There are occasionally people who come along in life who challenge us to think differently, perhaps more ambitiously, and my late, great colleague Michele Bertomen was just such a person. Michele never achieved great fame (she actively avoided the spotlight). She was not a power broker (she once said to me that anyone who seeks power should give it all away). Nevertheless, she had a feisty but brilliant intellect and an adventurous spirit that left a powerful imprint on colleagues (such as myself) and friends (too many to name). Her generosity was without limits. It is also something that deserves tribute.
As a professor (Michele taught for over thirty years at the New York Institute of Technology), Michele’s generosity could be felt in the way she constantly tested the limits of what was possible in an academic setting. Ever uncomfortable isolating theory from practice, she refused the creature comforts of the classroom, always opting for the messiness of the real instead. During the late 1980s, she collaborated with students in developing a book and exhibition on the Long Island Expressway’s Transmission Towers, which allowed her to reflect critically—and quite presciently—on “power in the information society,” as Herbert Muschamp would later write. From 2003 to 2005 Michele also spearheaded NYIT’s participation in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon competition, which, as her colleagues have noted, “marked the beginning of NYIT’s research on issues of sustainability in the field of architecture and design.” She and her students’ solar-hydrogen home received third place in the design category and fifth overall. More importantly, it was a project that proved transformative in the lives of countless students, a number of who have gone on to build exciting practices of their own. As a professional architect, Michelle was no less dedicated.
In 1985, she co-founded the Brooklyn Architects’ Collective, which was expressly set up to help mentor and support the professional development of young architects. In 2006, she and her partner David Boyle also embarked on what was probably the most significant feat of her career—the building of New York City’s first legal shipping container home, which ultimately became the couple’s permanent residence (it is located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn).
The story behind the building of this remarkable structure is one that still needs to be told. (It might be called “Mission Impossible.”) One thing that should be stressed here, however, is just how thoughtfully it engages the urban fabric. It teaches us, among other things, that the shipping container is far more versatile as a building element than we are normally given to believe (i.e., it is not restricted to tabula rasa environments and post-disaster zones alone). It reminds us that there is still experimental, socially conscious architecture to be seen and experienced in Williamsburg and elsewhere (developers have not destroyed that impulse entirely). It also challenges us to reckon more creatively with the refuse of globalization. Waste, Michele believed, is the problem of our times; it is also one that cannot adequately be addressed through the curtailing of consumption. This was a message that she reiterated time and again in her ecology seminars; it is also one that defined her collaborations and conversations with colleagues such as myself.
Michele passed away peacefully (“listening to Gregorian chants”) after a multi-year battle with cancer. Her death took place in the very home she and David built together (they finally received their certificate of occupancy earlier this year). In accordance with her wishes, a party was thrown in her memory about a week thereafter. It was a potluck event with music and drink. Michelle loved music and drink. Countless former students came. The gathering felt as much like a block party as it did a memorial; exactly what Michele would have wanted. It was a beautiful tribute to someone who dedicated her life to community and architecture. It was also a clear signal that her generosity would not soon be forgotten. Thank you for everything, Michele. I love you and will miss you dearly!