RPI Makes a Sound Investment

Event: Press Tour, Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC)
Location: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY, 10.20.08
Speakers: Shirley Ann Jackson — President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Johannes Goebel — Director, EMPAC; Bill Horgan — Associate Principal, Grimshaw Architects; R. Lawrence Kirkegaard, Hon. AIA — President & Principal Acoustician, Kirkegaard Associates; Craig Michael Schwitter, P.E. — Partner & Regional Director, Buro Happold North America; Denzil Gallagher — Partner, MEP Regional Discipline Leader, Buro Happold North America; William Paxson, AIA — Partner, Davis Brody Bond Aedas, Ernesto Bachiller — Associate Partner, Davis Brody Bond Aedas; and others

EMPAC exterior (left); concert hall (right).

Kristen Richards

A recent tour of the new Grimshaw/Davis Brody Bond Aedas-designed Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, revealed a building so high-tech that sci-fi comparisons are inevitable. As visitors peered around one futuristic all-black theater, EMPAC director Johannes Goebel jokingly referred to it as “the Darth Vader space,” while project architect Bill Horgan of Grimshaw Architects compared it with “The Matrix.” One of two studios devoted to new-media performance and scientific data visualizations, the 3,500-square-foot Studio 1, is wrapped with pockmarked acoustic tiles. Hovering overhead are metal rings, providing a framework to hold a 360-degree panoramic screen and projectors for immersive virtual environments, aided by heavy-duty processing power (the building is connected to the university’s supercomputer). A computer-controlled rigging system can be used to fly people or objects through the space.

With the lights up, the futuristic decor is rather imposing, but the true function of the space, as well as the smaller Studio 2, is its ability to disappear and adapt to varying theatrical contexts, often infused with video or projections that provide an enveloping sensory experience. The studios and a larger theater with a fly tower were designed for “a sense of not knowing what one will find when one walks in,” Horgan said. In a building where various shows might happen at the same time, acoustic isolation was crucial, so Studio 1 was designed to be structurally separate. It floats independently within the larger building, supported by a series of springs, explained Craig Schwitter, P.E., of Buro Happold, one of many firms that contributed their expertise in the building design.

EMPAC’s cedar-clad concert hall.

Kristen Richards

Representing the analog side of the building’s program, a more traditional concert hall was inspired by the resonant chambers of stringed musical instruments. The hall’s red cedar-clad rounded exterior dominates the center of the building’s seven-story atrium. Unlike the curved exterior, the hall’s interior is basically shoebox-shaped, but it is slightly convex to improve acoustic diffusion. Supported by a web of steel cables, a ceiling made of thin fabric reflects high-frequency sounds, while an upper volume above it reflects low-frequency sounds, helping to perfect the acoustics. Vaguely visible from the outside through the glass façade, the rounded form of the concert hall is the building’s dominant visual icon, its curves providing a contrast with the surrounding linear geometries. In one of many eco-friendly touches, the façade carries a system of hollow mullions containing hot water to help heat the space in winter, explained Denzil Gallagher of Buro Happold. Visitors who touched the mullions could feel their warmth.

EMPAC concert hall interior (left); Studio 1 (right).

Kristen Richards

All in all, the tour revealed EMPAC to be a visually eclectic but highly functional space that is already helping to promote experimental endeavors in architecture, digital technology, and performance. New-media art collective Workspace Unlimited (founded by an architect and an artist) has already put Studio 1’s panoramic screen to use. The group’s EMPAC-commissioned multimedia art installation “They Watch” employs hacked video-game software and motion-tracking technology to let viewers walk around the studio to explore virtual architectural environments and interact with animated characters in real time. The tour’s one disappointment was the lack of a demonstration of such spaces’ prodigious audiovisual capabilities, leaving this visitor resolved to return one day to see them in action.