Opening of Diller Scofidio Renfro’s Prior Performing Arts Center

The DSR Prior Performing Arts Center is designed as a public good

Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Prior Performing Arts Center ends at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester Massachusetts

Holy Cross College just opened a $110 million performing arts center designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, expressing the school’s commitment to the liberal arts as a core component of its curriculum. The team behind it emphasizes that it is designed to break down boundaries, celebrate inclusivity and creativity by placing the public space to gather and debate at its heart.

“There is a spirit of cultural change that is brought about by this space and by this building which I think is absolutely fundamental to who we are at Holy Cross,” says Associate Professor of Music Daniel J DiCenso.

The Prior Center for the Performing Arts is more than a home for theater and music departments. Not only is there a 400-seat sound-engineered proscenium stage lined with technology-enhanced makore wood, as well as a 200-seat black box theater and art gallery, the space aims to serve as a public place where students of all study programs can meet, relax, use specialized facilities, experience ad hoc events and orchestral performances, and hang out in its café. Located near the top of a hill above Worchester, Massachusetts’ second largest city after Boston, the building is visible from the city and was designed to be open to all.

From the outside, it looks like an elegant Frank Stella sculpture. Formwork plies of glass-reinforced concrete panels curve over see-through walls of rusted steel, accented at each corner by gardens planted by landscape architecture firm Olin Partnership. Curtain walls and clerestory windows bring daylight to the central gathering space, nicknamed “the hive”, opening up views of its production facilities, set workshop, costume design studio and its sound and AR/VR labs.

The interplay of concrete and steel, mirroring the brick and limestone of the historic Holy Cross campus, plays with ideas of backstage and public presentation, merging expressiveness and function, one of the hallmarks of the Diller Scofidio+ desk Return. The designers analyzed the college’s needs and the intended uses of the building and came up with a floor plan which they believe inadvertently forms a cross. “We love to do academic work,” says Charles Renfro, lead designer. “We know they want an educational tool that also demonstrates pedagogy.”

Holy Cross President Vincent D Rougeau played a key role in commissioning the project. Last year, he became its first unordained president. Rougeau says liberal arts education is a natural extension of the Jesuit order, which from its origins has been known for its intellectual pursuit and embrace of the arts. “Since our earliest days, we have focused on the humanities, the arts, and the sciences, and we see all of these coming together as a path to wisdom,” he says. “This center is going to help us elevate all of these pieces into a stunning new space and communicate all aspects of what makes a liberal arts education great to the world.”

In a world where tensions can easily escalate, especially when it comes to issues of diversity of thought and religion, it is up to the school’s new public commons approach to lead the debate and demonstrate the success or failure of the building’s gesture of inclusivity. §