Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Prior Performing Arts Center puts the arts first
The doors of the College of the Holy Cross are closed 24 hours a day. This policy is “a fantastic principle that speaks volumes about the ethics of the college”, a respected Catholic institution of 3,000 students in Worcester, Massachusettssaid Charles Renfro, partner at Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) and lead designer of the Former Performing Arts Center, during a press tour of the installation. Holy Cross has long supported the Jesuit tradition of open inquiry, especially in the arts and humanities; its new fluid and flexible center places the perform and visual arts atop the hilly campus, affirming their physical and programmatic importance. The Prior gives the college and its surrounding community a clear view of students and faculty at work adding new things to the world.
Composed of four volumes around a central atrium, nicknamed the beehive, the building intertwines three primary materials – Cor-ten steel, precast gypsum fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) and glass – in a geometry of a deceptive simplicity that implies, without rigidly adhering to horizontal and vertical organizational grids. Park and garden spaces at the four corners complete a plan of nine sharp squares. The weathered steel panels are arranged so that their seams echo the angles of the site at the top of the hill; the concrete bends and twists above the building to blur the distinction between wall and roof, creating a bi-material arched entrance at one corner. Industrial material colors respect and update the campus’ dominant brick and limestone palette, while wood-clad interior spaces juxtapose fronthouse activities with suggested backhouse support functions. by ubiquitous metal components. From various angles, the Prior evokes the interdependence of the disciplines practiced inside, while highlighting the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor art gallery on the top floor through a large window above the entrance west main vehicle.
Four different programs converge on the Beehive: the Boroughs Theatre, a black box studio to the north, variously configurable to accommodate 200-250 people for theater or dance and equipped with a walkable upper grid; a multimedia laboratory and a presentation space to the west under the gallery; production spaces (a stage shop topped by rehearsal rooms, classrooms and a costume shop) visible behind glass walls to the east; and the 400-seat Luth Concert Hall to the south, a proscenium theater featuring a nearly 100-foot-high full-function flight tower. (Its perceived height is concealed from certain angles—and rendered less authoritative than the flight towers of many opera houses, Renfro notes—by the building’s hilly site.) The main atrium space, which includes a cafe, becomes a crossroads for practitioners of the various arts, as well as for other pedestrians crossing the campus who use the multiple doors of the building as if the Beehive were an outdoor courtyard. The building in plan is basically cruciform (an aerial view in plus sign apparently not designed as a speaking architecture gesture, though it’s hard to imagine the visual pun on the school’s name and religious symbol eluded everyone at DS+R), maximizing natural lighting and sightlines as well as access: all spaces, even the theater and the black-boxed concert hall, have views. The stores and loading dock are exceptionally visible, and the Black Box’s functional 52-foot-wide front Skyfold wall allows this space to fit into the Beehive as an event-specific option. Multi-level adaptability, from large spaces to details such as internal blinds for transparency and acoustic performance, even hooks on an exterior wall that can accommodate a large projection screen for outdoor cinema audiences, defines the Prior as a pragmatic, hackable space for today’s interdisciplinary arts events.
Observers of old DS+R art buildings such as the one in Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, Alice Tully Room at Lincoln Center, and the high line will recognize a recurring spatial motif in the small suspended structures that Renfro calls the five “muses” or “follies…which suggest a joyous inhabitation of space”: a DJ booth, a “nursery” with comfortable furniture for siesta or the study, a small theatrical space overlooking the atrium as a Juliet balcony, a “bar” providing electric (non-alcoholic) charging, and a spectacular cantilevered flying staircase that can also be used for theatrical uses . Le Prieur is a building not only for performances, classes and rehearsals, but also for seeing and being seen, a welcoming site for the casual hangouts and get-togethers of collegiate life.
The technical facilities throughout the building are state-of-the-art and rise to a level of electronic and acoustic infrastructure that inspires generational envy in all those whose school days included access to rooms with , at most, a piano. In the Media Lab, each individual seat includes a networked laptop, synthesizer and audio interface. The main digital recording studio suite (the “musical brain of the whole building,” says DS+R Senior Associate Miles Nelligan) connects to a large, acoustically soundproofed live rehearsal space, with chamfered walls that prevent the slapback, and is wired to record performances anywhere in the building. The stage at the Luth Concert Hall can accommodate up to 140 performers, a rare ratio of musicians and choristers to attendees, but appropriate for a school with an ambitious music department comprising not only the usual chamber orchestra, the choir , the jazz ensemble, the a cappella and brass band groups but medieval Schola Gregoriana, Balinese gamelan set and laptop set. The hall has a church-like reverberation time of nearly two seconds, thanks to a high ceiling and bespoke GFRC panels whose undulations were developed by DS+R with acoustician Jaffe Holden to reflect , refract and absorb precise frequencies. Lining the stage, the hardwood of makore from West Africa (an endangered species, but sustainably harvested) contributes to a soundscape that can rival those of European opera houses.
At a time when STEM disciplines dominate many conversations about academic priorities, too often leaving the arts at the heart of the budget, it is heartening to see Holy Cross expressing its commitment to creative fields through such a carefully executed building. The Jesuits have been leaders in liberal arts education for about 450 years, noted Holy Cross President Vincent D. Rougeau, and the college, despite its location in the cultural shadow of Boston and Cambridge, is now a promising center for the public. presentation of the arts as well as for pedagogy. Nelligan recalled that college officials challenged DS+R during the planning stages to “never let the house get dark.” The Prior promises to be the kind of building that helps keep everyone’s lights on.
Bill Millard is a regular contributor to A.
Design Architect: Diller Scofidio + Renfro(Partner in charge: Charles Renfro)
Executive Architect: Perry Dean Rogers
Location: Worcester (Massachusetts)
Landscape architect: olin
Structural engineer: Robert Silman Associates
Theater planning: Fisher Dachs Associates
Service provider: Dimeo Construction
Acoustics & Audio/Visual: Jaffe Holden
Civil engineer: Nitsch Engineering
Code consultant: Code Red Advisors
Cost estimator: Dharam Consulting
Catering Advisor: Colburn and Guyette
Geotech : Haley Aldrich
Hardware Specifications: Campbell McCabe
IT security: Shen Milson and Wilke
Lighting: Tillotson Design Associates
MEP/FP engineer: Altieri Sebor Wieber
Features: Build Specifications
Glass manufacturer: Viracon