Golden Child

The magnificent Perelman Performing Arts Center is a standout at the reconstructed World Trade Center site. Will people come?

Photo: Nicholas Alan Cope
Photo: Nicholas Alan Cope
Photo: Nicholas Alan Cope

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A sumptuous puzzle box sits on a dark cushion at the edge of the World Trade Center. The surface is a mosaic of marble tiles, their veining arranged to form diamond-shaped ripples across each side. Deep inside is a box within a box, containing yet more compartments, which can be separated and rearranged by sliding partitions or combined into a single room. During the day, the whole package is creamy and opaque, a sculpture best admired from a distance. At dusk, it glows from inside and the exterior is revealed as a translucent membrane of stone.

That’s when it beckons. When the Perelman Performing Arts Center opens on September 19, people will begin converging on it from nearby streets, underground passageways, and the memorial plaza, flowing up the stairs that are tucked beneath its elevated mass, drawn by the promise of intimate performance and an architecture of delicate mystery. “We wanted to respond to the context with a pure, elegant form, something that while being deferential would also have a respectful independence,” says the architect Joshua Ramus, a tall, shaven-headed man with an ascetic air and a deliberate way of speaking that suggests he has formulated three drafts of every sentence before he utters it. Along with his firm, REX, and Davis Brody Bond, he has designed a building that projects a similarly controlled sobriety. A compact structure surrounded by burly skyscrapers, it holds the spotlight on a highly visible stage, offering spectacle without garishness.

The center fulfills a promise made in the early days of post-9/11 reconstruction: New York would plant the arts on a site of savagery. Some who felt the urgency of that response recirculated a line that Leonard Bernstein wrote in 1963 in the days after JFK was shot: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” The sentiment has an irresistible romantic appeal — think of the lone cellist playing Albinoni’s Adagio in the ruins of Sarajevo in the early 1990s or, more recently, the Lviv National Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra soldiering on through air-raid sirens. But what does it really mean? Art and atrocity have always coexisted, and the first never seems to have much of a dampening effect on the second. It’s hard to imagine terrorists caring about what’s playing at the corner of Fulton and Greenwich Streets.

Photo: Nicholas Alan Cope

Still, that Bernsteinian response is finally about to be delivered, wrapped in a triumph as muted as the architecture. Getting here required not just artistic pluck but political backing, a half-billion-dollar construction budget, and the creation of a new institution with the interdisciplinary ambitions, if not the scale, of a Lincoln Center. (Ronald O. Perelman contributed $75 million for the naming rights, and Michael Bloomberg kicked in another $130 million, on top of the $100 million from the federally funded Lower Manhattan Development Corporation; the rest came from smaller donations.) The symbolic power of the location remains offset by pragmatic doubts. The city’s first theater district grew up a few blocks away, but by the early-19th century, the action had started drifting uptown, and what is now the Financial District has stayed on the fringes of the performing-arts scene for 200 years. It’s not clear if that will change now. In recent decades, residents have flowed in, occupying new construction and converted Art Deco office towers, but even so, this is still predominantly a rush-hour-to-rush-hour area, crammed with the kinds of aging workplaces that go begging for tenants these days. The Perelman is the glossy sign of a neighborhood’s identity crisis.

It’s also opening three new stages in the depths of a theatrical slump that is sweeping away established companies across the country and decimating the staffs of BAM and the Public Theater. “Doing theater is harder than it was five years ago because we’re rebuilding as an industry,” acknowledges Khady Kamara, the Perelman’s executive director. After the pandemic shutdown, she says, audiences are returning — very slowly.

So how does a performing-arts newcomer — conceived in one crisis and born into another, equipped with a building meant to elevate the theatrical imagination, and carrying such a staggering symbolic and economic load — stake out a unique presence on the cultural landscape? Well, with, um … Cats.

Let’s imagine that, even after 7,485 performances a few miles uptown, a new production directed by Zhailon Levingston and the Perelman’s artistic director, Bill Rauch, might yet be revelatory. Let’s stipulate that in the months before the show opens in June 2024, Perelman audiences will be able to see potentially more bracing fare, such as Bill T. Jones and Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s Watch Night (“An opportunistic reporter visits a sacred space defiled by American violence in search of a story ready made for Hollywood”). And let’s grant that it’s impossible to judge a slate of shows before the first performance. Even so, the Perelman’s inaugural programming — which ranges from a global-music festival on the theme of refuge to an evening with the satin-voiced Mr. Broadway, Brian Stokes Mitchell — does not suggest an entity confident in its vision.

Four Possible Perelmans

The L-shaped space within the cube divides into three performance areas — the 450-seat John E. Zuccotti Theater (1), the 250-seat Mike Nichols Theater (2), and the 99-seat Doris Duke Theater (3) — each of which can be configured in the round, with the stage at one end, with the audience on three sides (a thrust stage), or with the audience on two sides (a traverse). The rooms can also be combined and tweaked, yielding a total of 60 (and counting) options.

Clockwise from top left: 1. Each theater uses a different configuration (in the round, end stage, and thrust stage). 2. One theater in the round, the others merged for an immersive experience. 3. Two theaters merged, plus the smallest in a separate end-stage configuration. 4. All three spaces combined into one 1,000-seat theater. Infographics: Violet Frances for Bryan Christie Design.
Clockwise from top left: 1. Each theater uses a different configuration (in the round, end stage, and thrust stage). 2. One theater in the round, the ... Clockwise from top left: 1. Each theater uses a different configuration (in the round, end stage, and thrust stage). 2. One theater in the round, the others merged for an immersive experience. 3. Two theaters merged, plus the smallest in a separate end-stage configuration. 4. All three spaces combined into one 1,000-seat theater. Infographics: Violet Frances for Bryan Christie Design.

When the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation first floated the idea of a subsidized new home for culture, it fielded dozens of applications, including one from New York City Opera, which was desperately looking for a way to escape Lincoln Center (and later folded). Eventually, the Drawing Center, the Signature Theatre, the Joyce, and the as yet nonexistent Freedom Center won berths in two buildings, with the performing-arts center to be designed by Frank Gehry. The project quickly encountered heavy political fire. In 2005, the Drawing Center mounted an exhibition in its Soho gallery that included Charbel Ackermann’s The New Geometry, a mocking pseudo-scientific visualization of President George W. Bush’s phrase “axis of evil.” Tabloids fulminated. Governor George Pataki demanded that cultural institutions at the World Trade Center refrain from presenting art that “denigrates America, denigrates New York or freedom.” Bloomberg mused publicly about what forms of expression would be appropriate on a site of mass death.

The project limped along for years, shedding one tenant after another until Gehry’s design was scrapped. By 2011, the performing-arts center had begun evolving into a new presenting institution with caution woven into its DNA. “What does it mean to have arts and culture at this particular part of this island that has seen so much trauma and resilience?” asks Rauch, echoing Bloomberg. “Audiences will be going past the memorial pools on the way to the theater, and our mission to create connections, affirm life, and contribute civic healing all springs from that location.” The statement, creaking under the weight of its earnestness, echoes a similar ambition articulated by the Shed (another from-scratch cultural organization with an expensive house and a vaguely high-minded purpose): “to build a shared understanding of our rapidly changing world and a more equitable society.” It’s one thing for artists to aspire to sociopolitical virtue; it’s another for an institution to demand it.

The job of expressing this swirl of agendas and sensitivities may have gone to REX because, as a New York–based firm with a short but distinguished track record, it was as close as you could get to a sure thing combined with a blank slate. As a young architect, Ramus was drawn into the orbit of Rem Koolhaas (another tall, bald, lean man with a stoic demeanor), who placed him in charge of one of his firm’s signature American projects, Seattle’s Central Library. When they parted ways in 2006, the 37-year-old Ramus had a smattering of built projects and an unbeatable calling card: one of the country’s most prominent works of contemporary architecture.

At the World Trade Center, he has produced a feat of misdirection. Exterior simplicity veils interior complexity; sharp edges contradict blurriness of institutional vision; serene symmetries counter the history of tumult. But before the designers could reckon with symbolism or healing, they faced a swarm of practical problems. A temporary PATH station still occupied the site and would go away only when the Oculus opened in 2016. Subway and PATH trains ran through the foundations. So did a spiral truck ramp leading to a vast and secure underground loading zone. A massive ventilation system serving a slew of underground operations had to fit there too. Over the years, the spot had become a kind of basement for functions that surrounding buildings couldn’t accommodate. “We had to answer questions that other stakeholders didn’t address and instead pushed onto our small site,” says David Williams, a partner at Davis Brody Bond. Even more maddeningly, all that clutter had been arranged around the area that Gehry had left for a freight elevator. That void couldn’t be moved.

It turned out that the columns for the new building could be planted only in a handful of widely — and irregularly — spaced points. Instead of rising straight from the ground, the structure would have to reach out, contort, and shift its weight in several directions at once — like playing Twister with a sofa on your back. One logical solution might have been an illogical-looking building, perhaps even something Gehryesque. Instead, Ramus took the opposite tack: an almost pure, sort of white not-quite cube with all its expressive furor tucked out of sight.

To achieve that, architects and engineers settled on an ingenious structure: a giant cage made of belt trusses jacked up and cantilevered out over the clutter of gear. Above the elevated lobby, sandwiched between ventilation systems and other machinery, the auditorium level sits on dense rubber pads that insulate the theaters from the rumble of trucks and trains. At the heart of the whole contraption is an elaborate system of movable walls and stages that must be sturdy, precise, and easy to operate. To serve a constantly shifting set of theatrical demands, dressing rooms and back of house get a full floor of their own below the auditorium level.

The interior of the Perelman during construction. Photo: Laurian Ghinitoiu

Every magician needs a curtain, and REX shrouded all its technical tricks behind that scrim of Portuguese Estremoz Luminati marble. “Hopefully people will be mystified by how all these things could be happening in the same relatively small building,” Ramus says. “If you revealed everything, audiences would start to understand how it all works.” Maybe. A few months before opening night, with workers still tweaking details, the interior has the feel of a clock lying disassembled on a watchmaker’s worktable: all the components visible, yet still bewildering.

The most obvious inspiration is Gordon Bunshaft’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale, a masterpiece of 1960s modernism whose exterior wall consists of gray marble sheets held together in a granite-framed grid. The stone panels, each an inch and a quarter thick, are all that protects the scholars from the weather — an installation that wouldn’t conform to today’s energy standards. At the Perelman, the marble slices are thinner, just half an inch, but they’re laminated between layers of glass. The outer pane is finely textured to cut glare so that it looks as if the stone is exposed to the elements,
but it isn’t.

There’s another major difference: Bunshaft distributed panels randomly, wrestling natural variation into an illusion of uniformity. Ramus used the veining to produce a more deliberate effect, a rational geometry derived from geological accident. And yet the basics of that design would have to be worked out before the stone was even quarried, let alone cut, polished, laminated, assembled into mountable panels, and shipped. In effect, the architects had to begin composing while much of the rock was still in the ground. “We had to have a fail-safe pattern so that if we started and then the stone changed, we could still finish it in a way that we knew would be beautiful,” Ramus says.

Achieving that luscious façade turned out to require a lot of extended headbanging. Architects began by photographing the surface of the quarry. They then cut the picture into tiles, which they catalogued and arranged using custom software. Eventually, they landed on a design that looked like a sheet of cream-colored paper folded and then flattened again by a crazed origami artist. Diagonal veins in the stone were arranged so as to radiate out from what Ramus calls the “turbulent” center, growing sparser and calmer toward the edges. The pattern would repeat on all four façades.

Each layer of marble that came out of the ground yielded a new batch of pictures and more material to play with. The biaxial symmetry was conceived to incorporate a lot of potential variations in veining and hue, but the process ​​of selecting, matching, and laying out the stone drew on Ramus’s — and his whole firm’s — relentless perfectionism. “We had a team that spent every morning for a year and a half sifting through tiles and making groups of 16,” he says. “It was an insane undertaking.” Critics, especially in the stone industry, agreed: “They weren’t saying it was technically impossible. They weren’t saying it was economically impossible. They were saying, ‘You’re out of your mind.’ Nobody expected our team to be so obsessive.”

Photo: Nicholas Alan Cope

Seen from a block away on a bright morning, all this meticulously achieved quasi-symmetry virtually disappears, leaving an almost featureless brilliance. That changes as the day goes on. Light shining through the marble turns amber from the ferrous oxide in the stone, so that people inside are bathed in an orange glow during the day and, in the evening, the interior illumination gives the whole building an unearthly, striated radiance. Audiences will pass through the lobby or linger in the clubby restaurant and bar (open even when the theaters are dark), designed by Rockwell Group, move on up to the theater level, and file along the building’s perimeter with the stone curtain on one side and the mystery box of theaters on the other. They become figures in a shadow play.

Inside, a Goldilocks-like suite of three rooms — tiny, spacious, and in between — can be deployed in various combinations or fused into one big auditorium. Walls fly away, stages lower and lift, orchestra pits open up, and mobile towers glide into position. Seating can be raked, arranged in the round, or eliminated entirely. “Fractions of an inch become important,” says Gavin Green, a founding partner of the U.K.-based theatrical consulting firm Charcoalblue. “All the components move robustly and with a high level of precision. But it’s not just a machine or a black box. The room is packed with personality and warmth. It’s a celebration of those people onstage, and it’s about trying to get a tightly focused relationship with the audience.”

“Intimacy was the driving force,” Rauch agrees. “Being able to go from an 80-seat room to 1,000 people means that we’re not putting projects into venues that are too intimate or epic for the scale of the work.” In theory, producers and artists can leaf through a catalogue of more than 60 different settings and pick the one that makes sense for a specific show. Flexible facilities are in vogue, but at least in New York, they have a disappointing record. When Zankel Hall opened beneath Carnegie Hall’s main stage in 2003, it was supposed to switch effortlessly from end-stage to flat-floor to in-the-round setups, but it rarely did until this year. At Hudson Yards, the Shed’s gantry can roll back over the building so that the puffy-sided extension retracts, but it hardly ever has. Ramus insists that the Perelman will be different because there is no default setting to encourage complacency and because the shifts from one configuration to another have been thoroughly tested, timed, and costed out.

He thinks of the building as a collection of presets rather than a totally flexible space — more like a smartphone full of specialized apps than a mainframe computer that must be programmed from scratch. Even the most radical artist might prefer a large but finite menu of options to an intimidatingly blank slate. Limitations can be liberating.

Annie-B Parson’s new dance program, The March, which opens in December, will use a nine-sided in-the-round setup with the audience on steeply raked risers. “I’ve imagined for a long time that you could have a room where you can see the body from all directions. It feels like a gem that’s hung so you see its facets in the light and everyone perceives it differently,” Parson says. That sounds sublime in principle, but it could be a challenge for lighting and sound artists who have to avoid blinding audience members or creating dead spots. And so the show’s sound designer, Tei Blow, was delighted to discover a built-in set of towers on which he can affix speakers without hanging them from the ceiling and cluttering up sight lines. “In a lot of new venues, everyone’s bought into the you-can-do-anything-here psychology,” Blow says. “But it’s more valuable when you can see clearly what the instrument is and what it does. That’s what gives you all the richness of detail.”

There’s something quietly exhilarating about the combination of precision and possibility nested in a translucent shell. Amid the whole collection of grandiose structures at the World Trade Center, the Perelman alone seems to deal so elegantly with the site’s daunting range of demands. And the story of those technical challenges and intricate solutions shouldn’t overshadow the basic, improbable fact of the building’s existence. An act of destruction; a political atmosphere of nervousness and rage; a rebuilding process shot through with rhetoric, conflict, fear, and lawsuits; the disappointment when an idealized master plan yielded real-world architecture — all of that could have killed off the most fragile component of the whole project, a home for live performance. “It seems hard to believe, but we actually got a unique and truly ambitious cultural center,” says Carl Krebs, a partner at Davis Brody Bond. “Of all the hopes and ambitions we had for the World Trade Center site, this one was realized.” The question now is whether artists, administrators, and audiences will rise to the opportunity and make all that diligence and invention pay off.

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