Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center

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EMPAC on RPI's campus with the brutalist Folsom Library reflecting in the glass.

The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) is a multi-venue arts center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, which opened on October 3, 2008.

The director of EMPAC is Johannes Goebel. He was previously the director and founder of the Institute for Music and Acoustics at the Center for Art and Media Technology (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany. EMPAC's curatorial team includes Argeo Ascani, Curator of Music, Victoria Brooks, Curator for Time-Based Visual Arts, and Ashley Ferro-Murray, curator of Theater and Dance. The building is named after Curtis Priem, co-founder of NVIDIA and graduate of the RPI Class of 1982, who donated $40 million to the Institute in 2004.


The institute announced plans for the construction of a new performance hall in Fall of 2001 with construction costs originally slated at $50 million.[1] After a design competition and discussions with architectural firms, the plans were revised with a new construction cost of $141 million and completion date of sometime in 2006.[2] While some thought that RPI needed improved music and arts facilities, the increased size and construction cost were seen as unnecessarily expensive by many students and faculty.[3]

"Lights above the Hudson" display, while under construction, January 2008.

The project broke ground on September 19, 2003.[4] During 2004 the Institute began a large capital campaign and Rensselaer alumnus and trustee Curtis Priem, '82, donated $40 million in an unrestricted gift. RPI decided to officially name the project in his honor.[5] Additionally, the Institute received a $1 million gift for EMPAC programs from alumnus David Jaffe in 2006.[6]

Over 100,000 cubic yards of earth were evacuated from the hill to make room for the structure.[7] RPI has had problems in the past with the instability of the ground on the hillside, a phenomenon known as mass wasting. To prevent the EMPAC from "sliding down the hill", 215 rock anchors were drilled into the ground to stabilize the foundations. At over 210 feet (64 m) long, they are some of the largest anchors in North America.[7]

In September 2005, the institute hosted EMPAC 360: On Site + Sound, a multimedia and performing arts presentation to celebrate the midpoint of construction. The event was attended by over 3000 people from the region.[8] The expected completion date was moved to sometime in 2008.[8] In January 2008, RPI commissioned lighting designer Jennifer Tipton to create a large lighting display called "Light Above the Hudson". Operational for several weeks, the display drew attention to the center with a 300 by 100-foot (30 m) array of multicolored lights and search lights pointed into the sky.[9]

The grand opening celebrations were held on three weekends from October 3 to October 19, 2008, with all events free to the public. The inaugural concert was programmed by Micah Silver and Johannes Goebel on October 4 and was a seamless concert that included the Albany Symphony Orchestra with pianist Per Tengstrand, the International Contemporary Ensemble and Vox Vocal Ensemble performing spatial music ranging four hundred years of music composition. Performances were also given by the Norwegian group Verdensteatret, the Japanese collective Dumb Type and a duet performance by pianist Cecil Taylor with Pauline Oliveros a poetry reading by Taylor, and a party DJ'd by Madlib. October 11 was alumni weekend and featured Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, and October 18 was family weekend and featured Gamelan Galak Tikka, the Ensemble Robot and the Roy Haynes Fountain of Youth Band. Each weekend also contained numerous lectures and workshops including Johannes Goebel and Pauline Oliveros. Studio 1 Goodman Studio/Theater hosted a special 360-degree film by The Wooster Group entitled There is Still Time..Brother alternating with screenings by Workspace Unlimited.

Architecture and facilities[edit]

The design architect for the EMPAC is Grimshaw Architects, London and New York, designers of The Eden Project, the London School of Economics, and International Terminal Waterloo. The architect of record is the New York City architectural firm Davis Brody Bond. The engineers for the project are Buro Happold.

The main concert hall seats 1,200, and has been lauded as one of the most acoustically perfect concert halls in the world.[citation needed] The acoustical firm Kirkegaard Associates was contracted to work on the system. Extensive computer modeling was done of the ceiling canopy before construction to optimize the transmission of sound waves.[10] EMPAC is the first venue to use Nomex fire-retardant fabric for a ceiling canopy to reflect sound waves.[7] The exterior of the main concert hall is lined with 36,000 square feet (3,300 m2) of Western Red Cedar. Grown in sustainable forests in British Columbia, the wood was chosen for its fire-retardant properties.[7] A 20,000-square-foot (1,900 m2) glass wall lines the north side of the building. A water/glycol mix circulating through the steel support beams maintains an even temperature and limits condensation on the glass.[7] EMPAC is also looking to become LEED Silver certified.[11]

EMPAC is also home to a 400-seat theater with an 80′ x 40′ stage, 60′ fly tower, and computer controlled rigging.[7] EMPAC also has two very large projection screens: a 50' x 40' one in the theater and a 60' wide screen in the concert hall.[12] There are two main multi-purpose studio spaces. Studio 1 has 3,500-square-foot (330 m2) and has 40-foot-high ceilings, and Studio 2 is 2,500-square-foot (230 m2) with 28-foot (8.5 m)-high ceilings. There is also a 1,400-square-foot (130 m2) rehearsal studio called Studio Beta, and 4 Artist-in-Residence studios (with one being permanently occupied by the Institute President, Dr. Shirley Jackson, as a private, part-time office)[citation needed]. Studio 1 and Studio 2 are lined with acoustical panels to diffuse sound using innovative paneling designed to simulate the characteristics of tree bark. Different panels are designed to absorb and refract different frequencies of sound.[13] All performance spaces have a maximum noise level of 15 dB, making them some of the quietest artistic presentation spaces in the world.[12]

A 360-degree projection system has been developed, which is used for virtual reality research, art works, and cinematic presentations. The current system has a 40-foot (12 m) round, 15-foot (4.6 m) tall circular screen which surrounds viewers, who either can walk around or view from swivel chairs. Special 360-degree cameras are used for filming, along with microphones which record directionality. The sound can then be played back on an array of surround-sound speakers, allowing sound projection from any angle toward the audience.[14] One commission, entitled THERE IS STILL TIME..BROTHER, by The Wooster Group, began at EMPAC and then left to tour internationally. Several other commission are currently underway.

Associated artists (future, past, and present)[edit]



  1. ^ "Innovative in Form, Pioneering in Function, An Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center Takes Shape at Rensselaer". EMPAC Press Release. 07-05-01. Retrieved 2008-09-16.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  2. ^ Robertson, Scott (02-12-2003). "Plans for EMPAC reviewed, revised". The Polytechnic. Retrieved 2008-09-16.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  3. ^ Cummings, Nievalyn (05-01-2002). "EMPAC construction hits unexpected costs". The Polytechnic. Retrieved 2008-09-16.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  4. ^ "EMPAC Groundbreaking on Sept. 19". EMPAC Press Release. 09-15-03. Retrieved 2008-09-16.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  5. ^ "Rensselaer Announces $1 Billion Capital Campaign — the Largest in the University's History". EMPAC Press Release. 09-11-04. Retrieved 2008-09-16.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  6. ^ "Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Receives $1 Million Gift To Support EMPAC". 06-08-06. Retrieved 2008-09-16.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  7. ^ a b c d e f "Bold Experiment". Rensselaer Alumni Magazine. September 2008. Retrieved 2008-09-10. 
  8. ^ a b "EMPAC 360: On Site + Sound chosen as most exciting Capital Region arts event of 2005!". 2006-01-01. Retrieved 2008-09-16. 
  9. ^ Dalton, Joseph (13 January 2008). "Night Light: Designer Jennifer Tipton Illuminates RPI's Experimental Media Center". The Times Union. Archived from the original on October 16, 2008. Retrieved 2008-11-12. 
  10. ^ "Modeling the Transmissive Ceiling Canopy". RPI. Retrieved 2008-09-10. 
  11. ^ Mortice, Zach. "Grimshaw Breaks Down Barriers Between Science and the Sublime". AIArchitect, Volume 16. Retrieved 21 August 2009. 
  12. ^ a b "Artist in Residence Guidelines" (PDF). RPI. Retrieved 2009-05-31. 
  13. ^ Overbye, Dennis (2008-09-22). "Art and Science, Virtual and Real, Under One Big Roof". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-09-23. 
  14. ^ "Research at the Intersection of the Sciences and the Arts". Inside Rensselaer. 09-19-08. Retrieved 2008-09-23.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  15. ^ http://empac.rpi.edu/news/2012/05/09/laurie-anderson-named-inaugural-distinguished-artist-residence.  Missing or empty |title= (help)

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 42°43′44″N 73°41′02″W / 42.72883°N 73.68396°W / 42.72883; -73.68396