The new Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) is located on the edge of the Rensselaer campus overlooking the city of Troy.
EMPAC is a platform for performance and research incorporating four distinct and specialized venues under one roof: an acoustically optimized 1,200 seat Concert Hall, a 400 seat Theater, and two black box studios created for flexible use by artists and researchers. Also provided are artist-in-residence studios, audiovisual production and post production suites, audience amenities, and student and support facilities.
|A center for artists, scientists, and engineers to come together to pursue discovery at the nexus of the real and virtual worlds.|
|/President Shirley Ann Jackson|
So that the traditional and the experimental may be seen as yoked together yet distinct, Grimshaw arranged the concert hall and atrium axially with the main entrance in a linear sequence on the north side of the building, while the studios and theater form an adjacent sequence on the south.
A conceptual dialogue was then initiated between these two sequences by seeing the Concert Hall manifested as the physical presence of an object in space, while the Theater and studios represent the physical absence of discovered voids within a solid.
Because the main entrance is at hilltop level, close to the roof, while the volume of the Concert Hall is fitted into the slope below, a large “found space” opens up between the two. Upon entering the building, visitors find themselves at the top of the Atrium and main circulation area, looking down at the exterior of the concert hall: a curved hull wrapped in solid cedar planks.
Access to the Concert Hall is provided via elevated walkways that span the atrium like gangplanks. The entire hull of the Concert Hall is contained within the Atrium, allowing public circulation all around it.
This use of the topography also creates vistas over Troy toward the Hudson River, as seen from the campus approach and from major visitor spaces within the building.
The entire north facade of the building is a glass curtain wall, providing transparency between the EMPAC interior and the city of Troy. The glass wall allows daylight to flood the atrium, augmented by a halo skylight around the top of the concert hall that washes the cedar hull with the changing light of the day. By night, the wood hull is lit up from within the building and creates an iconic external identity that can be seen from distance.
The curtain wall features mullions that carry heated water to insulate the space from the Northern New York winter.
Designed to be a first-class venue for symphonic music, yet equally capable of accommodating jazz, amplified music, presentations, film, and dance with electronically generated sound and video projection, the Concert Hall is configured traditionally in a “shoe box” format: as a long, narrow room of wood and masonry construction.
The floor and lower walls are all finished in maple, while the upper walls are clad in a combination of precast acoustic panels made of gypsum and precast stone. The room is slightly convex in form to maximize acoustic diffusion.
The ceiling is made of panels of fabric less than one millimeter thick, supported on a delicate web of stainless steel cables. The fabric was specially selected and woven for EMPAC and is optimized for gentle reflectivity to high-frequency sound and increasing transparency to mid- and low-frequency sound, providing acoustic support to the musicians and audience while allowing the volume above the ceiling to generate reverberance. The ceiling panels form a convex shape overall and exhibit a gently glowing surface when illuminated.
The Theater is equipped to the highest standards available to professional theater companies and offers an extraordinary resource for Rensselaer’s experimental artists and student performers. The Theater can be used with or without its orchestra pit. Movable seating at the parterre level, along the sides, allows artists to configure the theater as a proscenium space or to extend the playing area along the sides of the audience.
The framing of the side galleries accommodates the attachment of projection screens and loudspeakers, allowing the audience to be immersed in virtual environments. Finished with maple floors and high-quality plaster walls, the theater has a slightly less formal treatment than the concert hall, so that its architectural presence can recede when the stage lights come up.
Studio 1 is a true “black box” venue with minimal architectural finish, well suited for audio and music but optimized for scientific visualization, multi-screen and immersive performances, and dance. The walls are composed of adjustable acoustic wall diffusion panels and are also painted matte black.
Studio 2 is a smaller sibling of Studio 1, and while being well suited for dance and visual presentations, it is optimized for music recitals and recording and therefore has a “lights on” architectural character rather than being a black box. Studio 2 is finished with a resilient maple floor and ivory colored adjustable acoustic wall diffusion panels.
From an engineering and technological standpoint, EMPAC is state-of-the-art. Each of the contiguous spaces is built in acoustic isolation from one another. The HVAC system, virtually silent to preserve the integrity of performances and research, uses displacement ventilation to push air through registers under the seats.
The massive 20,000-square-foot glass curtain wall features mullions that carry heated water to insulate the space from the Northern New York winter. This is the first time that this technology has been adopted in the United States.
Linked to the university’s powerful supercomputer (the Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations, CCNI), which will enable complex modeling and visualization, EMPAC will be a platform for the Rensselaer campus, its academic partners, and visiting artists from around the globe to experiment in critical fields.
The design team is submitting the project for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification and seeking a Silver rating.