Successful by design
Architecture graduate earns kudos for her creativity and imagination
By Leon M. Rubin
When she was half her current age, Michele Alfano-Berwanger, M.Arch. '94, had a dream that she would become famous someday—like her dad.
She had a brief moment in the limelight in 1986 as a high school senior. She was one of 300 national semifinalists in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, but didn't make it to the next round of competition.
Fast forward 14 years, though, and Alfano-Berwanger's dream came true. As senior designer and project manager with the Walker Group/CNI in New York, she is a key player on a team that two years ago attracted worldwide acclaim in architectural circles. Challenged to find a way to link a subway station to a department store in the Japanese city of Fukuoka, she and her colleagues created an innovative design that makes pedestrians feel as if they're crossing a bridge over a body of water when, in reality, they are walking through a tunnel.
"My dad said I would have to publish papers in order to become famous," Alfano-Berwanger says. "But in architecture, you become famous through projects and competitions."
The expectations held by her father, Robert Alfano, are understandable given the fact that he is a Distinguished Professor of Science and Engineering at City College and director of the New York State Center of Advanced Technology for Ultrafast Photonic Materials and Applications in New York City. It was in one of his laboratories where Alfano-Berwanger did the work on her award-winning high school science project, using a spectrometer to detect cancerous tissue in mice.
"I was good at math and science," she acknowledges. "I went to Union College and started in premed, but I decided that wasn't my niche." During a semester in Florence, Italy, "I fell in love with architecture and fashion. I decided I wanted to become a fashion designer. My dad said, ‘Are you nuts? You need to combine your interests in art and science.'" After she finished her B.S. in applied mathematics at Union, she came directly to the University at Buffalo to begin work on a master's degree in architecture.
Jumbled together with undergraduate architecture majors as well as graduate students who came from backgrounds in history, psychology, English and other diverse fields, Alfano-Berwanger had to "learn a whole new language," she remembers. "At UB, I felt like I found my niche."
Her memories include the stimulating interchange of ideas and critiques with faculty and fellow students, working around the clock on studio projects in Crosby Hall and sitting on the floor of the library to immerse herself in books about great architects. A semester in Barcelona, under the direction of the late UB Professor John Archea, opened her mind to concepts of behavior in space. "He taught us that you have to understand a city through the soles of your feet … by watching how a person moves and pauses." The experience led her to her thesis topic—an exploration of "architectural hinges." She carried out this work with the guidance of Jean LaMarche, assistant professor, and Bonnie Ott, associate professor, both of the UB architecture faculty.
"Metaphorically, hinges represent a joint … something that connects multiple views," Alfano-Berwanger explains. "You, as the participant, become important in making those connections. You exhibit hinge-like qualities by creating a relationship between body and space. When I design today, I find these concepts to be pivotal in my work."
Following the completion of her master's, Alfano-Berwanger spent a few months with a small architectural firm in Elmsford, New York, before finding a position with William Nicholas Bodouva and Associates in New York City. Her efforts there focused primarily on two airport design projects. While working on an addition to the existing Baltimore/Washington International Airport, "I learned mostly how to put a set of drawings together. It was the production end. I needed to learn those skills," she says.
She next was part of a team of 40 people working on a new 65,000-square-foot international terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. During this project, she learned more about what she calls the "political aspects" of architecture —the give-and-take process of working with designers and other professionals as they translate their vision to the realities of construction and implementation.
In 1998, Alfano-Berwanger moved to the Walker Group/CNI in Greenwich Village as a senior designer and project manager. It was there that the fame she had dreamed of finally found her—although it would take a project half a world away to put her in the spotlight.
Her award-winning opportunity came when her firm won a commission for the Iwataya Department Store in Fukuoka, Japan. A city that experiences heavy annual rainfall, Fukuoka is known as the "Venice of Japan" because of its system of interconnecting canals. The city also has developed an extensive network of subterranean tunnels that connect offices, hotels, transportation hubs and retail space.
The owners of Iwataya were looking for a way to entice visitors into the store from a nearby subway station. "They wanted something that was an experience … something different. They looked upon the project as a gift to their customers," Alfano-Berwanger explains.
The project represented an unusually challenging assignment for the design team. As Alfano-Berwanger puts it, "What is it that could counter the feeling of being inside a tunnel?" The solution involved the design of a series of three bridges that extend from one end of the 400-foot-long passageway to the other. Angled vertical posts support bridge railings and cables, while blue lighting under the bridge deck creates an impression of water below.
Within a year of its completion in late 1999, the project was recognized as "Best Public Space" by Interiors magazine, received an award in an "International Store Design" competition presented by Visual Merchandising and Store Design, garnered an AIA (American Institute of Architects) 2000 Honors Award for "Interior Architecture," and was cited as one of the year's top projects by Business Week and Architectural Record.
Of course, designers and architects rarely have the luxury of working on only one project at a time. Such is the case for Alfano-Berwanger, whose other recent endeavors have included the Sugarbeat Café in Denver, Colorado; the design of in-store displays for Lladró figurines in Harrods Department Store in London; and two newspaper-themed newsstands at Greeley and Herald Squares for the 34th Street Partnership in New York.
Her most intriguing current project is also in downtown Manhattan, at 50 Murray Street. She is designing a number of elements essential to the conversion of a 22-story former Internal Revenue Service office structure into a residential building. Walker Group/CNI was hired to design the lobby, the rooftop, and all the corridors and elevator lobbies.
Alfano-Berwanger's description of the project provides an intriguing insight into the creative process. "The fact that the building used to be occupied by the IRS provided an impetus for the design," she explains. "We started to think about the interaction of public and private sectors —the concept that ‘big brother' is watching us."
That analysis led the design team to conceive a series of glass cubes in the lobby, for example. "One of them will be the mailroom," Alfano-Berwanger says. "The mailboxes will be placed against the glass, so that people walking by will see an ever-changing pattern of shadow and light as mail is placed into the slots." Also in the lobby, "we are designing coves with light and pockets in the walls and ceiling. These create smaller private spaces within the larger public space."
In light of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, "the developers like the idea of the rooftop being a beacon and offering a ray of hope," Alfano-Berwanger says. (Part of the engine from one of the hijacked planes hit the building, which stands just two blocks from Ground Zero.) "We will wrap and illuminate a rooftop feature with light that will ebb and flow in different colors, and then introduce the same concept into the lobby in a feature wall. This will bring the public notion of what's happening on the roof into the private domain of the lobby," she points out.
While she continues to bring her artistic and scientific inclinations to bear on an impressive range of design challenges, Alfano-Berwanger keeps one eye focused toward the future. She is working on becoming a registered architect —a process that involves a series of examinations and will take her two years.
"Architecture is fascinating to me," Alfano-Berwanger continues. "It's the frame … the stage … the backdrop for all the events of life. It embodies a feeling of timelessness. It's a really cool discipline."
Throughout her relatively brief but highly successful career, Michele Alfano-Berwanger has looked back upon her University at Buffalo education with great appreciation. "At UB, I learned to think critically and to push the envelope. I try to apply that day-to-day," she says.
Freelance writer Leon M. Rubin is president of Rubin Communications Group in Boca Raton, Florida.