I first interviewed Barry Berkus 20 years ago about a custom house he designed for the singer Kenny Loggins. Barry spoke so quickly in our phone interview, I could barely understand him. He was the fastest talker I had ever encountered. Ultimately, I got the gist that his design for “Villa Lucia,” a Tuscan-style house on 20 hilltop acres in Santa Barbara, sprang from the conceit of a building added onto over generations. He had long been inspired by Italian hill towns, especially Palermo, and had filled many vacation sketchbooks with drawings of ancient buildings scrambling up the cliffs. The images were tucked into a corner of his imagination, waiting for the moment of release.
For Berkus designing was a contact sport, requiring the full engagement of his prodigious intelligence and creativity. Every project needed a solid narrative—a theme and a purpose. Even if the style was Traditional, the design needed to move the discipline forward. That Tuscan Villa, for instance, used large quantities of salvaged and recycled materials—before sustainable design was back on anyone’s radar.
Although Barry designed many custom homes throughout his career, he’s best known for his innovations in mass market housing. In his early years, he was the rare architect who concerned himself with design for the 99 percent. As he told me for a cover story in Residential Architect in 2000, "When we started, housing was looked down upon. I lead a design panel at the National Association of Home Builders, but I couldn't do one at the American Institute of Architects. Not until Sea Ranch, Reston, Columbia, West Lake, Irvine, Hilton Head did people become interested in housing. They became interested in making a place."
One of the stumbling blocks for architects in production housing was economics, he said at the time. “Housing as a product has to move on and off the boards quickly, because it doesn't pay very well." Berkus made it pay, largely through harnessing his great energy and speed. Not only was he a fast talker, he was a quick thinker and a facile designer. He was a pen and paper guy, a maestro of the epiphanic sketch on a cocktail napkin. One estimate tallies his lifetime portfolio at 600,000 dwellings. They weren’t all award winners, but by some counts more than 300 garnered special recognition—an astounding figure.
He claimed a number of firsts in the housing industry: the first national architecture firm to specialize in housing, the first international housing firm, and the first housing firm to go public. At its height, it employed more than 200 architects and maintained satellite offices in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, Miami, Tokyo, and Kuala Lumpur. Along the way, Barry worked with every important builder in the country. And he worked with many of his own family members, including daughter Carey, an interior designer; son Steven, a builder/developer; and son Jeffrey, an award-winning architect in his own right. Until his death on November 30, 2012, Barry led two firms--B3 Architects, geared to custom design, and Berkus Design Studio, focused on production housing.
Barry’s inspiration derived from extensive travel and a lifelong passion for art. He was an important collector of modern art and a generous patron of local and national museums. He put his thoughts together about both disciplines in a book called Architecture, Art, Parallels, Connections. As he told me and our readers for our cover story, "Residential architecture is about romance, learning, fulfillment of a journey. It should never be below you to do housing."
In 2005, Builder magazine named Barry to its Builder’s Choice Hall of Fame. The honor was the culmination of decades of collaboration between Hanley Wood, Residential Architect’s parent company, and Berkus. He was the company’s go-to architect for visionary ideas in residential design, including a number of demonstration houses in conjunction with the annual International Builders’ Show. His idea houses envisioned open plans, multitasking spaces, multigenerational households, movable walls, and add-on modules.
At the time of his death, Barry and his firm were at work on The New American Home for 2014, a joint program of the National Association of Home Builders and Builder magazine. His firm will continue the effort with his son Jeffrey. Says Warren Nesbitt, group president of Hanley Wood’s New Construction Group, “Barry was an enormous talent. He was a design pioneer, an innovator, a coach, a teacher, and a friend. He packed so much into one lifetime, while enriching the lives of so many others. He will be greatly missed.”
More on the life and work of Barry Berkus: