By Joseph Dalton
Times Union, January 25, 2015
Photos: John Carl D’Annibale (Times Union)
Ted Mallin was 10 years old when he made his first visit to a construction site. He was tagging along with his dad, a homebuilder in Pittsburgh during the post-World War II boom. Mallin vividly recalls his reaction to smelling the excavated earth and seeing skeletal house framing: “This is really cool!”
Today Mallin, 63, is a principal with Envision Architects, an Albany firm that he co-founded in 1983 with two fellow Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute grads. While most of his time these days is dedicated to business development — the launching of projects rather than the detail of designing them — he still has a fondness for the aspects of the profession that attracted and engaged him as a kid.
Shortly after that first outing with his dad, Mallin got busy learning to draw. That’s something he fears is becoming a lost art in our digital age.
“Sketching and freehand is an important part of what we do. You have to be able to produce lots of ideas and then throw them away,” says Mallin. “I see people come out of RPI who can’t print well, let alone sketch. But a computer is only good at documenting a decision. When you’re in the realm of aesthetics, the shape of a curve can be subtle, and a pen needs to find that.”
As an example of what can be accomplished through quick renderings, Mallin can point to one of his firm’s most prominent local buildings, the parking structure for the SUNY headquarters in downtown Albany. Consider the difficulties of the commission: a mundane-if-necessary function, but placed at a site that could hardly be more prominent, sitting next to the iconic building on Broadway by Marcus T. Reynolds and also facing a stretch of I-787 that is effectively the entrance to the city.
Prior to a preliminary meeting with decision makers from SUNY, Mallin called on his entire staff for an intensive design session known as a charette. “I said you have one hour, no holds barred, to draw and draw and draw,” he recalls. “We decided as an office to show all of the 18 drawings, and they were blown away by the breadth of ideas.”
The resulting five-story structure, which came from Mallin’s own sketches, uses arches and columns inspired by the adjacent Gothic revival building. A terra cotta screen hides the cars. It was completed in 2001 and received an award from the American Institute of Architects.
A couple of more recent projects had Envision Architects even more deeply involved with historic buildings: the interior renovation and restorations of the Albany County Courthouse and of William S. Hackett Middle School. Each of these received an award from the Preservation League of New York State. But they’re not the kind of architecture work that turns your head when driving through the city. And that’s OK with Mallin.
“We are a service-oriented firm,” he explains. “If it’s a roof replacement, we’ll do that, or a whole new wing to a building.”
Working with the health care field has become one specialty. For St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany back in 2001, Mallin and his team renovated and expanded the emergency room. A similar two-phase project is under way for the emergency room at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady. Functionality is key in such spaces, but still only part of the agenda. As Mallin explains, “the intent is to provide beauty in life’s greatest challenges and comfort people in these situations.”
Combining complex systems with an extravagant kind of beauty is what Mallin admires in Santiago Calatrava, who he cites as his favorite major architect of our time. “He creates extremely rational designs,” observes Mallin, “and then he weaves a web of art around them.” Probably best known for bridges crowned with soaring lattices of cable and steel, Calatrava also designed the long-awaited transportation hub at the new World Trade Center.
Mallin doesn’t have such grand aspirations, and even insists that he and his firm have no signature style. “Our aesthetic is a reaction to clients’ preferences, the site and the context,” he says. “When called upon for higher design, we’re proficient, but we’re not Calatrava.”
Yet among the firm’s many projects, there are more than a few recognizable buildings in our region. Among them are two particularly colorful schoolhouses in Albany, the bright red Delaware Community School, located between Delaware and Second Avenues, and the expansive, multi-hued Montessori Magnet School on Tremont Avenue. There’s also the new Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany and the main parking garage at Albany International Airport, both functional and modestly distinctive. On the campus of Siena College in Loudonville is the glass and brick Sarazen Student Union and in progress at Union College is a new 38,000-square-foot dorm.
“I’m very strong-minded and know what my clients need,” says Mallin, “and I will push the resources to get that done.”
That attitude might explain why his firm secures jobs that emphasize efficiencies, both environmental and budgetary. As examples are two ongoing projects, the Five Rivers Environmental Education Center, expected to open in Delmar this spring, and the Urban Grow Center in north Troy, which is the new headquarters of Capital Roots (formerly the Capital District Community Gardens).
“The fascinating thing about this work is it’s highly rational, analytic data crunching,” says Mallin, “followed by creating a form out of material and color and light and texture.”