Architect Barry Berkus is synonymous with Santa Barbara. Between his impressive career, teaching, speaking circuit and cycling club, everyone seems to know him. We met him at his “city house,” a downtown home that emulates his energetic soul. It’s a minimal and modern loft, but comfortable and filled with items that say he’s a thinking man. His high-end road bicycle sits under a giant black and white portrait of Lance Armstrong, a close friend.
In addition to his love of adventure sports, Berkus is an avid art collector. Some of his expansive collection is housed in the airy loft, which is decorated solely in black, white and red. In this very space, he’s hosted fundraisers for museums and had numerous fireside chats with notable thinkers, philanthropists, athletes and creatives.
In his 20s, Berkus set world records in hydroplaning, skied the Rockies (via helicopter drops), and skippered six transpacific yacht races. Because of his adventurous, curious spirit, he can hold a conversation with just about anyone.
“I can sit down with anybody and talk about what they love, regardless of whether it’s art, sailing, biking, etc.,” he said. “You have to be interesting beyond just your profession and able to communicate, so people enjoy being with you as well as know you’re good at what you do.”
A voracious reader, he enjoys books on new urbanism, economics, social issues and current events.
Berkus began college with a focus on economics, but realized early on that he was not feeling it. He always loved to draw, so he went back to SBCC, got straight A’s and transferred into USC’s architecture program, saying, “It was exciting, and I knew I’d found my place.”
With a desire to leave a legacy, Berkus pursued housing work, an industry other architects didn’t want to do. He explains that during the 1950s and ‘60s, most architects thought housing was beneath them. They wanted to design edifices, but Berkus explained, “I had a goal to change the way housing looked. I wanted to give it a sculpted feeling, an innovative component to nurture people. I strived to use volume, light and shapes in my homes.”
Housing also appealed to Berkus because he thought he could reach more people and change the way they perceive space, even the way they look at life, and how they nurture their family. “I had a greater mission,” he said.
Eventually, Berkus reached a point when he knew he could do it better on his own. He didn’t hesitate to start his own business and, in short order, requests came to design projects in New York, Washington, Miami and other cities. At one point, he had offices in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Francisco, Atlanta, Miami, New York, Washington and Tokyo. He considers architecture a privilege.
“I’m not in it for money,” he explained. “The responsibility and liability of practicing is not proportional to the income. So, you must have a love for the art.”
As his company went public, he began considering modular housing. To understand this market, Berkus donated $20,000 to UCLA to acquire books and research data on every modular unit created, up to that point. He concluded that mobile homes were the only successful factory-built house that made its manufacturer money and lasted for any length of time. With this data in hand, he approached national builders and said, “Let’s change the way housing is built.” He designed the first smart house and various homes on wheels.
“I’ve always gone to the far edge of the planet in my thinking,” Berkus admits. “I’ve always been interested in investigating. I’m in my 70s now, and I’ve failed a bunch, in part because security never interested me.
“Architects, by nature, are optimists,” he said. ”I’ve grown by taking risks and assumed it would work out. Even recently with single-family homes in Santa Barbara, I’ve had to build them and then people showed up to buy them. I knew it was right. I believe in light and height in urban areas because the garden isn’t as much a part of your environment.”
His parting advice, “Go where life takes you and run hard. Passion is what’s going to take you to the other end.”