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EMPAC, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York, USA

Issue 57 Oct / Nov 2010 : Architectural : Theatre

ARCHITECT: GRIMSHAW in collaboration with Davis Brody Bond LIGHTING DESIGN: Office for Visual Interaction, Inc

America’s oldest technological university, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) is a shining beacon of innovation: it’s at the cutting edge of fields from biotechnology to lighting research.

When plans were laid for a new experimental media and arts facility, lighting designers OVI were inspired by the institute’s techno-savvy reputation. Their plan: to illuminate the new facility using cutting-edge lighting technologies that would reflect RPI’s spirit of innovation.

The vision of a precedent-setting design was shared by GRIMSHAW, the architects for the $360-million EMPAC. The London and New York based firm arranged the facility in two connected volumes. An acoustically optimised 1200-seat concert hall and atrium occupies the north side of the building, while two black box studios and a 400-seat theatre form an adjacent sequence to the south. Artist-in-residence studios, audiovisual production and post-production suites, audience amenities, and student spaces complete the facility. Each of these spaces present unique lighting challenges. As well, the iconic image of the facility depends on careful lighting: the concert hall’s futuristic streamlined volume is dramatically suspended within the glass-walled atrium, and visible from afar during day and night. 

The interior of the concert hall is a technological feat for both architecture and lighting. The shoebox-format venue boasts a first-of-its-kind fabric ceiling, made of acoustically engineered textile panels less than a millimetre thick, supported on a delicate web of stainless steel cables. The lighting design needed to account for both the translucency of the fabric and its complex configuration: contoured in both the north-south and east-west directions, and held in place by radiating cable supports. Illuminating a rectangular-shaped room from a radial ceiling pattern required extensive modeling to determine the exact positions of luminaires and their proper distance from the walls. In the final configuration, clamp-mounted halogen downlight luminaires located between the fabric panels provide the differential illumination required for the stage, seating and balcony areas. An advanced dimming control system allows for lighting configurations that accommodate a range of audiences – from capacity crowds to small, intimate gatherings.

During early stages of the project, OVI proposed an all-LED scheme for the concert hall, which would have made it the first facility of this type in the world. Feasibility studies were carried out that demonstrated the possibility of using splayed LED clusters as a one-to-one replacement for standard lamps. In the final design, LEDs were deployed in selected areas, including the upstage walls and contoured acoustic side walls. Integration is seamless: linear LED luminaires at the base of the sculpted wall panels precisely align with the architectural modulation, allowing diffuse light to feather towards the top of the 5.4-metre-high wall articulating its texture. ‘Empty’ luminaire extrusions were obtained from the lighting manufacturer to conceal acoustic equipment and speakers, providing a fully integrated and coordinated appearance.
In addition to calculations and computer simulations, large-scale mock-ups were used to refine lighting for both the exterior and interior of the concert hall. During design development, a full-size section of the hull was crafted to decide on wood type, colour, and fasteners. OVI advised applying a satin finish on the material rather than the typical gloss varnish, and the proposed treatment was tested. The resulting finish minimized the reflection of light sources on the hull surface. As a result, the wooden hull presents a clean appearance when viewed from both inside and outside the glass-walled atrium.

For the interior of the concert hall, full-scale acoustic wall panels helped with decisions on lighting colour temperature, as well as providing an opportunity to fine-tune the position and aiming of the LEDs. “Having the full-size mockup gave us the chance to demonstrate how the lights would provide optimal modeling of the scalloped surface,” says OVI principal Jean Sundin. “Everyone was very impressed that a 50mm square luminaire could illuminate the nearly six metre high acoustic panel in an elegant way.”

For the theatre and studio spaces, OVI developed solutions that fulfilled the technical need to accommodate diverse performance types while blending with GRIMSHAW’s industrial-technological aesthetic. Lighting not only showcases the architecture; also, the luminaires themselves form technical extensions of the architectural language. In the theatre, an informal approach is taken, with exposed, miniature-version industrial-style luminaires mounted to catwalks. Flexibility characterises the experimental studio spaces, where clamp-mounted luminaires reside alongside theatrical lighting fixtures, mounted to pipes above the accessible, wire rope ceilings. A family of luminaires with a metallic silver-grey finish and custom brackets compliments the clean architectural lines throughout the facility.

Beyond the performance venues, the attention to lighting design extends to support zones. The facility director specified that backstage areas should not have a standard lighting solution, which would break the flow of the building from its showcase stages to its utilitarian back-of-house spaces. OVI created an energy-efficient, playful scheme by using obstruction lights in configurations of red, green, and blue - the primary colours of light. The trios of ‘RGB’ lamps blend to create white light, offering a basic lesson in colour-mixing and a creative solution for lighting what are usually dull corridors. An energy and cost-efficient solution was also developed for the soaring triple-height theatre lobby. OVI specified a colour changing LED system with DMX controls to enliven the lobby, turning the otherwise neutral area into an animated, colour-rich space.

The creation of EMPAC stemmed from the conviction that education must occur in an environment that offers diversity of thought and experience. The new facility houses a community of emerging artists, engineers, scientists, and designers, encouraging dialogue and collaborations between them. In the same spirit, OVI’s lighting design for EMPAC results from a dialogue between technology and artistry: it skillfully deploys the most advanced lighting technologies while working in harmony with the aesthetic of the facility. Just as EMPAC challenges performance artists with its wide range of venues, the extraordinary spectrum of lighting solutions presents a technological showcase to Renssalaer’s visual artists and engineers, spurring them to future innovation.

Project Details
Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center
Client: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Architect: GRIMSHAW in collaboration with Davis Brody Bond
Lighting Design: Office for Visual Interaction, Inc.
Engineers: Buro Happold and Laszlo Bodak

Lighting Specified
Lobby, exterior of Concert Hall Hull and lobby grand staircase: Edison Price Lighting Darklight 56 and Washlite 56 series fixtures; ERCO Lightscoop and Beamer series fixtures
Interior of Concert Hall: ERCO Stella series with clamp mounting; iO Lighting Line series; TIR Destiny SL series with narrow graze optics featuring 180 Luxeon RGB colour changing LEDs
Theatre: Hess Bari series; ERCO Castor and Monopoll series; TIR Destiny CG narrow graze and SP series with 13 degree optic
Studios: ERCO Stella series with clamp mounting
Back-of-house corridors: We-ef WL-602 series


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