Joseph Biondo, AIA, principal at Spillman Farmer Architects, was born and raised in the firm’s hometown of Bethlehem, Pa. The one-time hotbed of U.S. manufacturing was an industrial dynamo in Biondo’s youth, and he remembers well the masses of black smoke that issued from the mighty blast furnaces at the heart of the Bethlehem Steel Corp.’s vast compound on the Lehigh River. "When I was a kid," Biondo says, "I thought those smokestacks made the clouds."

Nowadays, Bethlehem is out of the cloud-making business: the plant ceased operations in 1995. But the impressive hulks of the old steelworks remain, monuments to an America that Walter Gropius called the “Mutterland der Industrie.

For Bethlehem, it is a patrimony that has come with its share of family feuds, as private and public interests have wrangled over the future of the steelworks site. Finally, after years of municipal foot-dragging, the city found a new role for its famous industrial facility: at its eastern end, a new resort casino and retail development, and to the west (largely underwritten by the gaming business) a new arts-and-entertainment campus to be called SteelStacks. Standing in the shadow of the derelict mills, the centerpiece of the new cultural complex is the just-completed ArtsQuest Center, a $17.4 million performance venue designed by Spillman as a paean to Bethlehem’s past, and the firm’s. The four-story, 67,000-square-foot facility is a simple rectangular volume, simply expressed in a hybrid steel-and-concrete frame. Yet within that outline, along with a program of bars, cafés, movie theaters, and stages, the architects have packed a subtle historical polemic.

“The intent of the design was to go toe-to-toe with the blast furnaces,” Biondo says. The service areas are all thrust to the building’s southern side, leaving the glazed-in public spaces to confront the looming structures of the old plant to the north head-on. Seen from the window of ArtsQuest’s third-floor Musikfest Café, the network of catwalks and bellows resembles a rust-bound pipe organ, making it a striking backdrop for the performers who have taken the main stage since the space opened in April. Compositionally, too, the center gestures toward the furnaces, with its articulated, boxlike interior forms suggesting something of the towers’ bristling functional complexity. But the new building doesn’t attempt to outdo the old—if anything, it errs on the side of understatement.

To save it from value-engineered blandness, ArtsQuest has not only its sensational site, but a heightened sense of place contrived by its designers. Just inside the main entrance, a blown-up black-and-white photo, unearthed from the Bethlehem Steel archives, shows the uniformed company brass band mustering on the exact spot where ArtsQuest stands today.

And then there is the unique poignancy in the choice of Spillman Farmer as architect. The firm dates back 87 years, when two Bethlehem Steel employees set up shop as homebuilders to wealthy company executives. Today, the practice’s office sits on a converted brownfield only minutes from SteelStacks, and among the 30 designers working there are the sons and daughters of former steel men. For them, this project was a return to their roots.

As Biondo puts it, “We’re a firm in transition.” ArtsQuest stands as a specifically local reflection on a specifically local condition, but it’s also a bid to expand beyond the firm’s regional horizons. Significantly, the architects beat out heavy hitter David Rockwell for the commission, after the internationally known designer had landed the project in an earlier search. In that light, the modesty—the reticence, even—of Spillman Farmer’s approach seems a very definite statement about space-making in the postindustrial context: a little history, it says, can trump a lot of showmanship in bringing a place back to life.


Project Credits

Project  ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks, Bethlehem, Pa.
Client/Owner  ArtsQuest
Architect  Spillman Farmer Architects—Barry Pell, AIA (managing principal); Joseph N. Biondo, AIA (design principal); Michael Metzger, AIA (project architect); William Deegan (senior designer); Joseph Balsamo, Brian Brandis, AIA, Chris Connors, Randy Galiotto, Deborah Innis, Christa Kraftician, AIA, Sierra Krause, Deirdre Kwiatek, Clint Newton, Elliot Nolter, Mark Piell, Patrick Ruggerio, Mike Savage, Charles Shoemaker, AIA, Wayne Stitt, AIA, Joanne Titcomb, Salvatore Verrastro, AIA (project team)
M/E/P 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
Owner’s Consultant (Audio/Visual)  AVI-SPL
Owner’s Consultant (Cinema)  Full Aperture Systems
Owner’s Consultant (Planning & Fundraising Counsel)  The North Group
Owner’s Consultant (Branding & Environmental Graphics)  Westlake Reed Leskosky
Owner’s Consultant (Food Service)  Singer Equipment Co.
Owner’s Consultant (Sculpture)  Stephen Antonakos Studio; The Glass Studio at the Banana Factory
Owner’s Consultant (Communications)  Convergent Communications
Owner’s Consultant (Furniture)  Corporate Environments; Corporate Facilities
Owner’s Consultant (Retail)  Vori Kriaris Retail Design & Store Planning
SteelStacks Plaza Design Team  Wallace Roberts & Todd; Artefact; L’Observatoire International; Klein and Hoffman; Keystone Consulting; Lehigh Valley Engineering; HDR; Metropolitan Acoustics; Simpson Gumpertz & Heger
Size  68,000 square feet
Construction Cost  $17.4 million

Materials and Sources

Acoustic Curtains  Besteel rosebrand.com
Acoustical System  Knauf Insulation knaufusa.com; Kinetics Noise Control kineticsnoise.com; Metal-Dek (Versa-Dek S Acoustical) metaldek.com
Carpet  Lees leescarpets.com
Ceilings  Armstrong armstrong.com
Exterior Wall Systems  Laminators (Omega-Lite exterior metal panels) laminatorsinc.com; Universal Concrete universalconcrete.com
Doors & Hardware  Ingersoll-Rand (Steelcraft) steelcraft.com; Rockwood Mfg. Co. rockwoodmfg.com; Sargent Mfg. Co. sargentlock.com; Solar Innovations solarinnovations.com; Tubelite tubeliteinc.com
Fabrics and Finishes  Knoll knoll.com; Glassfim Enterprises (Lumisty) lumistyfilm.com
Flooring  Polished concrete; Resinous flooring; StonePeak Ceramics stonepeakceramics.com
Furniture  Herman Miller hermanmiller.com; Knoll knoll.com; Driade driade com; Camatic camatic.com.au
Glass  JE Berkowitz www.jeberkowitz.com
HVAC  Carrier www.commercial.carrier.com; Mitsubishi Electric (split system) mehvac.com
Lighting Control Systems  Lutron Electronics Co. lutron.com; Lehigh Electric Products lehighdim.com
Lighting  Hi-Lite Mfg. Co. hilitemfg.com; Philips Lightolier lightolier.com; Philips Widelite widelite.com; Tivoli tivolilighting.com; Winona Lighting winonalighting.com
Masonry and Stone  Sand-filled CMU
Metal  Hot-rolled steel
Millwork  Ash; Nevamar nevamar.com; Corian dupont.com
Paints  Sherwin-Williams Co. sherwin-williams.com
Roll Down Shades  Lutron Electronics Co. lutron.com
Structure  Braced steel frame and precast concrete panels
Wallcoverings  Knoll knoll.com; 3M Graphic Panels 3m.com
Windows and Curtainwalls  Tubelite tubelite.com