by: AIA New York
As Chief of Operations of The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ), Denise Berger, FAIA, is responsible for the operations of a department of over 550 architects and engineers with an annual department budget of $1.3 billion dollars to deliver design and construction services. As the first woman and architect to achieve an executive leadership position, Denise leveraged her architectural experience, knowledge and perspective to implement design excellence principles at the Agency, underscoring sustainable building guidelines, instituting Building Information Modeling (BIM) and creating Agency-wide design quality policies.
Berger’s leadership and advocacy resulted in the highest standards of design excellence for transportation and infrastructure projects. Her innovative policies and programs produced groundbreaking outcomes, elevating the stature of architecture in the public realm. This year, the Jury of Fellows of the AIA elevated Berger to its prestigious College of Fellows in the fourth category of Fellowship, which recognizes architects who have “made notable contributions in public service or work in government or industry organizations through leadership in the development of civic improvements and needed governmental projects…,” according to the organizations’s definition. Now among the AIA membership’s three percent distinguished with Fellowship and honorary Fellowship, Berger was recognized at the New Fellows Reception hosted by AIA New York and will be honored further at an investiture ceremony at the AIA Conference on Architecture in New York City from June 20-23, 2018.
Q: What is your proudest achievement as an architect, or your favorite project you’ve worked on?
A: My proudest achievement as an architect is being elevated to the College of Fellows for my advocacy and implementation of design excellence principles at The Port Authority of NY and NJ, underscoring environmental stewardship, and creating innovative policies and programs that shaped the design quality of public transportation and infrastructure projects throughout the greater New York region.
It is difficult to select a favorite project, but the one that I believe had a notable impact to the public was my pre-9/11 WTC security project. Although not considered an architecturally inspiring project, the life-safety upgrades made to the WTC Towers post-1993 bombing, in particular in the stairwells, saved thousands of lives. As a survivor of both attacks, I was fortunate to experience firsthand the benefit of the life-saving importance of those upgrades.
Q: What is your earliest memory of experiencing architecture?
A: Ironically, my earliest memory of “architecture” was the Eero Saarinen TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport. As a child, going to the airport was an adventure. It was exciting and glamorous. As I would walk into the terminal, I would be in awe of its streamlined silhouette, my eyes scanning the interplay of curvilinear forms and roofs. The tremendous space-age terminal, made of concrete walls, large span window facades with light filtering in from above, and floating white stairs was inspiring. Saarinen’s work was an enchanting spatial form, my first introduction to the collaboration of art and architecture. Who would have thought, more than 45 years later, I would be working for the entity that owns this landmark architecture?
Q: What is influencing your work the most right now?
A: As a young girl growing up in the Bronx in an Italian-American family, college was a possibility, but becoming an architect wasn’t the natural career trajectory. My parents supported my curiosity in art and forms, and sacrificed their time and resources to the best of their ability to ensure that I entered a high school and college that supported my ambition. I have tremendous admiration for their belief in me, especially when, at times, I became discouraged. Over the years, I valued their guidance to ensure that I stayed on course to earn my degree, away from distractions of growing up in the city.
Q: What are you working on right now, or what is your next big project?
A: The approval of the Port Authority’s comprehensive $32.2 billion, 10-year Capital Plan focuses the agency’s core mission to develop and manage critical transportation projects for the region. The projects in our plan reflect a broader vision and long-term, holistic plan for the role that the Agency will play in the future as part of the region’s interconnected transportation network. I have been working on significant transportation projects in many stages of development including JFK Visioning Development, the Port Authority Bus Terminal Quality of Commute Program, PATH Station Renovations, and the PATH Extension to Newark Airport. Also, I am leading a new effort to develop the guidelines for an expanded design/build contracting strategy, which will maintain design quality of our public transportation architecture, in addition to implementing the use of virtual technology in our design and construction efforts.
Q: What does being a Fellow mean to you?
A: It is an immense honor to be recognized by my peers, for work that I love to do! Being elevated to Fellow is a rewarding and humbling experience. As I reflect back on my 30 years of work as a public architect in a non-traditional role, it is gratifying to receive this recognition for my efforts. Early in my career, Bob Davidson, FAIA, taught me to never accept mediocrity. There is nothing more rewarding than sharing the skills we have and the realization of the critical impact that we, as architects and industry leaders, can have on design and planning and the built environment. I am very fortunate to have worked with many outstanding individuals who have supported, encouraged and championed my work, including my sponsor Robert Eisenstat, FAIA. I believe all Fellows have a duty to guide and mentor the next generation.
Editors’ Note: This feature is part of a series celebrating the 28 members of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) New York Chapter that have been elevated to the AIA College of Fellows in 2018, an honor awarded to members who have made significant contributions to both the profession and society. Learn more about Fellowship here.