The Creative Culture at Gluck + in West Harlem

Peter Gluck is an 84-year old architect who’s never stopped building.

He graduated from Yale in 1965 – then ventured out on his own.

“I had already started designing buildings while in school,” he says “I kept on designing, and I never worked for anybody.”

His design/build firm, called Gluck +, employs 50 architects, each engaged in building what they draw. They’ve been based in West Harlem for 20 years now. That’s for three good reasons, the firm’s namesake says.

First the price for the space is right. “And we wanted to get involved in the community – we thought the architecture profession had abandoned everything but the glitzy end,” he says. “And I can walk to the office from my apartment.”

The firm’s modern practice is split between residential work and commercial/public projects, like low-cost housing in Aspen or New York and exhibition tennis courts for the U.S. Open. “We do a lot of affordable housing – and unaffordable housing,” he says. “We are not restricted by budget – it’s always an issue, no matter what the scale.”

More than 50 percent of the firm’s buildings are buried below grade, to get the most out of a site and integrate with it. Gluck contends that doing that reduces the size and bulk of the building, and helps organize it without exposure. “The so-called basement doesn’t need heating or cooling – it’s 50 degrees naturally,” he says. “It’s a cost-saving mechanism.”

But it’s not for everybody. “It’s pretty scary to build a structure below grade – so that’s another reason for us to take over the construction,” he says. “If it doesn’t work, it’s disastrous – and it requires expertise.”

But they build up too. The firm just added six stories of new construction atop an older, seven-story building. By doubling its size, they retained the texture of the old building without trying to replicate it. “There’s authenticity, and you add to it,” he says. 

Off-site construction contributes to savings too, from a firm that gives out guaranteed costs of construction. Labor is extremely expensive, so anything done away from the site helps tremendously. “Five years ago it was quite successful with market housing in upper Manhattan,” he says. “And we did a school in Newark, N.J. with everything done off site – the foundation was precast slab on gravel, plus prefab pieces.”

He likes to incorporate a building’s surrounding context into its design, rather than replicate or allude to it. “Literally, we’re maintaining whatever’s positive to the project,” he says. “To me it’s one of the most interesting aspects of the urban condition.”

Sure, he’s 84 years old. But Peter Gluck, the architect who walks to work every day, is just getting started.

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