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Contract Interviews HOK’s James Mallory About Higher-Ed Design and Creative Inspiration

Contract magazine showcased James Mallory, a senior design principal in HOK’s New York studio, as part of its “On Our Radar” series. Mallory discussed the creative and technical processes behind designing research and higher-ed buildings for HOK’s Science + Technology group.

Excerpted from an in-depth interview in Contract:

Tell us about yourself:

I am a principal and senior designer in HOK’s New York office, leading projects in the architecture studio. We maintain an integrated studio approach in which the lines of architecture and interiors, design and technical, and project management, are blurred. We truly believe that architects should be multidisciplinary and be nimble enough to work at all scales. In my eight years at HOK, I have worked on everything from 7-star hotels to corporate campuses, designing at the scale of a canopy to the complexity of an airport transit system. In the last few years, I have worked almost exclusively on, and found a true passion for, science and technology projects where I have come to “specialize” in higher education and research laboratory building design.

How did you wind up at your firm?

At my previous firm, a senior director, Carl Galioto, was the guy you went to occasionally when you needed help figuring something out. He had a definite “MacGyver” aura about him. He truly seemed to love the process of not only solving a problem, but also passing on his knowledge and experience, of teaching his craft. He had built stuff, a lot of stuff—and as a junior designer who was late to the game and beginning a new career, that’s exactly who I wanted to learn from. Carl had departed SOM shortly before me so when I started looking, I immediately looked to follow him. Carl had taken the position of president at HOK. I was also drawn to HOK because our team had lost the LG Headquarters competition to HOK and, even though no one likes to lose a competition, I was deeply impressed by the winning design. Ken Drucker, design principal at HOK and lead designer on the LG project, interviewed me and I left more excited than when I walked in the door. Luckily, he called me back. We’ve been working together ever since.

What is your role at your firm?

I lead project teams from visioning and programming through to the end of design development, with a lighter touch over the length of construction documentation. I participate on the HOK Design Board, a group of senior design leaders from across the firm that meet regularly to discuss current projects, strategy, and initiatives, and promote the future design leadership of the office. Keeping a regular and constructive dialogue between offices of a global practice is a critical part of unifying the vision and continuing the traditions of the firm.

Mallory’s recent work includes the Henning Building at Penn State University. Now under construction, the building features collaboration zones with flexible lab space for the school’s animal science, veterinary and biomedical sciences departments.

Your firm has an incredible legacy. How do you find yourself working within that tradition?

HOK has a long tradition of intelligent, sensible building design, being out front on the important developments in the industry, retaining strong client relationships and prioritizing a healthy work-life balance for its employees. It also happens to be an exceedingly well-run firm, from the business to the culture. When I first joined, I was impressed at the amount of transparency provided, from how the office was managed, resources allocated, to the attention to the well-being of the staff.

Where do you find everyday inspiration?

I find everyday inspiration in a good night’s sleep, a run through the park, a delicious meal, and good conversation. I also find it when and where I least expect it. The other day I randomly took a book off the shelf on trees in New York City that I received as a gift from my mother seven years ago. Inside I read about a famous elm in Prospect Park that has survived over 150 years, through disease and environmental strain. That tree manages to thrive through it all, it still blooms every year. This is a tree I have run by numerous times but never had any idea of its significance. I find that inspirational. My younger son has been playing with Legos for years, building, rebuilding, sorting, and destroying. Watching that free play and exploration, the risk taking, and the joy and frustration, is always inspirational to watch.

What does an effective learning space look like?

Effective learning spaces have comfortable seating, modular work surfaces, natural materials and easily accessible power and data. That’s the tactile. But of equal importance are the spatial aspects such as high ceilings, quality daylighting, view sheds to the exterior, good sight lines, effective acoustics, and opportunities for mobility. The successful effective learning space is a spatial environment that provides and promotes maintaining clarity and focus, as well as facilitating positive multitasking.

The Chemical and Biomedical Engineering (CBE) Building in the heart of Penn State’s sciences district collocates two departments in a space that enhances collaboration and student recruitment.

What is the importance of flexibility and choice to education design?

Trends come and go, student behavior and expectations evolve, technology shapes and adapts to change, but our best shot at a ‘future-proofed’ education design is to bake in smart flexibility. Looking at historical precedents, some things haven’t changed, and frankly shouldn’t change. Consider the descriptions of Socrates on the steps of a civic space, engaging in intimate and focused dialogue. Today we purposefully design these types of indoor and outdoor spaces to promote active learning, promoting mobility, for all ages, from childcare facilities to graduate schools. Or consider the historical model of the ‘lecture in the round’, for the instruction of forensics, or the autopsy. The immediacy and physical adjacencies of the model are still relevant, but technology is changing the paradigm. The lecture hall can now be a “white space,” with remote instruction, incorporation of robotics, and virtual (holographic?) cadavers.

How do you see education design changing in the next decade or two?

I see designers continuing to have the same important role: engaging with educators and administrators to identify what works best for them, whether they follow a more traditional pedagogy or a more heuristic approach and providing solutions to help them achieve their goals. We must continue to lead the conversation and drive an open exchange of ideas. Successful education design has always been about seeding inspiration and promoting innovation. To this day, we still reference the success of the Bell Labs Complex, designed by Eero Saarinen, to foster innovation in research by promoting social spaces as equally important to the heads-down bench research spaces. We study progressive lower school designs that blend indoor and outdoor space, promote physically engaging active space, mixing rough, challenging obstacles with soft, embracing nooks. We know the benefits of creating sensory-filled spaces, with pops of color and a range of textures. What I find fascinating is how we can start to see parallels between these “discovery-type” educational spaces and where we see workplace design headed, with the weaving together of space for focus and space for interaction.

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