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Under the guidance of Alan Balfour, at that time dean of the School of Architecture, Rensselaer held an architectural competition in 2001, that led to the engagement of the international architectural firm Grimshaw as the design architects and Davis, Brody, Bond of New York as architects of record. Other partners in the building team include Kirkegaard Associates, of Chicago, as acousticians and Fisher Dachs Associates, of New York, as theater consultants.

In addition to the four large performance spaces, the building includes a 1,500-square-foot rehearsal studio, four studios for artists in residence, suites for audio and video production, a major research suite, plus an atrium lobby and cafe. Each of the large spaces is acoustically isolated and capable of diverse video and audio production. The building is linked to the Rensselaer Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations as well as to the studios of WMHT-TV, the Capital Region’s public television station based in the Rensselaer Technology Park in North Greenbush.

“The quality of these spaces—between the physical properties and the digital technology, the four major venues along with the support spaces, and the research space—does not exist anywhere under one roof,” says Goebel. “I know from my experience that all the parameters are set right. It can serve any research, engineering, or artistic production involving media technology and it is at the absolute forefront.”

Rensselaer faculty and students played a role in the design of the building as well. Although the unique canvas ceiling in the concert hall was conceived and rendered by Kirkegaard Associates, it was such an unusual undertaking that a team from Rensselaer was brought together in 2004 to determine its feasibility and advise on its implementation, including the specific material to be used. Led by former faculty member Rendell Torres of the architectural acoustics program, the group created a computer model of the room and a high-resolution auralization of its sound.

The forward-thinking building and program intrigued Rensselaer trustee Curtis Priem ’82. “I asked a general question: For every single technology in the building, from acoustics and lighting to heating and cooling, who has the equivalent or better technology in the world? I wanted to know where Rensselaer would be in relation to everyone else,” says Priem, who recalls deciding to matriculate at Rensselaer in 1978 because it was about to install the latest computer (the IBM 3033).


“Professor Goebel proceeded to go through a multinational list of universities and research centers, as well as theaters from Europe to Las Vegas, most of which he, or the original Rensselaer EMPAC team, had visited. He declared that when EMPAC opens it would be as good as or better than each of these. It was more than I was expecting and it started sinking in that we will be world leaders in this arena of performing arts, technology, and experimental media,” says Priem, an entrepreneur who co-founded NVIDIA, a world leader in visual computing technologies. Priem was so convinced of EMPAC’s potential that he made a major gift of $40 million from his personal foundation.

EMPAC Progam Has Impact

As the EMPAC building has come into sharp relief on the southwest corner of campus overlooking downtown Troy, the EMPAC brand has also begun to take shape in the awareness of students and faculty, as well as those interested in the arts from across the Capital Region. Since April 2004, EMPAC has produced more than 50 different events, including some intimate lectures, an array of concerts, several multimedia theater evenings, numerous screenings of independent and arts films, and a few continuously running interactive arts installations. “EMPAC 360,” the outdoor performance and spectacle on the building’s construction site in September 2005, was attended by more than 2,000 people and named by the Albany Times Union as the arts event of the year. An estimated 10,000 people have already attended EMPAC events to date.

Making the recommendations about what performance pieces get produced—as well as what artists are invited for long-term creative residencies in the building—is a team of three curators, part of EMPAC’s current 24-member staff. Until recently “curator” was a term primarily used in the museum realm, referring to specialists who keep abreast of trends in the field, make programmatic decisions, and supervise the production and installation of shows.

The three EMPAC curators are focused on music, dance, and visual art, respectively, but they each take such broad views that their individual terrains are never sharply defined. This goes a long way toward explaining why so many EMPAC events are hard to describe in a few words.

“All of us [curators] have an attachment to work that crosses disciplines and that fits the larger EMPAC audience,” says visual art curator Kathleen Forde. Goebel has stated that EMPAC will not be duplicating or competing with arts organizations in the Capital Region. Dance curator Hélène Lesterlin underscores that thinking when she says, “we’re not cultivating music or dance audiences, but EMPAC audiences. Artists who come here say that this is the most diverse and open-minded audience they’ve ever had.”

Remembering that the “E” in EMPAC is for experimental, the curator’s decisions aren’t based just on who’s plugged into the latest gadgets. “I’ve come to believe that ‘technology’ is one of the most dangerous euphemisms of our times,” says music curator Micah Silver. “So what if an artist uses a laptop? That’s superficial. EMPAC is about people choosing to go their own way, to create their own language. I look for some new way to experience sound that makes the world bigger and broader.”

While clearly pointed to the future, EMPAC, President Jackson says, is rooted in Rensselaer’s core traditions and principles. “EMPAC represents out-of-the-box thinking, maybe even a leap of faith,” says Jackson. “But if Amos Eaton saw us today, he would understand that EMPAC is a natural evolution of his idea of engaged education. It is the ultimate platform for people to be engaged, to be interactive with each other, with combined virtual and physical environments, and to use those to probe the natural world.”

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.