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Macallen building
The sloped shape of the Macallen Building makes sense for its surroundings. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
Architecture

Practical magic

Inventive and savvy, a South Boston condo building meets many needs

This is a building that looks like a mountain.

It's the Macallen Building, a pile of new condos near the Broadway Red Line station in South Boston.

The Macallen is an unforgettable big brown sloping shape. Especially looking north from the heart of South Boston, it's as if you were looking across a plain at Chocorua in the distance.

We've grown accustomed to odd-looking architecture, as celebrity architects compete with one another to invent ever crazier shapes. But the Macallen isn't the result of anyone's artistic brainstorm. Its distinctive ski slope is perfectly logical.

At the high end, the building faces a wide empty tangle of roads and railroad tracks, with the skyline of the Back Bay in the far distance. Here the Macallen needs to be as tall as it legally can be. That's the only way it can have any presence in the railroad wasteland, and the only way it can lift its residents high enough to enjoy the great view.

At the other end, the Macallen is just another building along busy low-rise Dorchester Avenue. Here it stoops down politely to match the heights of its neighbors and puts on a coat of brick, too, to match their materials. Elsewhere, the Macallen is sheathed in a smooth surface of bronzed aluminum.

This is inventive architecture that is also practical and market-savvy. Buildings like the Macallen don't happen by accident. It's a collaboration between one of Boston's most innovative architects and a young developer who wanted to take the risk of doing something different.

The architect is the oddly named firm Office dA , a partnership of Nader Tehrani and Monica Ponce de Leon . Ponce de Leon teaches architecture at Harvard, Tehrani at MIT. They're in their early 40s, young for architects, a group who tend to flourish late.

Tim Pappas, the developer, represents the fourth generation to head Pappas Enterprises. "What I like," he says of the Macallen, "is that it doesn't look like anything I've ever seen before."

Tehrani knows his building as a big and maybe somewhat lonely shape. "It's a figurative building, an iconic building," he says. "It wants to be a member of a family of memorable buildings. It's the first thing you see when you head downtown from South Boston. At one end it's at the scale of the highway, high on the skyline, and at the other it comes down to pedestrian scale."

The sloping shape generates a variety of different units. There are 150 condos in all, ranging in price from $550,000 up to $2.1 million, with 30 units reserved at affordable rates. There are flats, duplexes, and triplexes. About half the market-rate units have already been sold.

Thanks to a system of staggered steel trusses (a system invented, 40 or 50 years ago, by the late Cambridge engineer Bill LeMessurier ), there are no structural columns anywhere in the interior. Ceilings are high, like those of industrial lofts, and rooms are flooded with light.

Not every unit is for every taste, which as far as I'm concerned is a virtue. Some have long interior stairs. Some have balconies, some don't. In some the dining table is built permanently into the kitchen, in others there's a separate dining area. You get the sense that for these architects, everything they do is a thoughtful experiment. It's a refreshing contrast to the standardized apartments, stacked up repetitively like filing cabinets, that we're too used to seeing in Boston.

I asked Tim Pappas how he happened to invest in so different a building. He says he met the architects years ago and became friendly with them. He hired them first to renovate parts of another building, and was impressed. "It showed me what you could accomplish with a good designer," Pappas says.

Then he adds the kind of endorsement most architects would hock their souls for: "My appreciation of design is the result of the time I've spent with them," he says. "It's as if I had four years of private architectural classes. They're both amazing teachers. I realized that you can make great buildings, not just money machines."

Office dA is known for developing its architecture not from formal ideas, but rather from an interest in materials and construction. A building, they believe, should tell you a story about how it's built and what's going on inside.

The Macallen's facades are such a graphic story. The idea was to project the interior realities onto the face of the building, the way you might project a film onto a screen. Thus, for example, all the staggered steel trusses that are holding up the floors stick out through the façade, creating a rhythm that explains something about how the building is put together. The bronze aluminum skin is conceived as a pliable curtain, which weaves its way in and out among those truss tips like basketry. Windows are full height in living spaces, sill height in bedrooms, so you can read which is which from outside. Variety comes not from arbitrary moves, but from clearly expressing what's real about the building.

Nobody, of course, is completely happy. Cost, as always, was a factor. The bronze skin is darker than intended. It was supposed to change color in different lights, but it doesn't much. It would have been helpful, too, to be able to give the facades more depth, more detail, maybe with a deeper weave of that bronze curtain, or as Pappas suggests, maybe a system of sunshades on the south façade.

Interior corridors are grim, and so is the entry lobby. Perhaps there was too strong an attempt to retain a memory of the site's industrial past. (The W. J. C. MacAllen Company made stuff for electric railways. Its original nameplate is embedded in the new lobby floor.)

This is one of the greenest buildings yet built in Boston, and it is expected to achieve a gold LEEDS rating ("Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design") from the US Green Building Council. Most of the energy-saving devices are invisible, but the sloping roof is the exception. It's entirely planted in a system of ground covers that will, when they grow out, clothe the roof in a rich fabric of greens and reds.

Macallen feels a little isolated now. But soon it will be one of a group of new and renovated buildings clustered around the Broadway T station, which is just a stop or two from downtown. And the city has a long-range plan to extend Dorchester Avenue along the edge of Fort Point Channel. When (and if) that happens, Macallen dwellers will have a pleasant waterside walk into town.

Pappas points out that the Artists for Humanity building, which I've praised in this space, is only two blocks away. "This will be a green living and arts district," he says.

Like other high-end condo projects, Macallen offers many extras: a health club and pool ; indoor parking, of course; and a pleasant small park by Landworks Studio. Architects Burt Hill collaborated with Office dA on the project.

When you try fresh ideas, you risk mistakes. But when you don't, you get predictable boredom. The Macallen Building, on balance, is a winner and full of lessons about how to design. As Boston redevelops its vast abandoned industrial real estate, it needs more of this kind of practical imagination.

Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

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