Earlier this week, some of us took a trip to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) to visit their $200 million Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC
). The day started out with a scenic drive upstate and as soon as we arrived on the RPI campus we felt far away from New York City. We walked around the beautiful campus and then came upon EMPAC. It was a captivating building and as soon as we came upon it we began to take pictures and explore it from all angles. The EMPAC building fit right into its natural environment where despite its large size it only slighted protruded from the hill it was built into. The way that the beautiful natural surroundings were reflected on the side of the building made us all stop and stare for a moment. When we went inside the building the glass windows made EMPAC seem light and airy despite the large intriguing wooden center, Danielle
described as looking like a whale.
We felt like VIP guests as we sat down to a nice lunch with Johannes Goebel the founding director of EMPAC, John Kolb the Vice President for Information Services and Technology and Chief Information Officer and Robert Mayo the director of the library. We had a good conversation about what we hoped to get out of the trip and we talked about the set up of our library and how we aim to create learning spaces.
After lunch Johannes gave us a tour of EMPAC. We learned about the history of EMPAC and that an anonymous donor made it all possible. The very start of the project was exciting with an architectural competition between well renowned architects. Grimshaw Architects won the competition and designed EMPAC. Part of the motivation for creating EMPAC was to create a space on the RPI campus that brought the arts and media, science and engineering together. EMPAC belongs to no department or program on campus. EMPAC is a place to experiment, research and perform in new and exciting ways and utilize the senses. EMPAC is made up of four distinct areas that include the Concert Hall, the theatre, and two studios.
Johannes began our tour at the Concert Hall. He explained that the design took into account movement through space, vision and sound. It amazed me that from where we were sitting up in the balcony, we could perfectly hear a conversation that was taking place on the stage far below us with no amplification. The Concert Hall was designed in such a way where you could localize sound and hear extremely well from a far distance. In fact the entire EMPAC was devoid of ambient sound. It was also pointed out to us that you could hang different things from the ceiling. When we went on the stage we saw that the seats were set up in a way that each seat could be seen from any point on the stage.
After learning about the Concert Hall we went into the two studios. In both studios rigging allows for the placement of ‘anything anywhere.' Both studios also have full theatre lighting, black banners that can cover all the walls and cameras, projectors, screens, microphones and loudspeakers that can be connected to and from all points in the studios. In studio 1 there is even the ability to conduct computer controlled interactive 3 — D flying of people and objects.
While we were visiting the second studio we got to see someone experimenting with a large screen. We watched a video on the screen and although I thought the experience was very cool, it was slightly nausea inducing. We then rounded out our tour with a peak in the Theatre and by visiting the audio room and the video room where we even met some members of the video team.
I was struck by the attention to detail throughout EMPAC. It seemed that every space no matter how big or small was well thought out and designed with a purpose. EMPAC is controversial on campus as students wonder why an engineering college has an expensive performing arts center, but in ‘The Architecture of EMPAC the tangible and tantalizing' a book gifted to us, the president of RPI, Dr Jackson Ann Shirley is quoted as saying, ‘EMPAC will inspire experimentation, cross — disciplinary inquiry and advanced research…as a nexus of technological and artistic innovation, and optimized performance space.' It will be interesting to see the way that students and the school utilize EMPAC in the future.
After touring EMPAC we got a tour of the library from the library director. The architecture of the library is quite different from EMPAC in every way as it was built in the 1976 made out of concrete. We particularly liked the chessboard that was available for students and a small outdoor terrace. The summer is a quiet time at RPI and the library seemed extremely calm and far away from the hustle and bustle of the school year.
We ended the day with a talk about the future possibilities of learning spaces and bringing science and engineering to life through technology and media arts. We imagined learning about the brain by simulating walking through the brain…this vision excited some and made others cringe — but we walked away thinking about how learning spaces can inspire teaching, learning and can lead to new discoveries.
(Thank you, Daniel
for the beautiful images!)