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* Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC)

Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center


New Book Explores the Architecture of EMPAC

A new book, The Architecture of EMPAC—The Tangible and the Tantalizing, chronicles the making of the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) “not just as a building, but as an agenda,” says author and Associate Professor of Architecture Mark Mistur.

“EMPAC is part of an agenda, set out by Dr. Jackson, to transform a university from a historically progressive polytechnic institute to a tier-one research university,” said Mistur. “It is based on a daring premise—the premise that many of the next-generation innovations will occur at the interface between the arts, technology, and Rensselaer’s core disciplinary strengths.”

The book, said Johannes Goebel, director of EMPAC and a contributing author, “represents the human effort that went into realizing a vision which was unique” as EMPAC moved from vision to reality.

“This can be seen as a document of an extreme adventure—where everything from engineering to new content was constantly intermingled,” Goebel said. “The book describes how this project evolved over eight years to the opening, everything which made this building happen, which indeed is unique. There is no building I know of which has been built to this scale with this very specific program.”

The Architecture of EMPAC, 250-plus pages replete with photographs, design details, and a companion DVD, is divided into three sections chronicling the agenda of EMPAC, the journey of designing and building EMPAC, and the possibilities it creates. With the results, a world-class architectural design and one-of-a-kind instrument for experimentation, it may be hard to envision a time when the EMPAC agenda did not exist. But it began with no more than a vision.

“There was not a program which was written at the beginning which was given to the consultants and they were told ‘just do it,’” said Goebel. “There was a specific vision for a specific program. And how do we realize the program? Where did we have to advance knowledge? Where did we have to invent new things?”

The first section of the book, “The Agenda,” positions EMPAC as an extension of Rensselaer’s tradition of “excellence and innovation” referencing the visions of founder Stephen Van Rensselaer, director Benjamin Franklin Greene, and President Shirley Ann Jackson. An essay by Goebel, “EMPAC: Scales, Senses and the Creation of Meaning,” goes on to define the program in relation to the human and research agenda.

“The building had to support the agenda,” said Mistur. “The architecture, the design, and system integrations create the necessary flexibility and influence the intimacy, the possibilities, the wonder, and the desire to achieve the highest quality in what its users do.”

With guidance from the dean and faculty within the School of Architecture, the Institute assembled a list of internationally recognized architects and ran a competition to select the design architect.

The selection of Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners launches the second section of the book, “The Journey.” Included in this section are essays by acoustician Larry Kirkegaard, and architects Sir Nicholas Grimshaw and William Horgan, as well as content—drawn from numerous interviews Mistur conducted throughout the construction phase—on the design challenges of marrying architecture and technology with the program of EMPAC.

“How do you build a world-class building to specific purposes? There are new techniques. It is global. It must be interdisciplinary and must be digitally designed in three dimensions so that the architecture, the systems, the acoustics come together in a way that promotes possibility,” said Mistur. “But above all that, it must support the research and the performance, the mind, the ear, and the eye.”

The challenge involved countless complexities and resulted in numerous innovations, said Mistur. The Architecture of EMPAC tells those stories, such as the springs that support the four-million-pound Goodman Theater/Studio 1; the north-facing glass “curtain wall” whose steel mullions perform double-duty by circulating heated water to maintain an even temperature within the building, and reducing the building’s energy profile; and the fabric ceiling and acoustic panels in the Concert Hall that allow the venue to accommodate anything from a lone voice to an amplified rock concert.

Ultimately, the book addresses “The Possibilities,” including an appendix of events leading up to the opening of EMPAC and through its first months of operation. Here essays by theater consultant and designer Joshua Dachs and Goebel describe how the venues and infrastructure create both flexibility and possibility.

“It’s just a wonder,” said Goebel. “Maybe one should look at it as a miracle, how humans can create something that can raise as many questions as it can answer.”

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 5, Number 11, June 17, 2011
©2011 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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