DS+R designs an "uncommon commons" with Prior Performing Arts Center

American firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro parametrically models the Prior Performing Arts Center as a creativity and cultural beacon for the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester.

by Zohra KhanPublished on : Oct 19, 2022

New England's oldest catholic institution, The College of the Holy Cross has added a new dynamic space to its Worcester campus dedicated to performance and visual arts. The 84,000 sqft building known as the Prior Performing Art Center (PAC) is an assemblage of duality in its expression of aesthetics, scale and character. The result of a collaboration between American firms Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Perry Dean Rogers Partner, the facility sits as a cultural heart of the historic college, nestled at its highest point that overlooks the campus and the city beyond. Described as "uncommon commons" by Charles Renfro, the project’s lead designer and a Partner at DS+R, the building features include a 400-seat concert hall, a 200-seat experimental theatre space, a throbbing central space for study and performance called The Beehive, and an expansive art gallery.

West elevation of the Prior Performing Arts Center: public entry marquee and Cantor Gallery | Diller Scofidio + Renfro | England | STIRworld
West elevation of the Prior Performing Arts Center: public entry marquee and Cantor Gallery Image: Iwan Baan, Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Within the cathedral city of Worcester – the second biggest city in Massachusetts, the Holy Cross campus enjoys a reputation of a distinguished Jesuit liberal arts college. In its 179 years of running, the school has seen a spectrum of progressive transitions, ranging from an all-boys to a co-ed student body, a dominant Christian percentage to a diverse racial-ethnic breakdown of undergraduates, and more recently the joining of the college’s first lay and the first Black president, Vincent D Rougeau. In the current academic landscape of the institution, a special emphasis is given to heightening its footing in performing arts, which according to Rougeau “enhances learning across all disciplines”.

Beehive view from Level 3 looking into Cantor Art Gallery and Media Lab| Diller Scofidio + Renfro | England | STIRworld
Beehive view from level 3 looking into Cantor Art Gallery and Media Lab Image: Iwan Baan, Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro
View from Level 3 into Beehive | Diller Scofidio + Renfro | England | STIRworld
View from level 3 into Beehive Image: Iwan Baan, Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Designed as an incubator for multidisciplinary learning and creativity, Prior Performing Arts Center features collaborative spaces where people can gather, lounge, use special facilities, sit back in the café, or experience the diverse performances in the school’s theatre. The building perching from above the highest point can be seen from across the vast campus, and it invites people from all disciplines in an inclusive environment.

Dance performance in Beehive with a view of the studio theatre | Diller Scofidio + Renfro | England | STIRworld
Dance performance in Beehive with a view of the studio theatre Image: Brett Beyer, Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro

The building, on the outside, looks much like an architectural sculpture defined by imposing walls and high cantilevered roofs. The formwork constitutes twisted surfaces of glass fibre reinforced concrete and corten steel that were parametrically modelled to rationalise the curves and panelisation. Pockets of gently sloping green cover is designed around the built form, and winding paths leading to the arched entries of the building are integrated in the softscape, conceived by Olin Partnership, the landscape architects of the project.  

Luth Concert Hall with Concert Shell deployed | Diller Scofidio + Renfro | England | STIRworld
Luth Concert Hall with concert shell deployed Image: Iwan Baan, Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro
Luth Concert Hall seating and custom concrete diffusion panels| Diller Scofidio + Renfro | England | STIRworld
Luth Concert Hall seating and custom concrete diffusion panels Image: Brett Beyer, Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro

According to DS+R, the centre brings together existing vectors of campus circulation at its heart, The Beehive. This core space is designed particularly to encourage collaboration, and as a creative playground for study and performance. Designed in a contrasting nature of materiality - exposed dark steel sculpting the technical infrastructure and wooden surfaces composing the stairs, bars, and seating. The Beehive includes a café, multimedia teaching spaces for sound, video and film editing, and multipurpose rehearsal zones. With its curtain walls and clerestory windows, daylight filters into the central space, illuminating it naturally for daytime activities. To make the space available in times of impromptu gathering and events, furniture in the main hall are of simple building block-like forms and are movable.

  • Studio theatre | Diller Scofidio + Renfro | England | STIRworld
    Studio theatre Image: Iwan Baan, Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro
  • Scene shop | Diller Scofidio + Renfro | England | STIRworld
    Scene shop Image: Iwan Baan, Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro

For musical performances, the centre’s Luth Concert Hall serves the function. The 400-seat convertible concert hall and proscenium theatre features an adaptive space that can be adjusted to accommodate both smaller and large events. Its walls, built of concrete diffusion panels have been parametrically designed by DS+R in collaboration with American acoustic consultant, Jaffe Holden.

Other key spaces within the centre include a 200-seat flexible theatre studio that opens directly into the Beehive, a media lab, and the expansive the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Art Gallery that has been relocated from its former location in O’Kane Hall.

Cantor Art Gallery with view into Beehive | Diller Scofidio + Renfro | England | STIRworld
Cantor Art Gallery with view into Beehive Image: Brett Beyer, Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro

A contemporary nod to the brick and limestone of the historic Holy Cross campus comes together in the impressive use of precast concrete and weathering steel. Merging expressiveness and function, the building’s idea of an 'uncommon commons' pegs on the approach of fostering diversity and to serve as a new age educational space for performing arts and creativity to thrive.

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