Raw elegance in Bethlehem

15 Nov 2011

Spillman Farmer architects completes ArtsQuest Center for Performing Arts on former Bethlehem steel brownfield

The Bethlehem Steel Corporation, based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was one of the most powerful companies of the Industrial Revolution. While the Bethlehem plant closed its operations in 1995, the iconic 285ft blast furnaces still stand. Today, these historic ruins preside over the largest privately owned brownfield in the US, which is now being transformed into a dynamic, sustainable, and livable mixed-use community. Anchoring the redevelopment at the foot of the historic blast furnaces is the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks.

The ArtsQuest Center is a hybrid building: part performance space, exhibition venue, art cinema, education center, and cultural landmark. Its 68,000 sq ft of space includes a 450-seat venue for live musical performance, a two-screen state-of-the-art cinema, and a number of multifunctional performance and community venues. The building plays a critical role in the creation of vibrant public space in the urban core, hosting over 300 live performances a year, daily art cinema screenings, indoor and outdoor concerts, and arts festivals throughout the year.

The building takes its cues from the site’s larger context, with authentic materials that speak to the history of place. Its glass and concrete exterior is orientated along an east-west axis to stand toe-to-toe with the now silent blast furnaces of Bethlehem Steel. The experience of the building is fully realised in the interior, where spaces bring visitors into intimate visual contact with the iconic blast furnaces as the permanent backdrop for activities within. The juxtaposed phrase ‘raw elegance’ became shorthand for the design concept, which emphasises a human-centered experience that allows for the connection and interaction with the rough and rusty physicality of the brownfield as a historical site but also as a vibrant contemporary public space.

The building is clad with locally manufactured pre-cast concrete panels mounted with the rough, hand-screed side facing outward to celebrate both the process of how it was made and those who made it. The mottled colour and uneven surface texture, reminiscent of the scale and residue from the steelmaking process, will reflect the passage of the sun and the seasons.

Contrasting this rawness are the building’s exterior corners, which are functionally and elegantly articulated with steel detail. Like the industrial ruins that surround it, the building will age and develop an honest patina with the enriching experience of time. The concrete panels serve not only as skin, but are also load-bearing elements contributing to a hybrid structural system. In addition, the panels were used to bi-part the interior volume, allowing for the highly public performance and gathering space to be acoustically isolated from the service core that houses the cinemas, mechanical equipment, kitchen equipment, and other back-of-house functions. Inserted within this concrete ‘strong box’ is a robust skeletal steel frame that completes the hybrid structure and honors the steelmaking history of the site.

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