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Thursday, 21 May 2009

“And the award for best sound effects goes to ...”

Acoustic surface treatments and baffles may work to improve the quality of sound transmission in ordinary spaces, but to create world-class performance venues where the need for pristine acoustics is critical, every aspect of the design—from formal and spatial considerations to structural and mechanical needs—are closely examined by a team of architects, engineers, and acousticians. The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) contains four distinct performance and recording spaces, each requiring first-rate acoustics—a challenge for any single building to accommodate, but one made even more daunting given this building’s dramatic siting in a hillside.
Grimshaw Architects was charged with designing this complicated structure, their first performing arts building, after winning an invited competition in 2001. Partnering with Buro Happold Consulting Engineers and architect-of-record Davis Brody Bond Aedas, Grimshaw’s New York office had to roll with the punches as EMPAC’s program evolved into a 220,000-square-foot building that includes a 1,200-seat concert hall, a 400-seat theater with a full fly tower, two black-box studios for experimental media, artist-in-residence studios, a dance studio, audiovisual production suites, and support facilities. According to RPI president Shirley Ann Jackson, “EMPAC is an extraordinary venue where science, research, and performance meet.”
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. The main programmatic space is the most visible. Encased in a wooden hull, the floating ovoid of the concert hall penetrates the building’s west facade overlooking the small town of Troy, New York. Hidden behind the cedar planks—arranged in a decorative chevron pattern—is a sophisticated steel framework which, among other things, provides support for access bridges to the concert hall. The bridges rest on acoustic isolation barriers.
Penetrating the building?s west facade (top), the wood hull of the concert hall is the most prominent feature of EMPAC?s exterior. Several bridges provide access to its interior (below).
Photos © Chuck Choi
Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Architectural Record

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