Doors at the College of the Holy Cross are kept unlocked 24 hours a day. This policy is “a fantastic principle which speaks a lot about the ethos of the college,” a respected 3,000-student Catholic institution in Worcester, Massachusetts, said Charles Renfro, partner at Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) and lead designer of the Prior Performing Arts Center, during a press tour of the facility. Holy Cross has long upheld the Jesuit tradition of open inquiry, particularly in the arts and humanities; its fluid, flexible new center places the performing and visual arts at the top of the hilly campus, asserting their importance physically and programmatically. The Prior gives the college and its surrounding community a clear view of students and faculty at work adding new things to the world.
Consisting of four volumes around a central atrium, dubbed the Beehive, the building interlaces three primary materials—Cor-ten steel, precast gypsum-fiber-reinforced concrete (GFRC), and glass—into a deceptively simple geometry that implies, without rigidly adhering to, horizontal and vertical organizational grids. Park and garden spaces at the four corners complete a nine-square hash-sign plan. The weathered steel panels are arranged so that their seams echo the angles of the hilltop site; the concrete folds and twists over the top of the building to blur the distinction between wall and roof, creating a two-material arched entrance at one corner. The industrial materials’ colors respect and update the dominant campus palette of brick and limestone, while wood-clad interior spaces juxtapose front-of-house activities with back-of-house support functions suggested by pervasive metallic components. From diverse viewing angles, the Prior connotes the interdependency of the disciplines practiced within, while foregrounding the top-floor Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Arts Gallery through a broad window above the western main vehicular entrance.
Four different programs converge on the Beehive: the Boroughs Theatre, a black-box studio to the north, variously configurable to seat 200 to 250 people for theater or dance and equipped with a walkable upper grid; a multimedia lab and presentation space to the west beneath the gallery; production spaces (a scene 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 including a full-function fly tower nearly 100 feet tall. (Its perceived height is concealed from some angles—and made less overbearing than many opera houses’ fly towers, 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 traversing the campus who use the building’s multiple doors as if the Beehive were an outdoor courtyard. The building in plan is basically cruciform (a plus-sign aerial view apparently not intended as an architecture parlante gesture, though it’s hard to imagine that the visual pun on the school’s name and religious symbol escaped everyone at DS+R), maximizing daylighting and sightlines as well as access: All spaces, even the black-box theater and concert hall, have outside views. The shops and loading dock are unusually visible, and the 52-foot-wide operable front Skyfold wall of the black box allows that space to integrate with the Beehive as an event-specific option. Adaptability on multiple levels, from the large spaces to details like internal blinds for transparency and acoustic performance, even hooks on an exterior wall accommodating a large projection screen for outdoor cinema audiences, defines the Prior as a pragmatic, hackable space for today’s interdisciplinary art events.
Observers of previous DS+R arts buildings such as Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, and the High Line will recognize a recurrent spatial motif in the small suspended structures that Renfro calls the Beehive’s five “muses” or “follies … that suggest joyful inhabitation of space”: a DJ booth, a “crib” with comfortable furniture for naps or study, a small theatrical space overlooking the atrium like a Juliet balcony, a “bar” providing electric (not alcoholic) charging, and a dramatically cantilevered flying staircase that can also serve theatrical uses. The Prior is a building not only for performances, classes, and rehearsals but for seeing and being seen, a welcoming site for the casual hangouts and meetups of collegiate life.
Technical facilities throughout the building are state-of-the-art and rise to a level of electronic and acoustical infrastructure that inspires generational envy in anyone whose school days included access to rooms featuring, 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 associate principal Miles Nelligan) connects to a large, acoustically deadened live-rehearsal space, with chamfered walls that prevent slapback, and is wired to record performances anywhere in the building. The Luth Concert Hall’s stage can hold 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 customary chamber orchestra, choir, jazz ensemble, a cappella groups, and marching band but a medieval Schola Gregoriana, Balinese gamelan ensemble, and laptop ensemble. The hall has a churchlike reverberation time of close to two seconds, thanks to a high ceiling and bespoke GFRC panels whose undulations were developed by DS+R with acousticians Jaffe Holden to reflect, refract, and absorb precise frequencies. Lining the stage, West African makore hardwood (an endangered species, but sustainably harvested) contributes to a sonic ambience that can rival those of European opera houses.
In an era when the STEM disciplines dominate many conversations about academic priorities, too often leaving the arts as budget-butcher fodder, it’s heartening to see Holy Cross expressing its commitment to the creative fields through such a carefully executed building. Jesuits have been leaders in liberal-arts education for some 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 an up-and-coming center for public presentation of the arts as well as for pedagogy. Nelligan recalled that college officials challenged DS+R in the planning stages to “not let the house ever go dark.” The Prior promises to be the kind of building that helps keep everyone’s lights on.
Bill Millard is a regular contributor to AN.
Landscape Architect: Olin
Structural Engineer: Robert Silman Associates
Theater Planning: Fisher Dachs Associates
Contractor: Dimeo Construction
Acoustics & Audio/Visual: Jaffe Holden
Civil Engineer: Nitsch Engineering
Code Consultant: Code Red Consultants
Cost Estimator: Dharam Consulting
Foodservice Consultant: Colburn & Guyette
Geotechnical: Haley Aldrich
Hardware Specifications: Campbell-McCabe
IT/Security: Shen Milson & Wilke
Lighting: Tillotson Design Associates
MEP/FP Engineer: Altieri Sebor Wieber
Specifications: Construction Specifications
Glass Manufacturer: Viracon