Building Design and Construction for Experimental Media and Performing Arts

2001–2008

EMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (ca. 2015) by Rensselaer Polytechnic InstituteEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

A bold initiative by the oldest technological university.

In 2000–2001, under the recently appointed President Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute received an unrestricted anonymous gift of $360M, at that point in time the largest amount for any university.

The oldest technological research university in the United States decided in a bold and insightful move to build EMPAC. Originally standing for “Electronic Media and Performing Arts Center,” the name was changed early in the design process to the “Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center.”

EMPAC construction site (2003) by Rensselaer Polytechnic InstituteEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The steep west-facing slope towards downtown Troy was selected as construction site (red lines).

Architectural competition (2001) by Grimshaw ArchitectsEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

In early 2001, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute commenced the EMPAC project with an international architectural competition. Under the guidance of  School of Architecture Dean Alan Balfour, four international architects were invited to submit to the competition — Max Bond with Thomas Leeser, Nicholas Grimshaw, Thom Mayne, and Bernard Tschumi. Their proposals were based on an architectural program that Rensselaer had defined with Scéno Plus, a Montreal-based design firm specializing in the design of entertainment and cultural venues.

EMPAC Architectural competition, Grimshaw rendering (2001) by Grimshaw ArchitectsEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Rensselaer’s President Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson announced the selection of London-based Grimshaw Architects after the four firms presented their plans and models on March 21, 2001 on the Rensselaer campus. The architectural design process started immediately, first at Grimshaw’s London office and soon after at their newly established New York office.

Sketch of Concert Hall (2001) by Nicholas GrimshawEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

This sketch, made by Nicholas Grimshaw early in the schematic design process, reflects the central large venue — now the Concert Hall — remained the heart of the building throughout all design changes, extending from the campus level at the top of the hill over the steep slope, visible behind a glass curtain wall designed to form the north façade of the building. 

EMPAC architectural models (2003) by Grimshaw ArchitectsEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The architectural changes and refinements took place in close collaboration between architects and consultants together with President Jackson and EMPAC Director Johannes Goebel. Goebel was hired to develop the Center’s future programmatic activities,  the necessary infrastructure for artistic production and scientific research, and to ensure that the building design across all crafts and trades would meet the envisioned goals.

EMPAC architectural design (2001) by Grimshaw ArchitectsEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

These four models show how the architecture evolved radically over time — not so much from the cost perspective, but from the programmatic requirements. It starts with the competition model, resulting in the final schematic design which laid the foundation for the detailed design development.

Building construction time lapse (2008) by EMPAC, Shannon JohnsonEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Groundbreaking: September 19, 2003. 
Inauguration:  October 3, 2008.

The construction time-lapse video covers the time between 2005 and the fall of 2008.

Grimshaw Architects, Design Architect
Kirkegaard Associates, Acoustic Consultant
Fisher Dachs Associates, Theatre Consultant
Buro Happold, Engineering Consultant
Davis Brody Bond, Architect of Record
Turner Construction Company

As well as many more consultants and thousands of hands building it.

Special Projects Group, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Johannes Goebel, Director, EMPAC
Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, 18th President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Steel structure north block with Concert Hall (2008) by SupermétalEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Steel structure of the north block with the shape of the Concert Hall at its center.

Opening night (2008) by Peter Aaron / EstoEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The Concert Hall behind the north facing curtain glass wall.

North façade (2008) by Peter Aaron / EstoEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Main building entrance from campus at top of the hill.

Opening night (2008) by Peter Aaron / EstoEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Three lobby levels with outside terrace.

Concert Hall behind glass curtain wall (2008) by Peter Aaron / EstoEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Bridges leading into Concert Hall

Southwest corner (2008) by Peter Aaron / EstoEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

South block, with the Theater and two studios hidden inside.

East entrance to main lobby (2008) by Peter Aaron / EstoEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Main lobby on campus level with entrances to the balcony of the Concert Hall and the lower roof of the south block extending to the left.

Northwest corner (2008) by Peter Aaron / EstoEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

At sunset, with the Folsom Library mirrored in the north glass curtain wall.

The Architecture of EMPAC – The Tangible and the Tantalizing (2011) by Mark MisturEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The Architecture of EMPAC – The Tangible and the Tantalizing
ORO Editions
ISBN: 978-0-578-07240-1

By using a series of essays, drawings, images, and team insights, this 256-page book takes the reader through the collaborative process of a world-class team — led by Grimshaw Architects, Kirkegaard Associates, Fisher Dachs Associates, Buro Happold, and the Architect of Record Davis Brody Bond Aedas with the owner’s team of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute under its President Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson — from concept to completion.

The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Center (EMPAC) is an extraordinary instrument for artists and researchers alike. With its concert hall, a theater and experimental black box studios, EMPAC bridges the ever-expanding potential of digital technology with the most refined details for acoustics, visual production, and performing arts. EMPAC is designed, without compromise, for technology and the human experience, ranging from performances and new productions in time-based arts to the creation and navigation of large-scale immersive environments by researchers and engineers. On the campus of the oldest technological university in the United States, the vision of EMPAC synthesizes a grand architectural gesture with the complex requirements of a true interdisciplinary enterprise for the 21st century.

The Architecture of EMPAC – Table of Contents (2011) by Mark MisturEMPAC — The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson’s foreword describes a vision for a 21st-century research university and EMPAC as one instrument to enhance the culture of a polytechnic institute and to provoke innovation. 

An essay from Director Johannes Goebel focuses on the human scale and senses and the frontier of time-based arts. Essays by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, acoustician R. Lawrence Kirkegaard, theater design consultant Joshua Dachs, and Grimshaw Architects’ partner involved in the project from beginning to end William Horgan, each examine the question of performance-based design integration and tell the stories of innovations that resulted from their various important points of view. 

The building and the book do more than promise results. Being in operation for two years at the conclusion of writing The Architecture of EMPAC, the book concludes with an appendix complete with the events it has been home to, the artists who have been in residence and the new productions to date (2010), with the opening concert, excerpts from the opening festival, a building light installation, plus a time-lapsed movie of the construction included in a DVD.

Credits: Story

Johannes Goebel

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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