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Top Women Architects Shine in House Plan Designs

Now is Their Time: Women Architects Rise to the Top with Their Vision, Hard Work, and Passion


Architecture is still a male-dominated field.

But even as the gender inequality debate rages, women architects continue to make inroads in their profession. Like Julia Morgan and Marion Mahony Griffith – pioneers of the late 1800s and early 1900s – today’s women architects – professional women whose unique and innovative work have catapulted them into the international scene – are distinguishing themselves by boldly stepping into the limelight with their creative designs and innovations.

We spotlight the achievements of Zoka Zola, Cory Buckner, Elizabeth Diller, Kazuyo Sejima, Amanda Levete, and Deborah Berke.


Zoka Zola

Famous for her "Zero Energy" Houses

Zoka Zola is a Croatian-born architect who is considered “one of the most influential architects of the new generation.” She has a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Zagreb and a Master of Arts in the Humanities from the University of Chicago-Division of the Humanities.

After working for architectural firms in Rome, Vienna, and London, Zola opened her own firm in London. While there, she designed several public buildings and restaurants and served as a senior lecturer at Oxford. In 1995, she received the “Young Architect of the Year Award” in the United Kingdom.

Then in 1997, Zola and her husband, Peter Pfanner, moved to Chicago so that he could head up Motorola’s cell phone design studio. She worked as an adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, joined a local architectural firm, and started her own studio in 2002 – after she finished building Pfanner House.

Zoka Sola on her architecure philosophy, including a discussion of Pfanner House, her home and studio in Chicago. At minute 2:23, a view of the exterior facade of Pfanner House shows differently sized windows that give a glimpse into the home’s interior. Other photos in video include: Brick houses, including Pfanner House, are predominant on this Chicago street; intriguing exterior façade with the street-level window attracts passersby, who can actually engage in conversations with people inside the house – from the smaller window; in back, Pfanner House has another huge window.


Pfanner House

Pfanner House is Zoka Zola’s first American project. She started building it the first year she and her husband moved to the U.S. It took five years to complete and was immediately a sensation in her neighborhood, within the industry and across the country.

In 2003, Pfanner House won Architecture Magazine’s Home of the Year Award as the best house in North America. It was also included in Kenneth Frampton’s American Masterworks - Houses of the 20th and 21st centuries. Pfanner House illustrates Zola’s belief in open spaces, a connection to nature by linking the interior with the exterior environment.

Located in Ukrainian Village on the west side of Chicago, the orange brick Pfanner House blends in with its neighborhood, but also stands out for its minimalist modern style and the many windows that adorn its simple exterior façade. There’s a large street-level window, another one above it, and other smaller windows around the house. Through the windows, passersby can see back walls and trees in the side yard. The floor plan was designed so that its balconies, terraces, and windows open the interior of the house to the street.

As Zola describes it: “The house explores an architectural concept of Opening. Not an opening that merely extends the space … instead, an opening of one space to another space.” And throughout the house, there are views of space opening into space in a smooth and unhindered way.

Walk inside Pfanner House and you see five levels of open spaces connected by stairs (in a technically two-story home). Zola’s studio sits in a room below street level amid all the large windows. Peter Pfanner’s study is on the second level floor plan. And on the official second story is the family’s private living space. There are three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and the laundry room.

Pfanner House is constructed on a fairly narrow lot, even by Chicago’s zoning standards – just 18 feet wide. But there are 3,000 square feet of living space efficiently and elegantly built within five levels of open floor design – connected by stairs. It’s an expert and imaginative way of creating a sophisticated narrow lot home plan.


Glass-Bedolla House

Near its completion, Pfanner House began attracting the curious and the interested – among them another couple in Ukrainian Village – J.W. Glass and Laura Bedolla. Glass, a programming consultant and Bedolla, who works at a trading firm, were looking to build their dream home.

They wanted a small, modern urban house plan that was energy efficient. Other specifications included a passive solar design to get as much sun during the winter and plenty of shade in the summer; geothermal wells for summer cooling and heating during the winter.

Zola accepted the challenge and in addition, she recommended insulated concrete walls which hold heat very well, reduce cold drafts, and protect against harsh weather conditions.

The Glass-Bedolla House, is a single-family home located about three miles from the Chicago Loop. It is a three-story structure with a basement, family room, open terrace, multi-use room, and enough space in the floor plan for potential expansion. Because Glass and Bedolla are avid gardeners, Zola included three gardens (one on the roof) in her design.

Zoka Zola talking about her views on architecture as well as her works, including the Glass-Bedolla House, Walk through the garden into the main building and from the garden to the kitchen. The three-story Glass-Bedolla House features a main garden, east garden and a roof garden. Ivy and moss line the walls and cover the roofs to provide a natural cooling effect. What a wonderful dining terrace! Surrounded by large windows and a view of the garden.


The “Zero-Energy” house uses energy generated on the site. To accomplish this, Zola’s studio installed an “auroturbine, a wind-electric generator that works well with the variable direction and turbulent winds of Chicago” and photovoltaic (PV) panels.  “The photovoltaic process converts solar energy directly into electricity” does not emit harmful gases, and its operation is virtually silent.

Along with the auroturbine and PV panels, a geothermal system and solar heat panels were installed to heat and cool the house. In addition to the energy-efficient systems, Zola put in large windows that provide great outdoor views. There are gardens with tall trees that give shade during the summer months; and greenery cover the building’s roofs.


Zoka Zola around the World

Pfanner House and the Glass-Bedolla “Zero Energy” home firmly established Zoka Zola as one of the top women architects not only in the U.S. but in the world. She has designed other zero-energy homes in Chicago and Kuala Lumpur, a solar tower (also in Chicago), and an affordable housing building in Croatia.


A video of some of Zoka Zola's works from around the world.


Cory Buckner

Restoring Modernist-Style Homes in California

While Zoka Zola is designing zero-energy home plans, Cory Buckner is restoring modernist style homes built in Los Angeles by A. Quincy Jones and Whitney R. Smith, two important figures in mid-century modern architecture and planning. Buckner, who has a Fine Arts degree from Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles and a Masters in Architecture from UCLA, also specializes in contemporary residential and office design.

She is the author of A. Quincy Jones, a book about the pioneering mid-century architect who designed house plans during the Post-World War II period that featured “expansive interior spaces, thoughtful and efficient building layouts, and a reverence for the outdoors, which still resonates in contemporary design today.”

Buckner’s most recent book is Crestwood Hills: the Chronicle of a Modern Utopia. This is a historic record of the creation ofarchitecturally significant yet affordable housing for the middle class in what would become the only successful large-scale modern housing cooperative in the West.”

In this video, Cory Buckner discusses the new approach to architecture and planning that A. Quincy Jones took. Example include the cooperative community of Crestwood Hills. Buckner has achieved success with her restoration and preservation of modernist-style homes in the Los Angeles Area (Video source: Hammer Museum).


Modernist Architecture, A. Quincy Jones, and the Post-WWII Housing Cooperative

In 1993, a brush fire in Malibu destroyed the home Buckner and her husband, Nick Roberts, designed for their family. Their search for a new home took them to Crestwood Hills, a neighborhood in the Santa Monica Mountains, that still had original modernist-style homes constructed in the late 1940s.

Buckner was familiar with the area since she had been hired to remodel two of these “originals” that were part of the former Mutual Housing Association, a cooperative community formed in 1946 by four musicians who had just returned from the war. The men pooled their resources and bought 800 acres of land in the area, divided into 350 lots and hired a design team to build the home plans. The team consisted of architects A. Quincy Jones, Whitney R. Smith, and structural engineer Edgardo Contini.


The Brody House in Los Angeles (1948-1951) is another Jones creation. Check out the exposed beams and the greenery flanking the main entryway.  


Eventually 150 house plans were built including the MHA’s office. In 1961, 45 of the houses were burned in the Bel Air fire and the majority were torn down by new owners who had different tastes and needs, and most likely, were unaware of the historical significance of these homes.


The Buckner Home

Buckner and Roberts loved the modernist-style homes in Crestwood Hills with their exposed wood beams, large windows, open spaces, their indoor-outdoor relationship, and the sense of community in the neighborhood. The home they purchased was an original A. Quincy Jones design and was first used as the office of the MHS and as the arts and crafts center, before being converted into a residence.     

In 1994, Buckner and Roberts renovation their new home – installing modern furishings and fixtures, landscaping, and building a studio below the house. They retained the outward sloping glass walls with their corresponding structural supports inside. Three of the wood supports were restored after a previous owner removed them to make room in the floor plan for an oversized dining table.

The remodeled front entry of Buckner’s home retained the exposed wood materials and the glass windows. More glass windows in the living room provide a beautiful view of the hills. The home’s ground-floor kitchen comes with an island, plenty of storage space, and huge windows that allow abundant light into the space. The ground-floor office also works as a study/library. What’s not to love about this bedroom on the ground level? Great views and lots of natural light through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Enjoy more scenic views from the ground-floor deck. Want peace and quiet? There’s the studio below the house where Buckner and Roberts can always escape to.  


Enter Buckner the Preservationist

When renovations to their home were completed, Buckner headed a campaign to preserve the remaining 30 homes that were part of the Mutual Housing Association.  But her efforts to create a historic preservation zone did not get enough support from the neighborhood community.

Undaunted, she decided to seek preservation status for individual houses. When she appeared before the City of Los Angeles’s Cultural Heritage Commission to have five houses recognized as historic monuments, she brought Elaine Sewell Jones (Quincy Jones’ widow) and a few other influential friends. She received approval for four of the houses.  Since then, Buckner has been successful in getting 11 more houses approved.

In 2002, she received the Los Angeles Conservancy Preservation Award “for the inspiring effort to protect and restore the original Mutual Housing Association home in Crestwood Hills, preserving important examples of Southern California Modernism, and enhancing the sense of community in a unique neighborhood.” 


An Energy-Efficient and Fire-Resistant Retreat in Malibu

In addition to their primary residence in Crestwood Hills, Buckner and Roberts designed a weekend vacation house plan in the Malibu Canyon.

After their experience with two wild brush fires in 1993, they built an energy-efficient and fire-resistant weekend retreat. They used fire-safe materials throughout the house, and even installed fire-resistant landscaping. As Buckner noted: “We were interested in designing an efficient space that would be as fireproof as possible, that intruded as little as possible on the land, and made good use of renewable energy.” 

The 700-square foot house has a Great Room - kitchen, dining, living areas – and a loft space serves as the bedroom. Two sliding doors in the living room open up to the magnificent vista of the Malibu hillside. 


Elizabeth Diller

 “I like things that are hard to do. I actually gravitate towards impossible projects.”

Pushed by her parents toward architecture – as a way of earning an income after her education - Elizabeth Diller distanced herself from it by enrolling in the art program at Cooper Union. However, her interest in ideas about space and culture prompted her to take a course in architecture. And as much as she loved art, Diller was also attracted to architecture because it had “a more structured and more dynamic context in which there was a lot of discussion.”

Described as a visionary who “can turn a metaphor into brick and mortar” by philanthropist Eli Broad, Diller, founding partner of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, was named by Time magazine as the world’s most influential architect in 2018. In addition to her studio projects, Diller is also a professor of architecture at Princeton University.

Today, the architect – who almost didn’t become one – is transforming the landscape not just in her adopted hometown of New York City but in major cities across the country and the world. From the High Line Park to the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston to the Blur Building in Switzerland and housing projects in Japan, Diller smoothly integrates architecture, the visual arts, and the performing arts. 

view from High Line Park in the Chelsea section of Manhattan

A view from High Line Park in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. The High Line is a mile-long elevated park with benches and lush landscape built on an old elevated subway line (photo: ActionVance on Unsplash).


Here’s a look at the extraordinary journey and achievements of the MacArthur Fellowship “genius” recipient who is responsible for some of the world’s most important and innovative architectural projects.


From Lodz, Poland to New York City

Elizabeth “Liz” Diller, who was born in 1954 in Lodz, Poland, to Jewish parents emigrated to New York City with her family when she was 5 years old. As she recounts, her mother and father went through the Holocast – the family “was wiped out and she grew up never knowing aunts, uncles, or grandparents.” From her immigrant childhood, Diller says she developed a “survivor’s instinct” that helped her navigate through an uncertain early phase of her career – when she actually did not build anything. 

A founding partner of Diller Scofidio + Renfro (NYC), Diller attended Cooper Union School of Art where she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1979. It was there that she met Ricardo Scofidio (her art tutor, whom she later married). They started collaborating on small projects and started their firm – Diller + Scofidio in 1979. 

During their early years, the two were described as “avant-garde architect-artists best known for conceptual mixed-media installations using video images….” They focused their creativity on non-traditional architecture – working instead on art projects and installations, stage sets, design, sculptures, and performance pieces.


Early Experimentation with Art and Design

For much of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Diller – with Scofidio – worked in experimental architecture and design. A number of their more unconventional installations were about the use of space and form to explore social behavior.

For example:

  • A 24-hour display of 2,500 orange cones in Columbus Circle to show traffic patterns
  • In 1986, they did a stage design for a play called The Rotary Notary and His Hot Plate. Here, they positioned a  large mirror angled on the divided stage – allowing the audience to see actors behind the divider in the mirror.   
  • Then came a multi-media commission at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) where everything was hanging from ceilings or walls.
  • The MoMA project was followed by Slow House, a private home for a Japanese art investor to be located on the ocean in Long Island. The idea was to construct a crescent-shaped house with a glass wall at one end. Unfortunately, there were financial issues that stopped the project – so, only the foundation was completed. But a model of the home became a part of MoMA’s collection.

These projects – and several similar designs – that displayed the connection and tension between architecture and art earned Diller and Scofidio awards and recognition in the industry. In 1999, Diller won the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, which is awarded to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”


The Shift to More Traditional Architecture

With the MacArthur Foundation grant, Diller and her firm received commissions for more traditional architecture including buildings, restaurants, and housing projects.

Even with these structures, Diller managed to include her unconventional touch and the blend of architectural and visual arts elements.    

In 2002, the Blur Building, a temporary media pavilion was constructed at the base of Lake Neuchatel in Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland, for Swiss EXPO 2002. Described as an architecture of atmosphere, it is a “fog mass resulting from natural and manmade forces." Water is pumped from Lake Neuchâtel, filtered, and shot as a fine mist through 35,000 high-pressure nozzles.

More projects followed including art gallery designs, continuing work with MoMA, the redesign of Lincoln Center, several residential projects including 15 Hudson Yards, Mott Street Town House, Phantom House, and Midtown Tower. Diller and her firm recently completed the 34-acre Zaryadye Park adjacent to the Kremlin in Moscow. 

Broad Museum in Los Angeles designed by Diller + Scofidio and commissioned by philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad

Designed by Diller’s firm, the 120,000 square foot Broad Museum in Los Angeles was commissioned by philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad. The museum has two floors of gallery space for 2,000 works of art and welcomes more than 800,000 visitors a year. Diller’s firm created a honeycomb exterior for the museum (Photo: Tu Tram Pham on Unsplash). 


What’s in the Pipeline for Diller?

As busy as ever, Diller and her partners are now working on the major expansion of MoMa and The Shed, the new cultural space at Hudson Yards, which is expected to be up and running this year.  In Rio de Janeiro, the Museum of Image and Sound is currently in construction.  Also on their calendar is the design of a new home for the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Simon Rattle.


Kazuyo Sejima

“I try to create an atmosphere for people… that can be experienced and used in many ways. It can be grand or it can be intimate”

Inspired by minimalist Japanese architecture, Kazuyo Sejima, one of Japan’s top architects – and very likely today’s most sought after in that country – is known for her clean modernist designs and her use of glass marble and metals in her structures. She has created a number of noteworthy museums, art galleries, and residential and commercial buildings in Japan, Europe, and North America. She has also taught at Princeton University, the Polytechnique de Lausanne, Tama Art University, and Keio University.

Sejima is the first woman to direct the Architecture Sector of the Venice Biennale, a cultural exhibition that showcases contemporary art, dance, architecture, film, and theatre, and is the second woman (after Dame Zaha Hadid) to win the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s most coveted award.

Reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright, she integrates interior spaces smoothly with their natural surroundings. And like Dame Zaha Hadid, she has a fascination for geometric shapes – squares and cubes appear prominently in her designs.


The Influence of Japanese Minimalist Architects

The founder of the world-renowned architecture firm SANAA (Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates) with her Pritzker Prize co-winner – Ryue Nishizawa – Sejima was born in 1956 in Ibaraki, a prefecture northeast of Tokyo. Her dream of being an architect crystallized when she saw a picture of a house designed by Kazuo Shinohara, one of the most significant architects in postwar Japanese and international modernism.

Sejima enrolled at Japan’s Women’s University and in 1979 received her degree in architecture. After completing her Master’s Degree in architecture in 1981, she worked for Toyo Ito, another prominent and innovative proponent of modern, minimalist architecture.


Going Solo… and Then Global

Sejima left Toyo Ito’s firm in 1987 and established Kazuyo Sejima and Associates. Her first solo projects included the Platform Houses in Katsuura (1990) and a women’s dormitory in Kyushu. In 1992, she won the Japan Institute of Architects’ Young Architect of the Year Award and received more commissions.

When Sejima started the new studio – SANAA – with Nishizawa in 1995, the practice took off and propelled Sejima and Nishizawa to international fame. Together they explored the relationship between the interior and exterior in their designs and used the buildings’ natural surroundings in their selection of materials and shapes.

In 2004, their 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa won the Golden Lion Award for the most significant work of the 9th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale. As Sejima continued to innovate and pile up awards, the number of projects increased for SANAA.

Circular 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan

With the circular 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, one of Japan’s historical centers, Sejima once again utilized a minimalist geometric shape for its design. There are gathering spaces, exhibits, a library, lecture hall, and children’s workshop (Photo: © Tktktk | Dreamstime).


Since 2004 – and after the Pritzker Prize award in 2010 – Sejima and her studio have completed these intriguing projects in Japan and around the world: the Christian Dior Building in Tokyo, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, the Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art the Rolex Learning Center in Switzerland, the Louvre-Lens in France, and others.

Low-slung Louvre Museum in Lens in northern France

The low-slung Louvre Museum in Lens in northern France is a steel and glass structure made up of five buildings: four rectangles and one large square with slightly curved walls whose angles touch (Photo: © Astormfr - Dreamstime).


For London’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion design in 2009, Sejima created a mirror-polished canopy that snaked away from the main building and reflected the surrounding greenery of the park. The temporary structure is built each year on the gallery’s lawn and stays there for three months for the viewing public.

The New Museum of Contemporary Art on Bowery Street in New York City’s Lower East Side is a seven-story, eight-level structure designed by Sejima and Nishizawa. The rectangular and square-shaped levels are stacked on top of each other – a signature element of Sejima’s geometric design.


What’s Next for Sejima?

In 2018, she became the newest member of the Pritzker Prize Jury. Her studio also completed work on a new express train in Japan and the Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo. There are projects and opportunities awaiting her and SANAA, including a new National Gallery – the Ludwig Museum in Budapest.


Amanda Levete

For me the thrill of architecture is to see your ideas realised. To struggle against the problems out there and overcome them."

When Amanda Levete speaks about the thrill of “seeing your ideas realized,” it goes to the core of her early architectural training. She recalled her student years at the Architectural Association (AA) in London when renowned architects like Rem Koolhaas did not intend to build and preferred their projects to be hypothetical. She said she “didn't know anything about building" when she left AA – and learned about building later on in her career. 

The winner of the 2018 Jane Drew Prize for architects who have furthered the progress of women in architecture, Levete is the founding principal of London-based architecture studio AL_A. Appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2017 for services to architecture, Levete is a trustee of the Young Foundation, and served as a trustee of the arts organization Artangel from 2000 to 2013.


A Winding Path To Architecture

Much like Liz Diller, Amanda Levete’s path to what is now a very successful career in architecture was through art.

The Wales-born Levete (Bridgend, South Wales in 1955), who was a student at St. Paul Girls’ School in London left school when she was 16 years old. Embarrassed that her friends were pursuing university degrees, she decided to attend Hammersmith School of Art and take courses in art and art history. Through all the art history books that she read, Levete discovered architecture – and realized that she was best when doing something creative.

Enter the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London (AA), then, training at Alsop & Lyall, and as an architect with the Pritzker Prize awardee Richard Rogers. As co-founder of her first studio - Powis & Levete – she was nominated for the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), ’40 Under 40’ exhibition in 1985 .

By 1989 she moved on as a partner at Future Systems – a studio founded by her late ex-husband Jan Kaplicky, the renowned Czech architect, who would have been happy not to build and just rely on his drawings for his place in history. While work was scarce in the beginning, they got a big breakthrough when the firm was shortlisted for the Bibliotheque Nationale de France competition in 1989. Although Levete and Kaplicky didn’t win, their fee of £20,000 kept them going for a year and enabled them to get a few more projects. 

And design and build, they did – with Levete getting credit for making all of Future Systems’ concepts and design ideas a reality – transforming drawings and renderings into intriguing, high-tech and modern buildings that used composite and other non-traditional materials. Levete and Kaplicky collaborated on the 1998 Media Centre at Lord’s cricket ground in London and the 2003 Selfridges Department Store in Birmingham. For their work on the design of Lord's Media Centre, Levete and Kaplicky received the RIBA Stirling Prize for Architecture in 1999. The award put them into the spotlight and the consciousness of other high profile clients.

State-of-the-art Media Centre at Lords in United Kingdom

The state-of-the-art Media Centre at Lord’s hosts 250 of the world’s media during international cricket matches. As the media do broadcasts, images of the building are seen on millions of TV screens across the world.  According to Levete, the center was built and fitted by a boatyard which used the latest advances in boat building technology (Photo: Rkaphotography | Dreamstime).


Curved and rounded sculpture-like Selfridges Department Store in Birmingham, United Kingdom

Completed by Levete and Kaplicky in 2003 at a cost of £60M, the curved and rounded sculpture that is the Selfridges Department Store in Birmingham is built with a steel framework and a sprayed concrete façade. What makes it unique and innovative are the 15,000 aluminum discs that are mounted on a blue background (Photo: © Phartisan | Dreamstime),


Life after Kaplicky and Future Systems

Even after their divorce in 2006, Levete and Kaplicky continued to work in the same office – on separate projects. In 2009 Levete established Amanda Levete Architects (AL_A) and two years later (in 2011) won the competition to build an extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of the world’s greatest museums of art and design. AL_A’s task was to create an inviting and welcoming new entrance, courtyard and exhibit gallery that would attract pedestrians and people of all ages and backgrounds.  building. 

In 2014, AL_A became the first international architecture studio to design the second M-Pavilion for the Naomi Milgrom Foundation in Melbourne, Australia. Its structure is made from composite materials to form overlapping translucent petals. The Pavilion opened to the public in 2015. 

On the heels of the M-Pavilion came work on the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT) in Lisbon – which opened in October 2016.  The €20m museum sits on the River Tagus (Rio Tejo) to the west of the city center and is described as "sinuous" and "one of Europe’s most lyrical new museums".


And there’s more…

From high rise buildings in Thailand (a 37-story tower in Bangkok covered in 300,000 reflective aluminum plates) to pop-up restaurants (Tincan), museums, bridges, and university campuses, AL_A continues to “blossom internationally.”

Projects currently in the AL_A pipeline include the remodeling of the flagship Galleries Lafayette in Pars, a new Maggie’s Centre in Southampton, and a collaboration with artist Anish Kapoor for the Monte St. Angelo subway station in Naples (Italy).


Deborah Berke

“In addition to designing minimalist spaces, I tend to gravitate toward natural, clean materials in natural hues that have integrity to them.”

Deborah  Berke’s love for architecture started when she was a teenager growing up in Queens, NY. She recalled that in her particular neighborhood, all the houses were different – Tudors, Colonials, stucco, flat-roofed houses and other interesting styles that were built in the 1920s. While walking around her neighborhood with friends, she observed and wondered what the interiors were like and what the layout was. It was then that she decided she wanted to be an architect. The first female dean at Yale University’s School of Architecture and an Adjunct Professor there since 1987, Berke is an educator as well as an architect who heads the Manhattan-based 60-person firm Deborah Berke Partners.

One of Deborah Berke’s most recent projects is 40 East End Avenue, a 20-story, 29-unit condominium with East River views that is certain to make an impact on the New York City skyline. The building is designed with charcoal and gray brick facades and stepped towers reminiscent of the 1920s.


Off to Rhode Island and Beyond

In 1975 she received her Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. Two years later, it was her degree in architecture at RISD. But before practicing her craft, she traveled to London and studied under Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid at the Architectural Association.

In 1982, she began her career as an architect- and still found time to complete her Master’s Degree in Urban Planning from the City University of New York (1984).  While building her practice and putting together a team of partners and principals who share her vision, she taught at the University of Maryland, the Rhode Island School of Design, the University of Miami, the University of California at Berkeley, and the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, of which she was a fellow.


Berke’s Clean, Elegant Minimalist Spaces

In a 2016 interview, Berke described her childhood bedroom in their Queens home as spectacular... with a “plasterwork circle on the ceiling of nymphs jumping rope over garlands of roses.” She mentioned a decorative fireplace with sculptures on each side of the mantel, with every ceiling and door frame decorated. In contrast, when the family moved to Douglaston, the home was a simple and modest structure.

Berke also talked about the Congregational church in Flushing that the family went to. She described it as “severe, stark … no-stained glass windows,” with dark wood floors, white pews, and a pale blue ceiling. She said that her “aesthetic is more akin to memories of that church,” and a reaction to the ornate plasterwork of her childhood home. 

From those impressions and from the apartments and lofts where she resided while at school in Providence and London, she developed and nurtured her instinct for subtle and simple designs that don’t overshadow the use of the space.      

The lobby of Box Studios, a post production studio in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District on West 14th Street illustrates the airy, bright and minimalist elements in Berke’s designs. 

While she doesn’t care for labels describing her style, Berke has been praised as an extraordinary architect whose work is restrained, thoughtful and beautiful. In addition to private residences, Berke’s studio has designed public buildings, hotels, arts facilities, high-rises in Manhattan and other civic and institutional projects.

Among her most noteworthy projects are the Marianne Boesky Gallery building in New York, the Irwin Union Bank in Columbus, Indiana, the Yale School of Art in New Haven, Connecticut, the Cummins Distribution Headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana, the Rockefeller Arts Center at SUNY Fredonia, 40 East End Avenue, and interiors for 432 Park Avenue, the tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere.

432 Park Avenue, the third tallest building in the U. S. and the tallest residential building in the world

Deborah Berke designed the interiors of 432 Park Avenue, the third tallest building in the U. S. and the tallest residential building in the world. It is the second tallest building in New York City, behind One World Trade Center (Photo: © Evgeniefimenko | Dearmstime).


Berke continues to collaborate with 21C Hotels, a chain of properties in housed in historic buildings. Her firm has worked on the restoration of these Museum hotels located in Louisville, Kansas City (MO), Oklahoma City, Nashville, Bentonville (AR), Durham, Lexington, and Brooklyn.


Awards and Other Recognition

Deborah Berke’s alma mater - the Rhode Island School of Design – awarded her an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts in 2005. Then, in 2012, she became the first Berkeley-Rupp Architecture Professorship and Prize laureate The prize is intended to honor a "distinguished design practitioner or academic who has made a significant contribution to promoting the advancement of women in the field of architecture, and whose work emphasizes a commitment to sustainability and the community." 

In 2017 Deborah Berke Partners received the National Design Award from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.


We celebrate these exceptional women – and amazing architects – for their talent, vision, leadership, ambition, and determination, not to mention their designs and stylistic choices, to create a culture of equity and inclusion in the architectural field and inspire the future generation of women in architecture.


Additional sources

Encyclopedia of World Biography

Culture Trip

City Lab


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