BACKGROUND FOR LIVING
The human experience comes first at Deborah Berke Partners.
It’s a little like an iceberg. ’ designs for the 21c Museum Hotel brand generate scads of media attention for the architecture firm. But there’s more to the firm than that. Below the surface, 60 architects are busy creating other designs that are modern backdrops for the human experience.
Sure, their newest 21c in Durham, North Carolina, dazzles. It’s the brand’s fourth, following successful projects in Louisville, Cincinnati and Bentonville. This one’s located at the center of a bustling, revitalized downtown in a 1937 Art Deco masterpiece, 17 stories tall. It was designed by Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, architects behind Manhattan’s Empire State Building.
“It was a bank, so we kept the details like the silver leaf in the elevator lobby, and the bank vault and the terrazzo floors,” Berke says.
“But then we created entirely new spaces – like the double height retail space that’s now a restaurant and the banking hall that’s now a ballroom.”
With 21c, she’s proven a whiz at adaptive reuse, taking inspiration from what she found while accommodating the company’s cutting-edge art in a carefully managed environment. “You’re welcomed in many ways, both by the people who work there and the spatial hospitality, warmth, softness, and planning,” Berke says. “So you see the artwork in a non-intimidating way.”
Take, for instance, the life-sized, full-frontal nude image of Jackie Onassis, shot by paparazzi in 1972 as the former first lady swam near Aristotle Onassis’s private Greek island, which sits in the lobby of Durham’s 21c. The starkness of the image is sure to startle the first-time visitor. But the lobby’s gallery-like context, with its white walls and focused lighting, softens the blow – as though the image were nothing more than a stray segment from an ancient Greek tableau.
That’s the kind of magic the firm delivers with each of its projects, whether a music conservatory for Bard College or second homes throughout the U.S. and the Caribbean. “We have a kind of balance – between an incredible design eye and an interest in providing a great project for a client,” says Marc Leff, a partner who’s been there 22 years. “That sets us apart from those architects interested only in their own architecture.”
At the heart of the firm is a design philosophy that interprets relationships between people, foregrounds and backgrounds, almost like theater. “It’s of interest to me when architecture is the background for activity – seeing art, having dinner or reading a book quietly on the porch,” Berke says. “I like natural light and beautiful proportions, but I also like seeing them faded into the background so you can appreciate being alive.”
She’s applying that thinking in a new East Hampton home for Carolyn Brody, former chair of the National Building Museum. It’s a modern update to the local shingle-style and white-trim vernacular. “It’s like the white shirt that never goes out of style,” Brody says. “Inside, the stair rails will be metal and hand-crafted, with a real punch.”
In the meantime, four more 21c’s are now in the works. Each may generate its individual headlines – but all of the firm’s projects will earn respect.
–J. Michael Welton