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Barry Berkus, Santa Barbara Icon and Architect, Dies at 77

Visionary architect's work in and out of the field was recognized locally and throughout the world

Barry A. Berkus, a Santa Barbara icon and award-winning architect whose work has been recognized both locally and abroad, died Friday in Santa Barbara. He was 77.

Berkus died at Serenity House surrounded by friends, according to Pat Moser, who worked with him. His illness was not disclosed.

The founder and president of B3 Architects and Berkus Design Studio, Berkus and his firms have been involved in a diversity of projects over several decades, ranging from residential designs to commercial and institutional buildings and master-planned communities.

Barry Berkus and his wife, Jo, at Opera Santa Barbara's 2012 Valentine's Day gala. (Melissa Walker / Noozhawk file photo)
Barry Berkus and his wife, Jo, at Opera Santa Barbara’s 2012 Valentine’s Day gala. (Melissa Walker / Noozhawk file photo)

Berkus was the recipient of dozens of awards, not only for his architecture, but for his support of community groups and causes.

“I think Barry was an architect and designer and man of bold vision,” Santa Barbara architect Detty Peikert told Noozhawk on Sunday. “He always brought the best idea to the table, along with new ways of thinking.

“Barry had an unshakable desire to use his talent and skills to improve the quality of the built environment for the betterment of humanity,” he added. “His visionary ideas were often ahead of their time.”

Berkus, known for his innovative approach, designed more than 600,000 residences.

Based in Santa Barbara for more than 30 years, Berkus’ architectural firms have had offices in Los Angeles; Irvine; San Francisco; Sun Valley, Idaho; Chicago; Atlanta; New York; Washington, D.C.; Miami; Kuala Lumpur; and Tokyo.

A lifelong participant in adventure sports, Berkus set world records in hydroplaning, ranked third nationally in 500-mile open water racing, and summited and skied Mount Vaughan in Antarctica for the very first time. He subsequently became a member of the exclusive Explorers Club in New York.

An avid art collector, his extensive art collection included paintings by some of the leading contemporary artists in the world, such as David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Frank Stella, Robert Therrien and Andy Warhol.

Berkus supported local artists and donated a large body of work to Santa Barbara County, and his exhibits continue to travel throughout the Central Coast. Since 2009, he had co-chaired the Contemporary Collection Committee of the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

A man of immense generosity, he was the longest-living board member of the UC Santa Barbara Foundation and served on many other boards, among them The Granada Theatre, the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum and the Wildling Art Museum in Los Olivos. He designed UCSB’s Mosher Alumni House and helped guide the reconstruction of The Granada.

His designs for the Children’s Museum of Santa Barbara, to be built on Lower State Street, have been approved by the City of Santa Barbara.

For many years, Berkus led a Sunday morning basketball game at his home in Hope Ranch, where he once hosted the Los Angeles Lakers. The “Berkus Boys” still play every Sunday morning in Santa Barbara. He also bicycled every Saturday morning, rain or shine, with the West Las Palmas Association, a group of his close friends, for well over 30 years.

Architect Barry Berkus, who died Friday, was photographed for a 2009 Noozhawk profile story. (Jenn Kennedy file photo / www.kennedypix.com)
Architect Barry Berkus, who died Friday, was photographed for a 2009 Noozhawk profile story. (Jenn Kennedy file photo / www.kennedypix.com)

“I can sit down with anybody and talk about what they love, regardless of whether it’s art, sailing, biking,” he said in a 2009 interview with Noozhawk. “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.”

Berkus came to Santa Barbara as a student in 1958, attended UCSB, and later entered USC’s architecture program before pursuing his passion for housing design.

He was instrumental in promoting and advancing the role of architect as planner and designer of neighborhoods and communities, redefining living patterns in housing. His resort and master-planned communities, urban in-fill, commercial and institutional projects, and custom homes have earned his design team more than 300 design and planning awards from regional, national and international competitions over the past 40 years.

Architectural Digest named him one of the world’s “top 100 architects” in 1991. In 1999, Professional Builder honored him as one of the 100 most influential individuals in the past century of American housing. Readers of Residential Architect selected him as one of the ten most significant figures of 20th-century residential architecture.

Berkus authored several books, including Architecture/Art/Parallels/Connections, which examines basic design principles as they are revealed in works of art, and relates these principles to both the built and unbuilt environment. Barry A Berkus: Sculpting Space (House Design), released in 2002, offers a diverse sampling of the many Berkus-designed custom homes.

His influence was not limited to domestic architecture in the United States. His interest in building systems spearheaded extensive research and development of modular housing and the study of building methods abroad. In Japan, his work extended from the planning and design of new towns to the development of the current building codes for framed construction.

Other international projects included the planning of communities in Malaysia, master planning of residential villages for Euro Disney in France, and the redevelopment of the waterfront Expo ‘86 site in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Click here to view samples of Berkus’ work.

Lecturing frequently in Asia, Europe and throughout the United States, Berkus was the keynote speaker for the 25th anniversary of Weyerhaeuser’s presence in Japan and a featured speaker at the 50th anniversary of the Urban Land Institute.

He served on a subcommittee of the National Academy of Sciences — reviewing the certification of building technology — and a subpanel of the National Institute of Building Sciences. He also served on the Policy Advisory Board for Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies and was a member of the American Institute of Architects and the Urban Land Institute.

In 2005, he was inducted into the Builder’s Choice Hall of Fame.

In 1984, his teams designed, supervised construction and built a temporary village for Olympic athlete housing at Lake Casitas, and served as the commissioner of rowing for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

One of the greatest pleasures of his life was the fact that, throughout his architectural practice, he mentored many young architects just beginning their careers, many of whom have gone on to open their own offices throughout the country.

“Architects, by nature, are optimists,” he said in the 2009 Noozhawk interview. ”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.”

Born in Los Angeles on Nov. 25, 1935, Berkus grew up in Pasadena, meeting and marrying his high school girlfriend, Gail Hanks, in 1957. Gail Berkus died in 2000.

In 2005, he married Jo Cahow, who has been a loving and caring wife. With Sue and Ed Birch, the couple recently co-chaired the United Way of Santa Barbara County’s 16th annual Red Feather Ball.

He is survived, as well, by his two sons and their wives, Rebecca and Jeffrey Berkus of Aspen, Colo., and Dana and Steven Berkus; and his daughter, Carey Berkus, currently a resident of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. Also surviving are grandchildren Sarah, Kelson, Renae and Stuart Berkus; and his brother, David Berkus and his wife, Cathy, of Pasadena.

The Berkus family extended gratitude to Drs. Tom Woliver, Jeffrey Kupperman and Gary Van deVenter; Carmen Flores; Barbara Pell, RN, OCN, hospice case manager, many friends, and others for their compassionate care during his illness.

In lieu of flowers, donations in his memory may be made to Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care, Hospice of Santa Barbara, The Granada Theatre and the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum.

A private memorial service will be held at a later date.

Pat Moser, who worked in Berkus’s B3 Architects firm, contributed much of the background for this story.

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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