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Envisioning EMPAC

by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

American Institute of Architects, New York State, Luncheon Forum

Saturday, October 4, 2003


Good afternoon.

Two weeks ago, on September 19, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute broke ground on one of the most exciting projects in our long and distinguished history. We call this extraordinary project the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or, EMPAC.

EMPAC will be a powerful and creative presence on our Troy campus, in New York State's Capitol Region, and indeed on the world cultural stage. Over the course of the next hour, my colleagues and I will give you some insight into why this is so. We also want to tell you how we have gone about conceptualizing and designing this project, both programmatically and architecturally.

Alan Balfour, the Dean of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute School of Architecture, will tell you about the international competition he organized to select an architect for this project. He will describe the criteria we established, and the process we used, to arrive at the choice of Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners, of London and New York, as our design architect.

Next, Andrew Whalley, representing that architectural firm, will discuss their concept for the building. In addressing our very special challenges, he and his team have devised design solutions which are clear, rational, practical, elegant, and beautiful. Not only has his firm accommodated our complex program and unique site, but it also has given form to our hopes and our vision.

Finally, you will hear from the Director of EMPAC, Johannes Goebel. On the one hand, Johannes is experienced, pragmatic, and a great collaborator. On the other hand, he is far-sighted, inspiring — a visionary. He has been an advisor to our project from its early stages, participating in the architectural competition as a technical consultant. When we decided to name a director of EMPAC, he was the obvious choice. As Director of EMPAC, he has been intimately engaged in the design process, to ensure that the building and the program are tightly fused.

It falls to me, as President of Rensselaer, to share with you our vision for this project — to show you why Rensselaer has chosen to commit not only its resources, but also a large measure of its aspirations to the creation of EMPAC.

When I was inaugurated as President of Rensselaer in September 1999, I articulated a vision to move Rensselaer into the very top tier of the world's technological research universities.

Over the past four years, we have taken significant steps toward realizing that vision, guided by an overall strategic blueprint called The Rensselaer Plan — a plan which we built as a university community from the ground up in less than ten months during the first year of my tenure as President. Coming out of the plan, we have opened new research and education facilities. We have recruited distinguished scholars to the faculty, and have attracted record numbers of first-rate students, from an ever more diverse range of backgrounds. We have improved the quality of the student learning experience, and have expanded the non-academic dimensions of student life on the Troy campus. By any objective measure, we are undergoing a Renaissance at Rensselaer. Our research portfolio has expanded dramatically. We have enlarged and enhanced our faculty (creating 70 net new positions, while hiring 127 new faculty members overall).

We are building strong graduate programs across five schools. Already, a Ph.D. in Architectural Sciences is pending approval from New York State, as well as new Ph.D. programs in Electronic Arts and in Cognitive Science. We have seen a 56 percent increase in the number of our Ph.D. students over last year.

We are investing, and developing a major presence, in the strategically important areas of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and information technology.

As we make these investments, we are finding that today, more than ever, much of what is important and exciting in science and technology lies in interdisciplinary areas — at the interstices [if you will] of traditional disciplines. The creation of EMPAC is a key strategic component of our drive to maximize our interdisciplinary potential and to explore at the edges where the sciences and the arts intersect.

EMPAC will be a major art institution with international scope, set within a university dedicated to the highest achievements in science and technology, discovery, and innovation. By definition, EMPAC will inspire experimentation, cross-disciplinary inquiry, and advanced research. Nevertheless, EMPAC is first and foremost an art institution. Therein lies both its daring and its promise.

At Rensselaer, we continually challenge ourselves and our students by asking, "Why not change the world?" Changing the world requires global thinking, of course, but it also demands local action. The opening of EMPAC will animate the architecture of our campus in a way that has not been seen since the creation of the Ricketts campus 100 years ago, at a time when manufacture was the dominant economic and intellectual force.

Today, we are creating new structures that will animate the Rensselaer campus as the forces of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and information technology are carving a new ethic and a new aesthetic for the 21st century.

EMPAC signals the maturing of the arts and architecture at Rensselaer into a creative force, enabling the melding of research in evolving music and acoustics, for instance with expression, embedding the vast possibilities of digital research and expertise into a venue where the real and the virtual can be explored simultaneously.

All of this takes place in an architectural setting which makes the most of a unique and beautiful site, and which compliment a 19th century acoustically brilliant forbearer — the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall just down the hill via the steps we call "The Approach."

As we create new structures — EMPAC in the design phase and the new Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies — in mid-construction — we are striving for an architectural aesthetic for our campus which draws upon both our tradition and our history, yet faces firmly forward to greet the future, stretching us into new realms of excellence, achievement, and discovery.

At the groundbreaking two weeks ago, I spoke of EMPAC as a risk, but one where we fully expect to be successful. Why? The answer lies in another question.

Why should Rensselaer commit its resources to creating an art institution, when we are a technological research university?

The creation of EMPAC stems from the conviction that education must occur in an environment that offers diversity of thought and experience, dialogue and exchange. With EMPAC, Rensselaer will be able to provide a platform where research and technology can interact with artistic creation and reflection. As a result, students will benefit from a richer and deeper understanding of culture and society, as well as the roles and application of research and technology.

Because EMPAC will be a gathering point for the campus, the city, and the region, it also will help to bring science and society together here and now. The Rensselaer community, and the larger community, will mingle at EMPAC, sharing in the astonishment and challenge of its performances.

Rensselaer has a long-standing reputation for producing graduates who can solve complex technical problems. EMPAC will give our students exciting new opportunities to explore problem-solving through the medium of the arts, providing fresh avenues for research and discovery, enhancing their skills and knowledge. EMPAC will provide unique, creative platforms, allowing boundaries to be pushed in performance, because of the technological capabilities inherent in its design and in its platforms.

So, "What makes Rensselaer dare to blaze this exceptional path?" The simple answer, in brief, is that we have been doing so throughout the history of this institution. More recently, Rensselaer has been known, internationally, as a center for electronic arts. We have offered courses in electronic arts since 1980. Out of those grew an M.F.A. program in electronic arts, a B.S. program in electronic media, arts, and communication, and a new B.S. in electronic arts, and soon, a Ph.D.

We offer a degree in information technology and the arts, which has a core of information technology and a secondary focus on electronic arts. We have established an Academy of Electronic Media, which does research, development, and deployment of new-media materials for education, the arts, and entertainment.

Since you are architects, I would suggest that you might think of our School of Architecture as providing the quintessential cross-disciplinary program. It incorporates the visual arts, information technology, engineering, acoustics, lighting, history, theory, and practice — all at once.

These programs are highly characteristic of the Rensselaer tradition of "applying science to the common purposes of life." It is a significant part of our signature. We, therefore, want to bring them to greater attention, in keeping with a key element of our strategic vision. We have the potential to do just that with experimental media, and their synergy with the performing arts; through research, and the application of science and technology. The building and program of EMPAC will allow us to realize that potential. Its venues will support the classical and contemporary performing arts at the highest levels, while providing platforms for audio and video production of the highest quality, and while allowing research and experimentation of the highest order in acoustics, simulation, visualization, and animation — bringing artists, scientists, and engineers together in unique, creative endeavors.

What is more, because EMPAC is specifically designed to welcome the public to our campus, it will allow us to share Rensselaer's achievements with the citizens of the Capitol Region, New York State, and indeed of the world. EMPAC truly will shine like a beacon, lighting the way toward our Troy campus and illuminating all who come our way.

When we celebrated the groundbreaking two weeks ago, we did so with full confidence in the purpose we had established, and in the architectural design which will give form to that purpose, and bring it to life.

It is now time for me to yield the floor to Alan Balfour, Andrew Whalley, and Johannes Goebel, who will tell you about the details of the project — the details, of course, being where the ingenuity of EMPAC resides.

As I hand over proceedings to them, I recall the debate which C.P. Snow articulated in his celebrated 1959 book, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. He argued that the culture of science and technology was becoming unintelligible to people trained in the arts and humanities, and that the culture of the arts and humanities was becoming similarly foreign to scientists and engineers. We at Rensselaer, believe that EMPAC is a very important initiative in bridging, indeed melding, the two cultures, doing so in a way that is not superficial, but, rather, engages our intelligence and our integrity. We are fortunate to be working with a team that is fully equal to this high challenge. On behalf of all of us at Rensselaer, I look forward to welcoming you at EMPAC, so you can judge for yourselves.

Thank you.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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