EMPAC is a cutting-edge experimental performing arts venue designed by the Grimshaw New York team for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

The building is located on a steep hillside at the west edge of the campus, overlooking Troy and the Hudson valley below. EMPAC will contain a 1,200-seat concert hall, a 400-seat theatre with flytower, two black box studios, a dance studio, a suite of artist-in-residence workshops, and professional audio and video recording, editing and production facilities. A rectangular south wing of the building, containing the more digitally oriented facilities, shields the atrium and public spaces from summer solar heat gain. The concert hall, clad entirely in western red cedar, dominates the north wing of the building and is visible to the outside through a dramatic 100-foot high glass curtain wall.

EMPAC's mission is not only to provide an environment conducive to the generation of innovative digital work, but also to actively change perceptions about the nature of sound, vision and the human experiential condition. Its unique program, combining the highest quality venues suitable for the performance of both traditional and contemporary music, dance, theatre and visualization, will be unmatched by academic institutions elsewhere in the world.
EMPAC’s 220,000 square-foot center is a signature work of architecture that brings together four main venues as well as many smaller studios and lab spaces under one roof. All can be used independently and simultaneously, allowing EMPAC to present events, host student gatherings, and dedicate space to research and residencies – all at one time. EMPAC includes many firsts and exceptional attributes in the fields of acoustics, structural integrity, theatrical presentation, and digital media. High-bandwidth computer, audio and video networks create a technical infrastructure unlike any other performing arts centers. And, when linked to Rensselaer’s CCNI supercomputer, EMPAC’s superb venues provide opportunities for research that surpass those of most other media research centers.   History, Design + Construction

In March 2001, Rensselaer initiated a competition by inviting four of the world’s leading architects to submit a design. A distinguished jury selected Grimshaw, a London-based firm founded by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, whose work is characterized by spatial and organizational clarity, flexibility, innovation, and a rigorous approach to detail. Grimshaw’s emphasis on the research and application of new materials and construction techniques is amply demonstrated in EMPAC.

Design and construction of the building required the collaboration of experts and firms in a variety of disciplines including:

  • Buro Happold (Structural & Service Engineer)
  • Kirkegaard Associates (Acoustician)
  • Fisher Dachs Associates (Theatre Consultant)
  • Turner Construction Company (Construction Manager)
  • Davis, Brody, Bond LLP as the Architect of Record

Groundbreaking for the project took place on September 17, 2003, and EMPAC opened to the public on October 3, 2008 with a three-week inaugural festival.

EMPAC embodies a number of design and construction innovations. An extraordinary baseline of quiet has been achieved through acoustic separation—literally a space between the walls and floors of each venue—to prevent conduction of noisy vibrations. To further cushion vibrations, parts of the building sit on springs embedded in the foundation. The entire building is secured by 215 cable anchors that reach deep into the hillside’s bedrock, making EMPAC one of the most seismically secure buildings in the region.


EMPAC’s multi-tiered lobby and cafe are flooded with natural light from the grand staircase’s ninety-foot high glass wall and the skylight that encircles the concert hall. The enormous glass north wall has heated fluid circulating through its frame to prevent condensation and allow for clear views. As a result, the café and lobby form an attractive campus social space. In addition to the major venues, EMPAC has several studios and workspaces for residencies by artists, scholars and researchers. Studio Beta is a rehearsal and performance space particularly suited to use by student groups.

Concert Hall

The Concert Hall combines the outstanding acoustics, refined materials, and comfort of great concert halls of the past with the flexibility and technology of the 21st-century. The hall’s superior acoustics come from a number of innovations. Convex walls and other shaped surfaces allow performers or loudspeakers to be anywhere in the hall, redefining the notion that music comes only from the stage. A fabric ceiling was developed for the first time ever for both for its acoustic and aesthetic properties. Air rises quietly from under the seats rather than being forced down by noisy fans. Visually, staging elements or screens, projectors, and platforms can be flown anywhere in the hall; high-definition video can be projected on the 56’ wide screen, and uncompressed video and audio recording over fiber cables in possible.


The theater incorporates theatrical technology and capabilities that were previously found only in the most advanced stage spectacles. The seventy-foot flytower (the space directly above the stage, which itself is 80’ by 40’) allows for scenery, screens, lights etc. to be flown in and out. Computer-controlled rigging means that anything – props, projectors, or people – can be flown (and controlled by computer in real-time, a first in theater technology) throughout the stage space. The theater is as quiet as a recording studio and has the technological infrastructure of an HD video studio. The low stage allows for tangible immediacy between audience and performers.

The Studios

The Goodman Studio/Theater and Studio 2 are exceptionally versatile spaces for the integration of digital technology with human expression and perception (sometimes referred to as “multi-modal environments.”). Catwalks and control rooms are located above and outside the studios to allow for completely unencumbered space, and for the projection of lights and images virtually anywhere in the volume of the studios. Acoustic wall tiles offer a completely novel approach to the acoustics of immersive sound environments. Both studios are equally quiet and highly networked, rewarding audiences and supporting experimentation by artists and researchers alike.



19 photos and 3 drawings

Building Activity