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East Harlem School: Contemporary Design, at a Bargain Price

Peter L. Gluck and Partners have just completed a new school in New York–and gave back $500,000 to the board after finishing.


Maybe the biggest reason why more builders don’t hire contemporary architects is that, in addition to the up front design fees, your typical design visionary is bound to plow straight through the construction budget, and then some. But not always. Recently, Peter L. Gluck & Partners completed a new building for the East Harlem School, a charter school in Harlem. By acting as both the designer and the construction manager, they were able to deliver the building below budget, at a cost of $330 a square foot (which is very low, at least for New York). At the end, they even returned $500,000 in unspent contingencies–that is, the money budgeted for inevitable construction screw-ups.

The building is the first new school in the neighborhood in decades, and what’s striking about it is that it doesn’t look budget at all. In fact, it looks downright luxe. There is a smart economy of motifs and materials at work. Those panels you see on the facade are actually used to break up the jailhouse feel that plagues most institutional buildings. Meanwhile, on the inside, panel windows create copious natural light without creating expansive views that would be a distraction to students and teachers alike:

Erik Freeland

There’s a bit of whimsey (but not too much) in the round, overhead lighting wells:

Erik Freeland

That circular theme echoes throughout the building…

Erik Freeland

…and even in the lockers. What’s really interesting about the lockers is how the holes in the doors basically keep kids from storing anything inside that they shouldn’t have (that is, anything except books, which can’t be slipped through by a would-be thief):

Erik Freeland

On the lower levels are the communal spaces, such as the cafeteria, gym, lobby and main stair. All of them are faced in etched glass, which, from the sidewalk, allows you to glimpse the outlines of the humming activity inside–making the presence of schoolkids tangible but understated, for the entire block:

Erik Freeland

The place no kid wants to see: The Principal’s office:

Erik Freeland

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About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.



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