The Sound of EMPAC
An Acoustic Architecture Report
By Zackery Belanger
There is no better way to understand the acoustic soul of a building than to spend thousands of hours within its walls, often alone in silence, observing and thinking alongside those who work and create there.
The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) opened in 2008 on the campus of Rensselaer in Troy, New York. I worked for Chicago-based acousticians Kirkegaard Associates and was part of the EMPAC design team from 2002 to opening. As the building’s design developed, I became increasingly convinced of its importance to the future of acoustic architecture. In 2010 I departed Kirkegaard Associates and left Chicago for Troy, to follow the building and learn from it.
Acousticians cannot yet comprehensively quantify the acoustic character of spaces. There is a lot we know about acoustic design, but there is a great deal to be learned. Excellent concert halls are a rarity even for the most experienced teams and well-funded projects. When the scaffolding comes down, acousticians are granted short windows of time to listen, measure, and tune. Acoustic parameters are extracted and a report is delivered, and usually relegated to a dark corner of a local server. Design decisions made years earlier become irreversible in the built condition as the first audiences listen closely. Opinions either aggregate or dissipate, at best tenuously connected to measurable metrics. Design teams move on once a building is occupied; innovations become hard to mine and harder to embed deep enough to take root in our methods.
EMPAC is acoustically excellent, and three years of immersion in the occupied condition lends a great deal of insight. This acoustic report is not bound for a dark corner of a local server. It’s meant to distill some of what matters about EMPAC for those who are curious about acoustic architecture; to inspire the artists, researchers, and staff who work within its walls; and to signal a brave new era of acoustic design.