Every Carefully Selected Word and Each Elegantly Constructed Sentence: Deborah Berke’s Book List

By Steve Kroeter September 13, 2011

Deborah Berke

Architect Deborah Berke: Deborah Berke & Partners Architects (New York)

book list

In an essay called “Here and Now,” written for a monograph on her work published by Yale University Press,* Deborah Berke discusses the evolution in her thinking about architects and architecture over the course of her more than 25-year career. Focused in the late 1990s on what she at the time called “the everyday in architecture”**—for which she earned renown—her approach to building was about “embracing and learning from that which is not expressly constructed through high culture or self-conscious design.” Looking back on that time, she feels that “what I was trying to do through my buildings was see if it were possible to make an architecture of exceptional everydayness.”

In the early 2000s, Berke was sensitive to architecture’s ascent to “full celebrity status”—accompanied by buildings that were “too deeply self aware, imitative, global”—and “bombastically present yet sadly disengaged from their physical situation.” Her reaction has been to propose an approach to architecture that is “of a far more nuanced signature, shaped, above all, by local conditions”—“so grounded in its site that it can be nowhere else.” This idea of being anchored, which she calls the “here and now,” she sees as “the antidote to so many places being placeless, interchangeable, and unrecognizable while also being completely familiar.”

Berke has said that the development of her philosophical ideas about the “here and now” is closely connected to her love of New York City, where she grew up and continues to work. For her, New York confirms “the power of the everyday place to be absolutely unique.” She loves “the New York City of grime and confusion, of trestles and bridges and streets and streets of anonymous buildings, just as I exult in the new New York City of glass and more glass.” 

Deborah Berke’s home library, including her many books on New York, with end table designed by Berke (photo: Jason Schmidt)

Given all this, it seems natural that Berke’s book list for Designers & Books would include the AIA Guide to New York City. It was, she says, “the first architecture-related book I received as a gift. That copy was much used and is now really beat up.” Also on her book list and about New York is The Bottom of the Harbor, a compilation of pieces by Joseph Mitchell that first appeared in The New Yorker during the 1940s and ‘50s. Set on the city’s waterfront, they describe “a New York that doesn’t really exist any more.”

Among the 15 titles on Berke’s book list are others that provide insight into aspects of what is here and now, including landscape historian John Stillgoe’s Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places (“an exhortation to all of us to be questioning observers”) and art critic Brian O’Doherty’s Studio and Cube (“The subtitle tells it all: “On the relationship between where art is made and where art is displayed”).

Poetry and fiction are equally inspiring for Berke. “Read anything by her,” she says of Grace Paley, whose collection of poems Begin Again is on Berke’s list. Berke also includes a book by the fiction writer Amy Hempel. In the foreword she wrote for Berke’s monograph, Hempel (who has had the experience of being a Berke client) notes Berke’s “unerring eye” and describes her design decisions as “everywhere pleasing and exactly right.” Of the finished project that Berke did for Hempel, the writer observes, “The result was so clear and mindful of where it was that I felt I was inside and out at the same time. Space, scale, and light were conjoined to make a person breathe deeper.” About The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, Berke states that she “savors every carefully selected word and each elegantly constructed sentence.”

Deborah Berke's nightstand and bag with books

“I like being in rooms where there are books” (see photo of home library), Berke remarks in the introduction to her list, and it’s clear that books have a special place in her life. “I always have a large pile of books on my nightstand and a book in my bag.”


*Deborah Berke, “Here and Now,” in Tracy Myers, Deborah Berke (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008); and

**Steven Harris and Deborah Berke, Architecture of the Everyday (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997).

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