It’s not a space pod, it's a lobby: EMPAC.
PHOTO: Leif Zurmuhlen
Rensselaer, the Future Is Now
When EMPAC opens in October 2008, it will integrate technology
with the artistic experience in ways its builders can still
By Shawn Stone
an unexpectedly warm and humid September night in Troy, and
scores of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute students are swarming
around campus. It’s a Friday, and most are clearly dressed
for the usual collegiate hijinks. Some, however, are making
their way to tonight’s performance by the Australian dance
group BalletLab, which is being presented by the Experimental
Media and Performing Arts Center at the RPI Playhouse. An
even mix of students and community (or faculty) members, tonight’s
crowd reaches up the steps from 15th Street and into the Playhouse
Interestingly, the ushers don’t open the theater doors at
showtime. Instead, people are led outside though a side door,
and back inside through another side door, into the stage
area of the theater.
The reason is immediately apparent: The risers for the audience
are set up over the stage, and BalletLab have “retrofitted”
the part of the auditorium where the chairs would usually
be set up with a large white floor. This floor is connected
to a large white back wall.
The sight is at first disorienting, as the temporary “stage”
area takes up as much—or more—space than the risers for the
audience. The performance, of BalletLab’s acclaimed one-hour-long
work Amplification, is powerful stuff. It combines
virtuoso dance, dramatic lighting, and an improvising DJ to
create an atmosphere of tension and fear; suggestions of violence
are shocking and thought-provoking. It’s a challenging work,
but EMPAC didn’t have any problem getting people to come out:
Every seat is filled.
EMPAC, you see, is currently an arts (and, since this is RPI,
sciences) organization. One year from now, it will be an arts
(and sciences) organization and a performing arts center
that will be—if all goes as has been so meticulously planned—state
of the art in just about every way you can imagine.
Right now, explains Kathleen Forde, EMPAC’s curator of time-based
arts, they are dealing with the “challenge of putting on events
in satellite spaces” like the RPI Playhouse—and West Hall
Auditorium, the Chapel + Cultural Center and the numerous
places on the Rensselaer campus where they’ve been staging
events over the last two years.
A couple of curators: (l-r) Kathleen
Forde and Micah Silver.
PHOTO: Leif Zurmuhlen
about, she says, “building the EMPAC brand.” Letting the people
on campus and in the surrounding region know the kind of cutting-edge
theater, dance, music and art experiences that are associated
with EMPAC’s mission. Already, EMPAC has formed working relationships
with such notable organizations as the Wooster Group and the
Micah Silver, assistant curator of music, explains that EMPAC
“will, for the first time in the U.S. since the late 1960s
and ’70s, provide facilities for more complicated sound installations.”
Hélène Lesterlin, curator of dance, credits RPI president
Shirley Ann Jackson (who conceived the idea for EMPAC) and
director Johannes Goebel for having the vision to hire curators
two and a half years before the new building opens. Asked
about the difficulties of staging something like the BalletLab
in the Playhouse, Lesterlin smiles and says she looks forward
to next year’s opening: “Our spaces in EMPAC [will be] so
EMPAC building-in-progress, which towers over Troy from its
8th Street perch, is still a busy construction site. It is,
however, far enough along that one can get a clear idea of
what it is in the process of becoming.
few days after the BalletLab performance, director Johannes
Goebel leads a small tour through the structure that, when
finished, will house a 1,200-seat concert hall “designed and
constructed to the highest acoustical and performance standards,”
a 400-seat theater, a 3,500 square-foot studio with a 40-foot-high
ceiling, a 2,500 square-foot studio “optimized for music,”
a rehearsal studio, artist-in-residence studios, a café, a
V.I.P. room, professional recording facilities and more.
is,” Goebel explains, “no other building like this in the
U.S. . . . in the world.”
Standing in what will be the lobby of the building, the air
filled with the sound of construction workers and the dank
smell of cement dust, Goebel points out the first of the many
revolutionary features of the building. The glass wall, which
stretches along the building’s entire north side, will have
metal framing through which glycol will flow in order to eliminate
unsightly condensation on the glass.
From the lobby, we enter what will be the back of the concert
hall. Goebel, who has been involved in every step of the planning,
speaks knowledgably—and fondly—of the cutting-edge features
designed to create an unparalleled acoustical experience.
precast, textured stone walls. The massive springs, tuned
to 6 hertz, which underpin the hall, and are designed to render
any sound bleed-through inaudible. The fabric ceiling—“it’s
new, the first in the world”—which will billow over the audience.
The flexible features that will allow screens, or whatever,
to be hung at the sides of the hall or over the audience.
The innovative air-conditioning system, which involves cool
air flowing up through holes drilled in every seat in the
hall, designed to make no noise.
The prime objective, Goebel says, is to “create the optimal
sound environment. There is,” he adds, “no compromise of functionality.”
The rest of the unfinished building is much the same. All
of the labs/performance spaces will be hardwired into computer
networks. Each of the spaces will be acoustically insulated
from the others, so that four performances could be going
on simultaneously (and harmoniously).
Studio two, the smaller of the studios, is the next stop.
As we enter into the space, you can hear the difference: Even
in its unfinished state, all the construction sounds from
the rest of the building fade away. This black-box theater
will have 100-pound “pods” hanging from the ceiling for digital
projection. RPI molecular biologists will be able to project
biological structural models; the Internet could be projected
as a virtual environment that you could wallk, or—hanging
from wires rigged for this purpose—fly through. The adjoining
studio one is larger, allowing for projections up to 30 feet
This, Goebel explains, will provide the ability to test things
in “real space, physical space.”
Standing there, in the middle of this soon-to-be technological
marvel, with its multipurpose computer systems and capabilities,
one can’t help but start thinking fantastic thoughts. “This
building is like the ship in Thomas Pynchon’s Against the
Day, which can flip from being a luxury liner to a battleship
in minutes. It’s like . . . it’s like . . . It’s like a transformer.”
visiting the equally im pressive theater space, where the
first thing you notice is that the stage area is almost the
same size as the audience area, the tour makes its way back
up to the lobby level for a final stop: the Founders’ Room,
which will be the V.I.P. area on event nights.
The view is spectacular, and one can’t help but think—is this
really in downtown Troy?