In Conversation

Moving toward an inclusive architecture

Yale School of Architecture Dean Deborah Berke discusses “architecture of the greater good,” increasing diversity in the profession, and her work at Yale.
Dean Deborah Berke

Dean Deborah Berke

In September 2015, Deborah Berke was named dean of the Yale School of Architecture, becoming the first woman to lead the world-renowned institution.

As dean, Berke has led efforts to expand financial aid, established programs examining issues concerning environmental sustainability, recruited top-flight faculty, and forged collaborations with other schools and departments on campus. She was recently reappointed to a second five-year term as dean.

Berke, an accomplished architect who has taught at Yale for more than 30 years, recently spoke to YaleNews about her plans for her next term, which begins July 1. The interview has been edited and condensed.

In your opening lecture for the Fall 2020 Yale School of Architecture events series, you described a need to move toward “an architecture of the greater good.” What does this vision entail?

The Yale School of Architecture has always been one of the most highly regarded architecture schools in the country, if not the world. It’s renowned for the quality of the design work and has produced a long list of influential architects, including Norman Foster, Stanley Tigerman, Judith Chafee, Mazharul Islam, Marion Weiss, and Maya Lin.

When I started talking about an architecture of the greater good, it was not with the intention of replacing that history of great design and renowned alumni. Rather, it was to build on it, and to say that, within our teaching of architecture, we must emphasize that good design is inclusive. It demonstrates a concern for the community. It produces buildings in which everyone feels welcome and comfortable. Given the global climate crisis, an architecture of the greater good is concerned about our shared environmental future. It produces buildings that have minimal carbon footprints. It relies on sustainable supply chains and repurposes old buildings and materials in ingenious ways. It is concerned with justice. It acknowledges that housing and health care are human rights. An architecture of the greater good can be thought-provoking, unique, and beautiful, but it’s always considerate of others.

How are you putting that idea into practice?

Again, we’re building on our history. Since 1967, our Building Project has offered first-year architecture students the opportunity to design and construct buildings that provide affordable housing and strengthen communities. It started in the 1960s with students traveling to Kentucky and helping people in Appalachia build community centers and other facilities that improved their neighborhoods. For the past five years, the Jim Vlock First Year Building Project has partnered with Columbus House, a local organization that serves people who are experiencing homelessness in New Haven. Our students design and build houses that provide beautiful, affordable homes for people in the organization’s support system.

It’s important to note that beauty is part of this. We’re not attempting to replace good design with something else. We’re adding more responsibility to good design. And part of that is the belief that everyone is entitled to a little beauty in their life. Beauty and architecture are not just for those who can afford fancy, expensive buildings. Anyone should be able to walk down the street in their community and be uplifted by their surroundings.

What initiatives has the school undertaken to address the climate crisis through architecture and design?

The Yale Center for Ecosystems in Architecture — under the direction of Anna Dyson ’95 M.Arch, the Hines Professor of Sustainable Architectural Design — is engaged in exciting cross-disciplinary research aimed at creating a truly sustainable built environment. They’re developing resilient methods for creating buildings and cities that can co-exist in harmony with the natural world, and seeking innovative ways to supply energy, water, and materials sustainably.

In the same vein, we established the regenerative Building Lab, which gives students the experience of designing and building a structure while considering every aspect of its design and construction with an eye toward reducing its carbon footprint. Alan Organschi ’88 M.Arch, a senior critic at the school, directs the lab. He led the team that completed the lab’s first project: a teaching and coastal research center for the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History on Horse Island, a property the museum owns in the Thimble Islands, about 12 miles from Yale’s main campus. They put an extraordinary amount of thought into reducing the building’s environmental impact throughout its lifespan, beginning with building methods and ending with how to repurpose the structure’s materials once it’s no longer in use. And they made a beautiful building to boot, one that fits comfortably into the island’s living ecosystem.

You’re committed to increasing diversity both at the school and within the profession. What steps are you taking to meet those goals?

The architecture profession suffers from an embarrassing lack of diversity. Many groups are underrepresented in the field, including women, but particularly African Americans and other people of color. We’re doing a number of things to address this problem. One is broadening the lens of who teaches here. Our guest faculty come from around the world. Two years ago, Francis Kéré, who was born and raised in Burkina Faso and trained in Berlin, taught here. Walter Hood, a landscape architect based in Oakland, served as the first Diana Balmori Visiting Professor. Tatiana Bilbao, from Mexico City, is currently teaching here. These are accomplished architects who are exposing our students to how architecture is thought about and pursued in cities across the globe.

In that sense, we’ve launched collaborative efforts with other schools during the pandemic. Last semester, Justin Garrett Moore, who is now with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, taught a course here on race and the city called “Urban Difference and Change” that was taught simultaneously by Dr. Samia Kirchner at Morgan State University, a historically Black university in Baltimore. This semester, we’re doing a shared course called “Fugitive Practice” with Howard University taught by Jerome Haferd and Curry Hacket. These collaborations are about sharing resources and developing rich cross-institutional conversations.

What steps have you taken to attract a diverse student body?

Architecture is an incredibly rewarding profession, but architects don’t make very much money straight out of school. The low entry salaries make the idea of paying back student loans very daunting. I think the best way to attract the most talented students is to ensure that people can study here without borrowing large amounts of money. To that end, I’ve been working very hard to increase financial aid. Over the past four years, the total amount of financial aid we provide annually has increased from roughly $3.5 million to $5.7 million.

That increase alone has changed the kinds of students who apply to the school and those who are able to come here after being admitted. We have a significantly more diverse student body, both in terms of American and international students, due to our ability to offer more financial aid.

What do you most enjoy about being dean?

I love the combination of going out into the world and telling everybody all the great things we’re doing at Yale, and then coming back to campus and seeing the extraordinary design work and research being done by our students and faculty members. It recharges me — and then I go back out into the world again with new energy. That back and forth is enormously satisfying.

I also appreciate how the school sits at the intersection of so many disciplines: the arts, sciences, social sciences, public health, and the humanities. They all converge within architecture. That means we can readily collaborate with colleagues from all over Yale. That’s a wonderful place to be.  

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