EMPAC: a beached ocean liner?

empac exterior

Not everyone's on board.

That's how William Morgan, "a Providence based architectural writer," described the RPI building in a piece in the Hartford Courant:

It is a maddeningly frustrating piece of architecture, crammed with lots of goodies but not a lot of goodness. Granted, the spaces may work well for performances, but few of them inspire forms that sing. There's lots of technological power in the huge building, but not much poetry. Designers pray for clients with a bottomless budget, yet one wonders if a little more struggle might have resulted in a building that was a less ponderous and more taut -- Gregorian chant rather than Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

He also called it "the boldest -- maybe most outrageous -- building to appear in upstate New York in decades."

This isn't the first negative criticism of EMPAC's design. On his Kunstlercast podcast, James Howard Kunstler said of EMPAC: "It's like if you were to put on a clown suit and jump up and down on the highest part of your city and point at yourself and say, 'Look at me, I'm special.'"

Others have been very complimentary. NYT's Dennis Overbye called it "a technological pleasure dome for the mind and senses". James R. Oestreich, also in NYT, declared it "the concert hall of the 21st century." And Cool Hunting said "EMPAC fuses the best aspects of the arts, science and technology" in naming the center one of its top five buildings of 2008.

Earlier on AOA: A photo tour of EMPAC

(Thanks, Duncan)

Just so you know: EMPAC has advertised on AOA this year


Thanks for posting this.

In a few years, this piece of futuristic starchitecture that is the EMPAC will look as dated as the mutton-chopped, ray-gun slinging Sandmen in Logan's Run appear to us today.

While the rest of the world is coming to appreciate the 19th century urban fabric of downtown Troy, this collegiate architectural fashion status symbol stands testament to how utterly clueless and out-of-touch RPI is with the good things that are actually going on down below.

On the plus side, you can pretend you are OB1 Kenobi on a mission to deactivate the Death Star tractor beam as you enter the main EMPAC concert orb.

I drive by EMPAC every day on my way to work, and while it may seem a little out of place in Troy, I like it. It's certainly a lot nicer to look at than the some of the run-down abandoned buildings around the corner. And they did everyone a favor by demolishing the eyesores that stood across the street from it.

Yeah, it's hideous, like the CII before it. But in between they managed to create the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies (http://www.rpi.edu/tour/cbis), a beautiful melding of old and new, beautiful from the street and, from what I've seen, semi-modern and quite functional inside.

the quote "Granted, the spaces may work well for performances, but few of them inspire forms that sing." pretty much sums up my feelings about architects and architectural reviewers. They have all forgotten lesson #1:



Christ, this thing is a fugly white elephant; it's out of place architecturally in RPI, Troy in general, and (to quote my mom,) it looks like a giant parking meter.

Can it be torn down now? Please?

Finally Troy has odd architecture to balance Albany's The Egg! When will They Might Be Giants sing about us darn it!?!

I drive by EMPAC all the time and I call it the glass encased keg.

The reviewer said nothing about what empac IS! An important point when reviewing anything. Imagine reading an amazon .com review for a toaster where the person owned golf clubs.

Regardless of what empac might be as a symbol fir RPI having it's head up it's you know what regionally, it are bringing unusual events and people to the region. This doesn't undermine what's already here but make it more dynamic. Of course it was a bizarre way to spend 200 milion but now that it's over I'm going to show up and enjoy what no other small town in the nation can. Sour grapes is for apes.

Universities used to build structures that inspired. This, the SUNY East Campus nullity on the Columbia Turnpike, and the vast array of oddities at CESTM are all giant flips of the finger to the communities that surround them, inappropriate to the setting. The interior of EMPAC may be wonderful -- though I'm not sure what an engineering school that may be dropping language instruction and other arts programs needs with all this performing arts space. I wonder whether the construction of this monster left RPI bereft of desire to do anything with the Proctor's theater (that's what they used to call performing arts centers) it owned downtown, which desperately needed saving and is now, in all likelihood, doomed.

Come on guys, it's not unusual to mix old and new. See the Louvre Pyramid for example, it was pretty controversial, but "[...] others came to appreciate the juxtaposing of contrasting architectural styles as a successful merger of the old and the new, the classical and the ultra-modern [...]" (source Wikipedia).

EMPAC really brings something new to the Capital District. Some shows are fairly "experimental" (hence the name), but always quite surprising and affordable (if not free). Great team.


You make valid points. However, the programming of the EMPAC is problematic as well. Not only does this building widen the divide between town and gown by providing more self-contained entertainment for students so that they don't have to venture downtown. But the actual movies they show there are ridiculous exercises in avant-gardism, designed to intimate and confound their viewers just as this building does.

I've seen movies at the EMPAC and the essential message I got from these movies was: "This is art. If you don't get how brilliant my movie is, then you are ignorant and you'd best not reveal that ignorance by saying out loud that you don't get or don't like this."

That is the message I get from the EMPAC building itself. It's not even clear how to enter it!

All starchitecture is designed to intimidate and confound the user, though, so that it gives the architect an air of supernatural talent. Frank Gehry's Seattle Public Library does this. The building in no way resembles a library, so it's confusing even to the passerby. Once inside, it is intimidating to the library patrons who have a hard time figuring out how to use the library. So the building belongs on that website FAIL. Because the form does not follow the function. And the emperor-architect indeed has no clothes.

The inside of the EMPAC -- with its staircases that get narrower as you ascend them, and its giant Indiana Jones bolder of a concert hall (that threatens to squash you) -- is reminiscent of the famous Winchester mansion that has doorways and staircases to nowhere.

Wow. EMPAC is bringing a lot of attention to Troy, a city that desperately needs it, and this is the kind of love it gets. Okay, then. I can see how the architecture is polarizing. But the programming? As I understand, EMPAC is an offshoot of RPI's Electronic Media Arts & Communications program, which if I remember correctly started in 1997. It then makes sense to have these integrated and multimedia programs. I haven't gotten any of the stuffy art-snob feeling that some of you have there, though granted some of the performances are obtuse. The message I get is, hey, art is fun, and it's not limited to looking at static stuff in a gallery. I feel bad for people who don't walk away with that impression. I've had a small peek "behind the scenes" and there are some dedicated people working very, very hard to bring what they think are interesting, entertaining, provocative events to us. At least they got one part of that down for sure.

If you want to talk about a visual blight on Troy, let's discuss that giant round tower of condos or whatever it is that you can see to the left as you cross over the Green Island Bridge. That thing looks like it came straight out of a bad 80's sci-fi flick about some utopian future with a dark secret, like that all of the chocolate is actually made out of hamsters.

@Duncan: that's not a very strong argument. You need avant-guardism to explore art. You need experimentation to go somewhere, if not forward. It's often a hit or miss (hell, I walked out in the middle of last week's "Beacons" show), but I'm glad I can be subjected to bold moves now and then rather than the stream of "safe" musicals presented downtown. Their mission statement is fairly clear: explore music, performance, theater and (new) media; I give them credit for sticking to it and not sell out.

The quality of the audio installation is something I had only experienced in major cities, and I keep distinct memories of shows like Brent Green, Zeroth Channel or OneDotZero to name a few this year. I'm not a fan of the building, but even if "the staircases get narrower as I ascend them", I think everybody is going to find their way just fine to the show, and most likely get something out of it...
I would strongly suggest people to give it a chance.

@ -S,

While I do think I provided a strong argument. I think your points are valid. Of course we want people to try new things in art. Unfortunately, art and architecture seem to have become ONLY about the experimental. And "breaking the mold." But traditional architecture and traditional art serve a very important purpose. If contemporary artists and architects were also practicing traditional methods, then I would be more supportive of the experimental stuff. Personally I don't even think Frank Gehry or Rem Koolhass could build a neoclassical building so they cover up for it by breaking all the rules.

Troy really needs a Spectrum type movie theater that people can walk to. All we have now is EMPAC. The former porn theater probably wouldn't work as a neighborhood theater because it would only fit one screen. Elsewhere on the Net someone suggested that the old Proctors could be turned into a multiplex (by saving the facade and lobby and building an entirely new complex behind it).

@B I'm all with you on the round condo tower. We're going to knock down our brutalist City Hall. Next on the list should be the round condo tower and the Uncle Sam Atrium.

@Duncan: "art and architecture seem to have become ONLY about the experimental"; I'm not sure I'm with you. I like contemporary and experimental, and yet I can't find *that* many installations around Albany, can you? I like the drive to MassMOCA, but I'd rather have one EMPAC in Troy, and one Spectrum in Albany, than two of the same Spectrum's; they certainly serve different purposes. As much as I like a sense of community and neighborhood, I don't think it's too much to ask to drive to one or the other (I'm in Albany). This also gives people the opportunity to spend a little bit of time in Troy or Alb, say check a restaurant around either places, walk around, get mugged, the usual. And I agree on traditional architecture, this obviously shouldn't go away (though everything looks modern to me in this country :)

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