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Bethlehem group hopes to develop arts center within city's old steel mills

In 2003, the once-great Bethlehem Steel Company closed its doors for good, ending, some said, the industrial age in America. Now, those doors may open to the age of culture, as a proposal is being developed to make the steel mills the backdrop for a new city arts center called SteelStax.

The 200,000-square-foot facility, designed by New York-based Rockwell Group with Boston-based Design Lab Architects, will be woven in, under, and around the monumental mill structures. A 50,000-square-foot Festival Hall, which will seat up to 3,000 people for music and large events, will use the main blast furnace as its backdrop, revealed via a glass curtain wall at the back of the facility. Other venues will include a 500-seat performing arts theater, a 300-seat music venue, and 25,000 square feet of performing arts education space.

The project is being developed by the local nonprofit cultural foundation Artsquest, the Pennsylvania

Youth Ballet, the Pennsylvania Youth Theater, and the Hispanic American League of Artists. The 3.5 acres of land for the project was donated by BethWorks Now, a developer that is hoping to build a commercial and residential complex on the mill site. No funding has been secured, but the team has assured seed contributions from local donors, and hopes soon to attract government arts grants. Officials say they cannot discuss the project's price tag at this point.

Rockwell Group principal David Rockwell says the buildings, mostly cubes (although he's not "ruling out anything rounder"), will feature a similar industrial aesthetic to the mills; they will be clad in both steel and masonry, for instance. They will not, however, try to compete with the size and scale of the gargantuan mills, which Rockwell likens to the "Grand Canyons of industry."

Building next to the massive furnaces and forges of these industrial icons will present some challenges, Rockwell acknowledges.

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The Festival Hall would seat up to 3,000, with the mills as its backdrop.

Much of the project is adjacent to an elevated train track that runs through the mills, and the buildings will likely be elevated to lessen vibration issues.

Rich arts scene in Bethlehem

In recent years, the arts community has taken off in this town, known for so many years for its steel production. ArtsQuest president Jeff Parks says that the city already has 1,200 arts students taking part in arts after school and summer programs. His organization's "Banana Factory," an old distribution facility turned arts facility, holds space for artists' studios and performing arts groups, while "Summerfest," a yearly festival, hosts 500 bands and about a million people per season. Much of Summerfest's performances would take place in Steelstax, says Parks.

Completion is set for 2008. Rockwell admits this is an ambitious date, but people in this once-great steel town are eager to move forward, especially after plans for such a facility have stalled numerous times. BethWorks Now is currently on hold pending a state decision on whether to allow gambling on the site. The mills themselves are set for renovation, a separate project that is still in early discussions. S.L.

Earthquake refugees in Balakot, Pakistan, cannot protect livestock.

Architects create animal shelters in Pakistan earthquake zone

Earthquake refugees in Balakot, Pakistan, cannot protect livestock.

In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Pakistan and India last October, Architects for Aid (A4A)—an organization that helps improve the design and management of disaster shelters—recognized that since many of the area's inhabitants are dependent on animals to survive the winter, destruction of livestock shelters and veterinary facilities could worsen the crisis. The organization joined with the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), and in late November sent Sam Price of London's UV Architects to Pakistan to develop prototype animal shelters.

Together, the parties developed small, lightweight frame structures designed for easy transportation, fabrication, modification, and replication.

About 20 have been built so far. Using readily available materials, such as corrugated galvanized iron for roofing; woven grass reed or canvas for walls; and reclaimed rubble for foundations, the structures provide animals with protection and insulation. They also ventilate the heat produced by larger animals. The shelters are designed to hold up to three buffalo, eight sheep or goats, one horse, and 20 chickens.

While dispatching more volunteers for the animal shelter project, A4A, which was formed in 2004, is working with organizations such as the U.N.'s Habitat and Shelter Center and Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief (RedR) to promote disaster-preparedness among architects. On the whole, the field has been criticized for its slow response to events like the Southeast Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. Consequently, A4A has begun creating a registry of trained professionals ready to travel to disaster sites as well as an online repository for knowledge on structural emergency work.

"The life cycle of a humanitarian aid worker is often about 5 years, so there is an inevitable relearning process that must regularly occur. This should be mitigated and the expertise retained," says Dr. Victoria Harris, managing director of A4A. More information is available at www.architectsforaid.org. Nick Olsen

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