It is the Experimental Media & Performing Arts Center, or EMPAC, which is being developed by a university with a reputation for advanced scientific research, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Its budget is £77m, and it will bring under one roof a 1200-seat concert hall, a 400-seat theatre and seven studios spaces.
What makes EMPAC a special project is that it is an experimental performing arts venu in a scientific research institute. It sets out to stage the widest possible range of musical and theatrical performances, whether live and traditional or electronic and experimental, and by doing so to stimulate creative interaction between the artists and the institute's engineers and scientists. Or as Johannes Goebel, EMPAC's director, puts it: "The centre will supply links between the human aspirati on toward clarity and precision and the equally human experience, so often felt in art, of life as a stumbling quest for answers."
Grimshaw's competition-winning scheme, designed by the practice's New York office directed by Andrew Whalley, responds imaginatively to the university's ambitious brief, while also exploiting the splendid views of the sloping site. The scheme yokes together the concert hall and the theatre and sets them side by side within a large, loose-fitting envelope. At the same time, the two large auditoriums and the theatre's fly-tower will be sunk into slope of the hillside, so that it will not impose itself on the low-rise campus. "We designed it to have power but not bulk," says Whalley.
This arrangement creates a rich variety of interconnecting spaces in main auditoriums, the voids between them and the outer skin that steps down the hillside. These 20-odd spaces are acoustically designed and audiovisually fitted so that they will be able to send and receive sounds and images. What is more, the concert hall is designed to have ideal acoustics for traditional musical performances, whereas the theatre is planned for more experimental events. "The energy comes from the synergy between the two halves," Whalley says.
The building will also have a warm, organic character like a giant wooden instrument or a boat. The large concert hall, for instance, will be encased within a moulded hull, faced in cedar boarding and penetrated at several levels by slender footbridges like gangplanks. And most of the building's external envelope will be a clear-glazed window wall offering vistas out to the river valley below and serving as a shop window for all the special venues packed inside the building.
Client Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Architect Grimshaw Associate architect Davis Brody Bond Structural and services engineer Buro Happold Theatre consultant Fisher Dachs Associates Acoustical consultant Kirkegaard Associates Landscape architect Michael van Valkenburgh Associates Cost consultant Donnell Consultants Incorporated Construction manager Tishman Construction Corporation