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Architects Turn A Forgotten American Factory Into A Beacon For The Arts

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, joins a growing list of cities that have transformed long-abandoned industrial sites into vibrant cultural campuses.

In the 19th century, rural Pennsylvania became the powerhouse of the American economy. The state’s industrial infrastructure supplied the steel to build skyscrapers, the ships to fight wars, and even the glass for millions of windows. But, as America’s manufacturing economy passed away, so did the prominence of Appalachia’s industrial strongholds. If you drive across Pennsylvania today, you’ll see dozens of towering monuments to its past, rusting after decades of disuse.

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In its heydey, Bethlehem Steel was the most prominent of Pennsylvania’s mills. It was the second largest producer of steel in the country, transforming the bucolic village of Bethlehem (smack dab between Pittsburgh and Brooklyn) into a vibrant industrial powerhouse. But Bethlehem Steel ultimately went bankrupt, and the town’s steel mills closed officially in 1995. In 2007, the abandoned brownfield property was sold to a corporation interested in turning it into a casino. As part of the redevelopment, part of the mill was slated for retrofitting to accommodate an arts campus of flexible galleries, shops, and community spaces.

After delays due to a (incredibly ironic) worldwide steel shortage, the 68,000-square-foot ArtsQuest campus opened to the public in 2011.

The complex is a “cultural incubator,” sitting in the shadow of five 300-foot-high blast furnaces that once produced the world’s steel. Designed by Spillman Farmer Architects, the architecture speaks in a kind of updated industrial dialect. The complex’s 450-seat performance venue, a two-screen state-of-the-art cinema, and myriad flexible performance and community venues are organized by a structural steel skeleton painted in Bethlehem’s trademark International Orange shade. If the color looks familiar, that’s because it’s the same shade as the Golden Gate Bridge (built with Bethlehem Steel). The steel frame is infilled with locally produced precast panels, which lend the new buildings a rawness that echoes the old mill. Salvaged detritus from around the brownfield site is scattered throughout the spaces, note the architects: “Each major threshold is marked by a shroud, a vernacular doorway form found in many of the site’s industrial buildings.” It’s all intended to evoke a continuity between the towering past of Bethlehem and its future, say the architects, who cite Critical Regionalism (critic Ken Frampton’s argument that modern architects should prioritize local vernacular over conceptual rigor) as a guiding principle.

It’s tough to mention a project like this without talking about the originator of the genre: Duisburg-Nord Landscape Park, the Ruhr Valley industrial complex converted into an arts and entertainment campus in 1991. That project, master-planned in part by OMA, inspired several American mill towns to do the same–among them Braddock, Pennsylvania, which has since become a thriving cultural destination. ArtsQuest’s rousing success (it’s hosted over 300 live performances in the past year) indicates that the industrial-site-as-cultural-center typology is a repeatable model for dozens of other dilapidated brownfield sites across the Rust Belt. Spillman Farmer, for their part, just received the AIA’s highest honor for the project.

Find out more about ArtsQuest here.

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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