theme, and wondering if you would be able to recommend a film that has most influenced you as an architect?

DB Wow, I don’t think I have ever been asked that before… There really is not one film that has influenced me as an architect, but I am adamant about seeing films in theaters; in large black rooms where the space of the filmmaker’s vision feels as though it surrounds me. When I feel that I am inside of it, and I can inhabit it like architecture, that is magic for me, and that is why I still adamantly go see films in theaters.

Publication Date
October 2, 2015
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Coordinating Editors