Front facade of the Prior Performing Arts Center.
The Prior Performing Arts Center. Above the entry is the Cantor Art Gallery, showcasing a large scale painting, “The Travelers,” by New York artist and Holy Cross alumna Justine Hill.

Holy Cross’s New Prior Performing Arts Center Overflows with Cultural Energy

Clad in varied, twisting surfaces and weaving together a wide variety of uses, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s innovative arts center promotes community, flexibility, and vibrancy.

The College of the Holy Cross occupies a spectacular hilltop campus overlooking its host city, Worcester, in central Massachusetts. For years the apex of the hill was a parking lot. Now the brand new Prior Performing Arts Center by Diller Scofidio + Renfro occupies that privileged site, and the 179-year-old Jesuit liberal arts institution is touting it not just as remarkable architecture but as in keeping with the school’s pedagogical mission.

“It’s physical, it’s spiritual, it’s intellectual, it’s the whole person,” says Vincent Rougeau, the college’s first lay president, enumerating classic Jesuit ideals. “And we’re glad it replaced a parking lot, which is always the first thing to go.”

The idea is that the front-of-house and back-of-house spaces energize each other.

Charles Renfro

Remarkable architecture it is. The $110 million, 84,000 square-foot building’s exterior is comprised of twisting and undulating forms of glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) panels and Corten steel, complementing the limestone and rust-red brick of the campus’s historic buildings, not to mention Worcester’s industrial history. GFRC walls morph into roof, and vice versa, while Corten panels, mounted at an angle, follow the slope of the site.

Performance inside the Beehive.
Dance performance in the Beehive, with a view into the black box Studio Theater. IMAGE COURTESY BRETT BEYER

The building, whose executive architect was Perry Dean Rogers, is arranged in quadrants, like a compass pointing in four directions, or a cross. Front-of-house and back-of-house program are arrayed around a three-level central space called the Beehive.

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“It’s like a courtyard but conceived for Massachusetts winters,” says Charles Renfro, partner in charge of the project for DS+R. “The idea is that the front-of-house and back-of-house spaces energize each other. And the Beehive is completely open to all students, whether they have classes in Prior or not. They can pass through it going from the student center to the athletic complex on the other side.”

The building, accommodating both the performing and the visual arts features the 400-seat Anna M. and Louis H. Luth, Jr. Concert Hall, with a full fly tower so it can host opera if necessary, Renfro says. “Its acoustics can match the best halls in Europe,” he boasts. Jaffe Holden was the acoustics consultant. The hall is paneled in warm sustainably harvested Makore wood. Its side walls feature concrete diffusion panels that resemble grey curtains but are rigid to the touch.

Inside the Luth Concert Hall.
Performance inside the Luth Concert Hall. IMAGE COURTESY BRETT BEYER

Directly across from the Beehive is the black box Boroughs Theater, which the architect describes as “completely transformable. Seats move, walls move. It is very flexible.” Extending in the other two directions are the Booth Media Lab, a place to learn sound recording and other audio skills, and a full scene shop. Both spaces are put “on display” in the Beehive via glass partitions. The scene shop in particular offers a fascinating glimpse into back-of-house preparations for performances. The college puts on at least one musical per semester, and officials are quick to point out that the Prior is conceived as a resource for its host city.

“We’re inviting Worcester to come and take advantage of this building,” Rougeau says.

Prior’s visual arts component, the 2,500 square foot Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Art Gallery, is located directly above the Prior’s main entrance, which has something of the feel of a Broadway theater with a low canopy, grid of lights, and poster cases announcing the next play or musical.

The scene shop has a surprisingly good view. IMAGE COURTESY BRETT BEYER

Like the entire complex, the Cantor has a pedagogical purpose. On a recent press walk-through, about two dozen students were busy sketching works of art on the walls. Just above the main entrance is a large fenestrated space meant for site-specific commissions. On display now (and quite visible from the street) is a colorful installation called “The Travelers,” by New York artist and Holy Cross alumna Justine Hill.

Due to its cruciform layout, the Prior forms outdoor spaces on all four corners. In each is a garden designed by Olin Landscape Architecture. One of the corners has a small, landscaped amphitheater, another an outdoor teaching area, another a meditative garden and finally a sculpture garden that will feature a Rodin sculpture, again courtesy of the Cantors.

Renfro is proud to showcase both performing and visual arts throughout the design: “The building’s dual identity is expressed in its materials, which are tough and industrial without sacrificing warmth and comfort. It puts intersectionality, inclusion and interdisciplinarity at its heart.”

Cantor Art Gallery.
Cantor Art Gallery with view into Beehive. IMAGE COURTESY BRETT BEYER
Black box theater
Inside the black box Studio Theater. IMAGE COURTESY IWAN BAAN