Architect: Spillman Farmer Architects
Location: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA
Project Team: Barry Pell, AIA, Managing Principal; Joseph N. Biondo, AIA, Design Principal; Michael Metzger, AIA, Project Architect; William Deegan, Senior Designer; Wayne Stitt, AIA; Christa Kraftician, AIA, LEED AP; Charles Shoemaker, AIA; Salvatore Verrastro, AIA, FCSI; Brian Brandis, AIA; Joanne Titcomb IIDA; Deirdre Kwiatek PhD; Randy Galiotto; Patrick Ruggerio; Sierra Krause; Joseph Balsamo; Clint Newton; Deborah Innis; Mark Piell; Elliot Nolter; Chris Connors; Mike Savage.
Photographs: Courtesy of Spillman Farmer Architects
The Bethlehem Steel Corporation, based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was one of the most powerful companies of the Industrial Revolution. At its height, Bethlehem Steel was the second-largest steel producer in the United States and one of the largest shipbuilding companies in the world, occupying nearly 2000 acres in heart of the city and employing thousands of people over many generations. While the Bethlehem plant closed its operations in 1995, the iconic 285-foot blast furnaces still stand. Today, these historic ruins preside over the largest privately owned brownfield in the country, 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 square feet 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.
Material | Process | Product
The architecture of the ArtsQuest Center is influenced by the principles of critical regionalism in that it is deeply inspired by this former industrial site and the lives that were lived here, embracing material and craft over abstract concept. It recognizes both the raw material and the human spirit that together fueled the industrial revolution. 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 oriented 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 realized in the interior, where spaces bring visitors into intimate visual contact with the iconic blast furnaces as the permanent backdrop for activities within.
In fact, the juxtaposed phrase “raw elegance” became shorthand for the design concept, which emphasizes 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 result is a building that both honors and contributes to the truly unique and profoundly meaningful spirit of place.
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 color 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. The steel is painted international orange: the color of the Golden Gate Bridge which was constructed from steel made on the Bethlehem Steel site.
Within this hybrid concrete and steel structure, interior program elements are articulated as carefully placed furnishings. These elements are clad in native Pennsylvania Ash wood, stained dark on one side and left a natural light color on the other. The overall effect of this color and light play evokes the dark steel furnaces whose interiors are lined with light colored firebrick. The naturally finished ash warms the interiors and heightens user experience as one circulates through the building. Interior wood details are woven, revealing the material’s thickness.
Careful attention has also been paid to the human experience of moving through the volume both horizontally and vertically. The main entrance is marked by a shroud, a vernacular form found on many of the industrial buildings on site. Similar to the program elements, the shroud is stained dark on the outside and left a natural color on the inside. Visitors enter through the shroud into the building and experience successively increasing ceiling heights until a soaring two-story volume is revealed. In this way, one’s passage through the building becomes a journey of discovery enriched by tactile experience.
The grand stair provides an equivalent sense of discovery and tactility. The stair starts as a plinth rising up from the earth and becomes progressively lighter, structurally and visually, at each turn. At the second level the stair takes on circular form, a detail that draws from the delicate steel stairs that circle the upper levels of the blast furnaces and pays homage to the steelworker’s experience of moving vertically through the plant.
MEP Engineer: Brinjac Engineering
Structural Engineer: Barry Isett & Associates
Acoustic Consultant: Acoustic Dimensions
Landscape Architect: Wallace Roberts & Todd
Civil Engineer: French & Parrello Associates
Food Service Consultant: Porter Khouw Consulting
Commissioning Consultant: The Stone House Group
Specifications Consultant: Conspectus
Construction Manager: Alvin H. Butz
Owners Consultant (Audio/Visual): AVI-SPL
Owner Consultant (Cinema): Full Aperture Systems
Owners Consultant (Planning & Fundraising Counsel): The North Group
Owners Consultant (Branding & Environmental Graphics): Westlake, Reed, Leskosky
Owners Consultant (Food Service): Singer Equipment Company
Owners Consultant (Sculpture): Stephen Antonakos Studio
Owners Consultant (Sculpture): The Glass Studio at the Banana Factory
Owners Consultant (Communications): Convergent Communications
Owners Consultant (Furniture): Corporate Environments
Owners Consultant (Furniture): Corporate Facilities
Owners Consultant (Retail): Vori Kriaris Retail Design & Store Planning
SteelStacks Plaza Design Team: Wallace Roberts & Todd / Artefact / L’Observatoire
Klein and Hoffman, Inc / Keystone Consulting / Lehigh Valley Engineering
HDR Engineering / Metropolitan Acoustics / Simpson Gumpertz & Heger
Plaza Fire Sculpture: Colombo Construction Corp. – Elena Columbo
Size in Square Feet: 68,000 SF
Construction Cost: $17.3 M