Gateway Station, Downtown. Photo by Ed Massery.

Architect Gary Carlough  lived a cinematic life.

The Bethlehem native, who loved his adopted Pittsburgh, once owned the Friendship-area house where the movie Wonder Boys was filmed. His widow and business partner, architect Anne Chen recalls that before production, actor Michael Douglas toured the house where Carlough had just moved. ‘Whoever lives here now is Grady Tripp,” said the actor who played Grady Tripp in the movie.

Carlough, who died unexpectedly and peacefully in his sleep on Sunday, June 29 at the age of 62,  was indeed academic and affable, perhaps indeterminately middle aged, just like the movie role. But he lived his life decisively in three dimensions, as a designer in the real world as well as a beloved figure with multi-dimensional talents and traits. He was deeply influential in our community.

Anne Chen, wife and business partner, with Gary Carlough

The teaching, like all aspects of his life, was very real. “I’m getting lots of emails from people that he taught,” says Pittsburgh AIA Executive Director Anne Swager. “They’re talking about what an influence he was on their lives.”

Nina Barbuto, a former student and founding Director of Assemble, agrees. “Gary was awesome. He provided a real studio atmosphere where we were all working together.”

But teaching advanced architectural design studios is no easy task. Steve Lee, Head of the Carnegie Mellon School of Architecture, where Carlough taught for twenty years, cautions. “We need people who have real experience, not just writing contracts or managing a firm, but designing a large and complex building.” He adds, “They also need to ask formal and theoretical questions, not just stack rectangular spaces on top of each other.” Carlough was intellectual as well as practical.

Gary Carlough, third from the left with his wife, Anne Chen and partners from GBBN.

The first time I read Foucault was with Gary,” Barbuto recalls.

At the same time, Carlough maintained a dynamic and serious professional practice. With a degree from the University of Arizona and a post-graduate year of independent study at London’s Architectural Association, Carlough practiced for some years with The Design Alliance Architects of Pittsburgh, as well as in independent practice.

In 1995, he opened EDGE Studios, with business partner, architect and designer Dutch MacDonald. He produced a portfolio of award-winning buildings in thirty years of professional practice. “The buildings always have an Edge,” Steve Lee quips, “and I use the word in all of its meanings.”

The University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering and Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, for example, is a high-performance lab and research building packed into a tight site at the University of Pittsburgh. It lifts and swoops like a spaceship without knocking the rest of the campus out of place.

“His work tends to get out there and really innovate and still fit into context, which I find remarkable,” observes Anne Swager. PNC’s Heritage Center, once a misshapen low-rise lump, was re-skinned and repurposed as exciting contemporary architectural sculpture under Carlough’s design direction.

For all his design talent, Carlough was also a willing collaborator. One-time co-teacher, architect Rob Pfaffmann recalls that the two enjoyed teaching together so much that their firms collaborated on a major project, the Gateway Center Station of the North Shore Transit Connector. “People thought it was going to be a disaster,” says Pfaffmann, because the project was devilishly complex, and because design-oriented architects traditionally have robust self-confidence.

Gary Carlough, a great architect and all around great guy.

Yet they, as well as collaborating principal Matt Fineout, had excellent dialogue and problem-solving throughout. “Throughout the project, I don’t think there was a moment where we had otherwise.” There was little to no butting of heads, because, “Gary was a collaborative guy.”

He also always had the technical expertise to back up the beautiful images. He was good at “the complexity of putting together documents well, the attention to detail, the practical rigor, the legal aspects of management that are not very pretty,” says Pfaffmann. Whether from in-town colleagues, or larger national firms looking for a local associate, “Gary was much-admired by the firms and the facilities management folks,” says Steve Lee.

While some Pittsburgh architects protest in town commissions by out of town firms, Carlough was eager to collaborate with Atlanta-based design standouts Mack Scogin and Merril Elam. He was even willing to take second billing on what became their national award winning Gates Hillman Computer Science Building at Carnegie Mellon.  “He was totally generous and eager to be part of the project,” says Elam. “A consummate professional, you couldn’t ask for a finer person.” Scogin comments, “Gary was special. An absolute joy to work with.”

The academic and professional reputations are important, as is the legacy of exciting built work. Yet, the quality that so many people are recalling with Carlough’s untimely passing is that he was a genuinely nice guy with a great sense of humor. “He had that Pittsburgh personality,” says Swager. He was down-to-earth. You could see him in a bar on Butler Street as much as at some fancy reception in the Cultural District.”

“By the end of studio, Gary wasn’t just your studio professor, he was your friend,” says Barbuto.

PNC Legacy Building by EDGE Studio, now GBBN. The former Liberty Travel building, at four stories tall, seemed small and misshapen. The redesign, led by Gary Carlough, transformed it into contemporary architectural sculpture using translucent channel class and two-tone metal skin. Photo by Ed Massery.

In just the past year, Carlough had entered a new phase of his career and life. Edge Studios joined forces with GBBN Architects, adding Pittsburgh to their offices in Cincinnati, Louisville, and Beijing. “We just engaged in this merger opportunity to have the possibility of working on these larger projects,” Chen recounts. “He was really at this point where he was poised to take on more and to do more and be challenged more.” Also, “…we had just moved into the [Fox Chapel area] house that was his dream house.”

Was it the epic construction drama that architect-designed houses can be? “No, it was easy. It was so easy,” Chen replies. It was the embodiment of working and living with Gary Carlough.

He had a “winning combination of warmth, creativity and spirit that made such a big impression on so many of us,” commented a friend on Facebook. 

If anyone made a movie about Carlough’s life, it would, like Wonder Boys, have an affable academic gentleman at its center. And, like the movie, there would be plenty of scenes at Carnegie Mellon University and even a few in that house in Friendship. But unlike Grady Tripp’s 1600 page manuscript, Gary Carlough’s story ends much too soon.

The author and all of us at NEXT, who remember Gary as a genuinely great guy and multi-talented architect,  extend their deepest sympathies to Anne and to Gary’s family and to the architectural community for their deep loss. Gary will  be sorely missed.

Charles Rosenblum

Charles Rosenblum is a journalist, critic, and scholar who specializes in the built environment and visual arts. His work has appeared in Architectural Record, Preservation, Architect’s Newspaper, Public...