Refugee Crisis in Berlin Broadens a Student's Horizons

Jordan Berta with students in the L. P. Kwee Studios, Milstein Hall

Jordan Berta with Introduction to Architecture Summer Program students in the L. P. Kwee Studios, Milstein Hall. William Staffeld / AAP

October 6, 2016

A Profile of Jordan Berta (M.Arch. '16) from the Fall 2016 Issue of AAP News.

"There were just 60 students in my high school graduating class," says Jordan Berta (M.Arch. '16), who grew up in Grand Prairie, Texas, a suburb located between Dallas and Fort Worth. He never imagined he would go from that small school to attend Cornell University, and pursue an education in architecture that would take him from Texas to New York, Zürich, and Berlin.

While on a family trip to New York City and Buffalo when he was 16, his interest in architecture was sparked by the iconic buildings 30 Rockefeller Center and Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin D. Martin House, respectively. He admits that may sound clichéd to most architects, but Wright was his first fascination and his interests quickly broadened to others such as Frank Gehry, I. M. Pei, and Louis Kahn. Architecture as a career path was an unexpected possibility to his family, many of whom attended Texas Tech University in Lubbock for music, photography, and history. But with a keen interest in all areas of design and his mother's encouragement, in his second year at Texas Tech he entered the architecture program, and graduated in 2011 with a B.S. and a minor in German.

The Texas Tech program included a studio in Berlin — a natural fit for Berta because of his German family heritage. Although he did not foresee it at the time, the architectural practice in Europe that he was introduced to — especially in Berlin — would prove to be significant during his time at Cornell.

While working in Berlin after graduating from Texas Tech, Berta had a chance encounter with a former classmate who encouraged him to apply to Cornell's master of architecture program for his graduate studies. Cornell was one of just three schools he applied to, and although his passion for architecture was strong, he was pleasantly surprised to be accepted. After an interview via Skype with associate professor in architecture Lily Chi — she also happened to be in Germany at the time — he made the decision to attend AAP. "I have always been the kind of person who is intense about things and topics," Berta says, remembering the interview. "Professor Chi made it sound like AAP was invested in the intensity of its students' ideas and would go to great lengths to support them."

From the time he arrived at Cornell in the fall of 2012, Berta's professors helped shape his interests and guided the ideas he would pursue. His first semester core design studio was taught by Edgar A. Tafel Assistant Professor Caroline O'Donnell. "It was a blast," he says. "All my studios were fantastic — in fact I never had a bad one." Other professors who became mentors or advisors were Jenny Sabin, the Arthur L. and Isabel B. Wiesenberger Assistant Professor in Architecture; Mark Cruvellier, the Nathaniel and Margaret Owings Professor of Architecture and Berta's academic advisor; and Associate Professor Esra Akcan.

Akcan's research would have a particular impact on Berta's studies. Akcan received the 2016–17 Berlin Prize from the American Academy in Berlin, where she currently holds a fellowship. Her research on the urban renewal of Berlin's immigrant neighborhood was directly related to Berta's thesis topic, which in broad terms focused on narrative falsehoods and an interest in the subversion of those narrative falsehoods between architecture and other contexts.

Initially, Berta's project developed out of an interest in anachronisms, a topic that emerged from a theory course taught by O'Donnell as well as a semester studio at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETH) — the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, a science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and management university in Zürich, Switzerland. Berta had petitioned successfully for an open visiting student position at ETH instead of an option studio in the spring of 2015. While there, he encountered people who focused his attention on making his topic more socially relevant.

"Zürich and the ETH were excellent, and it was interesting comparing it to Cornell. ETH is very much focused on the craft of making a building, which is why Swiss architecture is so robust and strong. I learned the way European faculties consider architecture, where there is less emphasis on overarching critical narratives and more on the critical detail. They are more interested in testing and scientificity."

For their studio project at the ETH, Berta and his classmates were challenged to use local Swiss materials to develop a highly detailed project. Berta and his Swiss partner, Tiziana Schirmer, were given marble from the border region of Ticino, Switzerland, and Lugano, Italy, in a planned intervention to establish a public space that would also generate income for the owner of an abandoned quarry in the tiny rural town of Arzo. The approach they took was unorthodox in the context of the studio and received high praise as a reinterpretation of landscape in the public realm.

"The challenge of the studio was to create a pavilion from local, natural materials. My material was marble, but my site and the surrounding landscape really became more of the actual material in which to intervene, thus we proposed a public pool and pathway, and the professor, Dirk Hebel, supported the initiative."

Berta returned to Berlin the next semester for an internship at Barkow Leibinger, an American-German architectural practice based in Berlin and New York. While he was there, the refugee crisis in Germany escalated dramatically, and Berta began to investigate the social implications of asylum and immigration in the context of his thesis.

"Esra [Akcan] really helped me to focus in this area," he says. "I wondered if perhaps the role that Germany was already playing in the refugee crisis could be part of my thesis, because their response is already, in a way, subverting Germany's past narrative of how they respond to xenophobia and crisis. The Germans' commitment to being the voice for human rights in this crisis is a direct reaction to their Nazi and East German past."

He was struck by the unfolding crisis, particularly when the massive hangars of the disused Tempelhof Airport in Berlin — built under the Nazi regime and later used by the U.S. Air Force base during the Berlin Airlift of 1948–49 — became an emergency refugee shelter.

"To me it seemed like an opportunity to engage with the idea that perceptions of the narratives you tell yourself can be altered — they're not what you thought they were. The refugee crisis in Germany exposes the hegemony and sovereignty of narrative in architecture and the nation-state of the refugee."

Although he had a clear focus and topic in mind, Berta had a hard time determining the title of his thesis. "It was either going to be Lies of Sovereignty, which was a bit heavy-handed, or, better, Kein Mensch is Illegal — No Person Is Illegal," a slogan-turned-campaign calling for refugees' rights that began in Germany and has spread to other countries. Berta says, "Refugees should represent human rights to us. Really, they should be the epitome of human rights. But they become stateless when they expatriate, losing their rights as soon as they leave their home countries. We are in 'the migrant's time,' when across the globe the 50 million refugees displaced is a specific moment. It's important to bring this conversation into architecture, to ask what architecture can do in response beyond just housing, to include infrastructure for encounter and synthesis of multiple cultures together."

For Berta, the path that began with a trip to New York City as a teenager and then an undergraduate internship in Berlin, led him to Cornell and ETH in Zürich. That same path has led him back to Berlin, where Berta has returned to work again at Barkow Leibinger. Now, he can imagine someday returning to Cornell as an engaged alumnus, to help guide new architecture students. "After I've worked for a while and gained some credentials, perhaps I can come back as a visiting critic," he says. "I hope to maintain a healthy criticality in how I undertake design and bring that into the way I work and teach."

"My mentors and professors at Cornell were committed to facilitating the areas of study that I'm specifically interested in, and I think that's rare," he says. "It's why I feel so loyal to Cornell."

"When I came here I met so many amazing students who had the most fascinating and incredible lives, who had already done things like graffiti in Prague when they were just 17 or founding an Irish rock band," Berta says. "They made me want to be better than I was, contributing to something bigger than myself."

By Patti Witten