The Improbable Act: EMPAC

 
January 21, 2009

Working with a diverse cast of engineers, acousticians, and technical consultants, Grimshaw Architects transformed an inhospitable hillside into a state-of-the-art performance center.

"Huuuuuuwt!" A 59-year-old man is yelling from somewhere inside Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's (RPI) glossy new performing-arts center. Johannes Goebel is the director here, and when he yells he produces a big, hardy sound-more of a barbaric yawp, really, which is fitting for a career composer whose white beard and wispy ponytail give him the look of a poet, not an administrator. We stand in separate rooms on the center's fifth floor-he's in a black-box studio, holding my tape recorder; I'm outside-where we're staging a small experiment: Is the studio, situated on a foundation that's acoustically isolated from the rest of the 220,000-square-foot building, as sound­proof as the university claims? All but pressing my ear to the door, I hear nothing. Ten seconds pass. Still nothing. Only later, when I play back the tape, do I have proof: "Huuuuuuuuwt!"

It's the sort of sonic sophistication you might find on Abbey Road, but at Rensselaer? Located in Troy, New York, two and a half hours north of Manhattan on the Hudson River, it's the oldest technological university in the country and arguably one of the most traditional. Here engineering rules academic life, and music is relegated to band performances in the student union. Among its famous graduates, Rensselaer counts Washing­ton Roebling, who built the Brooklyn Bridge, as well as the gentleman behind television's cathode-ray tube. As one alumnus dryly tells me while peering out over Troy's Industrial Age row houses, "You come here to study."

And yet, the Experimental Media and Perform­ing Arts Center (EMPAC) rises high above Troy's dilapidated old downtown, an improbable building on an improbable campus, with an improbable price tag to accompany an improbable array of technical feats, seven and a half years in the making. Designed by the London-based Grimshaw Architects, it's the brainchild of the university's president, Shirley Ann Jackson, and, in the rhetoric of her administration, a glass-and-steel token of the intersection between art, science, technology, and design. Structurally, EMPAC is a considerable achievement, jutting from a steep incline on Rensselaer's western edge, where gravity and geology have conspired against neighboring academic buildings that slide ever so slowly downhill. Approach from the bottom of the slope, and the building announces itself as a wooden sphere bulging through a glass box, which sits on its perch like a boom box on a shoulder. Arrive from the top, and it's something else entirely: a low-slung curve of glass that nearly disappears behind the campus's sea of colonial brick. Inside, EMPAC offers four central performance spaces: a 400-seat theater, two black-box studios, and a 1,200-seat concert hall. Then there's the gadgetry: the moving cameras, the film projectors, the computer-controlled rigging, the hoist system that can fly a piano through the air (should you ever be so inclined). EMPAC is not a simple building. Nor is it without controversy. When it opened in October, it was two years late and $58 million over budget. (The administration pegs the cost at "approximately $200 million.") That it exists at all owes entirely to the tricky choreography Grimshaw laid out for a dynamic cast of architects, engineers, technicians, theater designers, and acousticians. Lose one, and the whole thing might have come undone. At various times, it nearly did.

EMPAC grew out of Jackson's plan to invigorate Rensselaer, which has plenty of street cred among engineers and computer scientists but isn't exactly thought of as MIT-on-the-Hudson. At the outset, Jackson wanted something "world-class," to use one of her favorite adjectives, and Grimshaw, known for elaborate technical buildings such as the National Space Centre and the Eden Proj­ect, scored the commission, beating out Bernard Tschumi, Davis Brody Bond Aedas, and Morphosis. Acoustics immediately took center stage, as Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, a classical-music aficionado, tells it: "When I saw the president of Rensselaer, I said, 'Do you want a multipurpose hallway where you can play basketball, do your degree ceremonies, and have your Christmas party, or do you want a place that has such a high acoustic quality that musicians will beat a path to it from all over the world?'" He chuckles. "She said, 'I think I want the latter.'"

Grimshaw had never designed a performing-arts center, however, so it rallied a band of experts: Buro Happold for structural and mechanical engineering; Fisher Dachs Associates for theater design; Kirkegaard Associates for acoustics; the EMPAC staff for technological know-how; and Davis Brody Bond Aedas, the firm's former compet­itor, as the architect of record. Goebel had toiled on a comparable everything-but-the-kitchen-sink arts center in his native Germany (initially with Rem Kool­haas, who was ousted amid rising costs) and was brought on in 2002 to realize his vision of a building for "seeing, hearing, and moving in space." Because of the project's complexity, everything-down to the air vents-required exhaustive back-and-forth, with the consultants thrashing out issues, sometimes for days on end. These sessions generated some of the building's most innovative features: acoustically separate buildings-within-buildings; a studio floor jacked up on noise-absorbing springs; hole-riddled wall panels inspired by the hush of a "forest clearing" (Goebel's directive); a system that runs hot fluid through steel mul­lions to prevent condensation on a glass facade-keeping the exquisite Hudson Valley views unspoiled. "To bring together the aesthetics of the design, the engineering embedded in the design, the actual engineering of the structure, and the construction of it is a real challenge," Jackson says. "That's why you hire world-class people."

Nothing was more carefully orchestrated than the concert hall, the building's grandest ­archi­tec­tural and acoustical gesture. Shrouded in a cedar-panel skin that looks like a ship hull or a big-­bellied man­dolin (depending on whom you ask), the hall mirrors the quaint character of a 19th-century shoe-box theater-small, simple, and sonically impeccable. The concept was solidified after Jack­son arranged for herself, Goebel, and the project's lead designers a tour of Europe's great performance centers, a trip that Andrew Whalley, a New York Grimshaw partner, pointed out must have been "very expensive." But Jackson was deter­mined: musicians from all over the world would beat a path to this venue. "The inside of the concert hall was really a whole project in itself," says William Horgan, the 39-year-old Grimshaw architect who spearheaded EMPAC, "because literally everything in the room is designed from acoustics-first principles." Consider the ceiling: Rensselaer could have opted for the sort of clunky canopy that, in standard concert halls, perfectly suspends theater contraptions but does little to enhance the aural-not to mention aesthetic-experience. Instead, Kirkegaard proposed draping the ceiling with an engineered fabric that would both optimize sound and accommodate technical accoutrements without looking like a gearhead's basement. Kirkegaard extensively researched materials with a textiles professor at North Carolina State University, finally settling on a one-millimeter-thick cloth sturdy enough to protect firefighters but delicately woven to reflect mid- and high-frequency notes. Grimshaw then configured the fabric in a mandala-like pattern, stretching the pieces to the ceiling's edges while leaving room for lights and rigging. Suspended 40 feet overhead, the panels look effortless. In fact, they took nearly five years to develop. "It was a gentle process of molding a piece of clay that gets passed from one sculptor to another," Larry Kirkegaard says. "The success of the collaboration is that it doesn't show."

Except sometimes it does. The university blew through two theater consultants before settling on Fisher Dachs, cut loose its first acoustics designer, and fired its technology specialists, leaving a hand­ful of EMPAC employees to design and install the building's audio-video infrastructure just before the grand opening. The darkest days, though, came in early 2003, when a clash over the building's foundation nearly halted the project. EMPAC, as Grimshaw envisioned it early on, was thin and deep, with much of the space artfully buried below grade. Streamlined though it was, the plan would have required a 70-foot-high slurry wall (the same structure that held up the World Trade Center) to steel itself against an unforgiving hillside, whose 30-degree angle and loose layers of sand and clay-remnants of a receded ­glacier-threatened to make rubble of the place. The general contractor, Tish­­man Construction-which now oversees Bank of America's New York headquarters, One Bryant Park-advised against the "big dig" approach after conducting seismic and soil-stability tests, instead pushing for a stepped foundation that it said would be cheaper and easier to build. The university sent Grimshaw back to the drawing board. "We pretty much had to start from scratch in terms of how the building was organized," Horgan says. The foundation turned out to be much more complicated and expensive than Tishman predicted. "It had implications in terms of the difficulty of designing the rest of the building within the stated budget without losing quality or program," Horgan says. "Time and again we went back to the table and had a lot of cost pressures to cut things, because of this increasing complexity."

Jackson, the designers say, fought hard to maintain EMPAC's architectural integrity, even when her staff disagreed. "Without sounding overly prideful, I mean, it was my idea, OK?" she explains. "One doesn't want to give up on what the vision is. … What is the point of hiring a world-class architect, a world-class theater consultant, world-class technological controls, and then not let them do their job?" Turner eventually replaced Tishman and took over construction of the foundation, which, pricey though it was, is now literally rock-solid, with 215 rock anchors-some more than twice the length of a basketball court-preventing the building's walls from caving in or slipping downhill. In the end, Grimshaw had to part with some beloved elements: the narrow footprint, the below-grade performance venues, a metal roof over the northern block. "There were some pretty hairy moments when there were voices at RPI saying that we should cut out the skylights and curved roof and put a flat roof on the whole thing," Horgan remembers. "There were even times when we thought we were going to lose the wooden hull in exchange for a plaster hull. So it was kind of touch and go, but I think we were able to salvage the really critical parts of the design."

Now comes the difficult task: filling the building day-to-day. Rensselaer doesn't have geography on its side, and it's still hard to imagine musicians-or any artists for that matter-beating a path to Troy, where the most bustling cultural hub on a recent Saturday night was an Irish bar. The city itself has a tense relationship with the university, and RPI often fields criticism that it's too insular, something EMPAC, the glamorous vessel on a hill, has done little to ease. As for an audience: New York is a long train ride away, and RPI students, more than two-thirds of whom are male, would probably rather play club lacrosse and watch The Dark Knight than see one of EMPAC's "scratchable" live-mix cinema events, if the campus signboards are any indication. Goebel believes he can draw crowds from the Berkshires, a wealthy vacation area in western Massachusetts and Con­necticut, but he's not interested in making EMPAC the Lincoln Center of upstate New York. "We're not competing with commercial entertainment," he says. "We want these venues to be used for research."

EMPAC has the additional hurdle of overcoming skepticism from its own faculty. "That seems like a pretty high price tag for a building which many people would say does not directly contribute to the core businesses of RPI," Don Steiner, a recently retired nuclear-engineering professor who has publicly criticized Jackson, told the Albany Times Union. "What we're known for is engineering and science. Can we really become a world leader in electronic media and performing arts? That's sort of a stretch."

Weeks after EMPAC's opening, some 50 professorial types gathered for an evening of music. It was a surprising turnout given the heavy rain that had driven the rest of the city into an eerie silence. Seated in a ring inside one of the black-box studios, the audience was surrounded by the pockmarked acoustic panels plating the walls; more than 24 speakers around the floor, trusses, and ceiling grid; and low-frequency-absorbing floor springs to ensure that not one decibel left the room.

The evening's main composition was Persepolis, by the late exiled Greek composer Iannis Xenakis. It was first performed over 56 minutes in 1971 for the Iranian shah in the high-summer desert. EMPAC's version was 51 minutes. It's not clear who got the better deal. To the uninitiated, the music might have recalled the ritual slaying of a flock of violins. A terrible screech filled every inch of the space: shreeeeeeek, ch-ch, boom! Min­ute after minute, note upon note, shreeeeeeek, ch-ch, boom! Even in the chaos, you could detect tiny patterns-a repeated bass line, or the quickening of something like a hi-hat. Still, not everyone could take it. Two people covered their ears. A dozen or so others left. (Goebel himself, who has reportedly been telling students that EMPAC is a good place for a noncommittal first date, couldn't last the duration.) Suddenly, a violent whoosh blasted through the speakers. A low pulse rat­tled the seats. The piece halted abruptly, and for a moment there was a fraught silence, as if someone had just fired off a Glock pistol-and then applause and a bright, appreciative whoop from an elderly woman in the front row. There was something strangely affirming about the whole thing-eccentric, surely, but entirely sui generis. After the pain came the satisfaction. The experience, one might say, was world-class.


By Suzanne LaBarre
Metropolis