Before establishing the practice of REX in 2006, Joshua Ramus was a partner of Rem Koolhaas at OMA and played a leading role in the design of the Seattle Central Library and the Wyly Theater in Dallas. He has just completed two more theaters that put technology at the service of artistic innovation: the Lindemann Performing Arts Center at Brown University and the Perelman PAC at the World Trade Center in New York.
Ramus showed me through the Perelman which, in its purity of form, accessible scale and complexity of operation is by far the most interesting piece of architecture on this overburdened site.
Perelman is sandwiched between Calatrava’s overwrought commuter train station with its non-functioning wings, the memorial pools that occupy the footprints of the twin towers, and Snohetta’s memorial museum. It’s overshadowed by a trio of glass office towers. A cube of boldly figured, translucent marble rising from a granite base, it has the presence of a minimal sculpture by day and a back-lit beacon after dark. It rests on the foundations of an earlier arts project. In 2014 a developer-led board of trustees rejected Frank Gehry’s design for galleries and a dance company ten years after it was first proposed, and selected REX to create an experimental theater for a new non-profit group.
Like the Wyly, the Perelman is a vertical stack of functions. Beneath the solid plinth that contains a loading dock and services are two rail lines and a double-height truck route. Steps carved from the plinth lead up to the lobby and restaurant. Above are the backstage spaces for the performers and, on the fourth floor, a lofty L-plan performance area with a scene elevator occupying the fourth quadrant. Four guillotine walls can be lowered in 15 seconds to define three separate auditoria and the spaces, balconies and seating can be reconfigured, manually and automatically, in 62 different ways. While making the classic feature Citizen Kane, Orson Welles described a movie studio as “the greatest train set a boy ever had”, and the Perelman offers a similar potential to stage directors.
“We learned a lot from the Wyly,” says Ramus. “Architects have proposed the idea of a totally flexible performance space — a black box — for a hundred years. But companies often lack the tools or imagination to transform the space. Universally flexible spaces are often straitjackets. Typically, the companies like the Wyly build something and don’t have the time or money to change it. At the Perelman we provide pre-sets, a series of four distinctly defined stage orientation, each with exemplary acoustics and sightlines. A director knows exactly how much time and money is needed to change from one to another and can then consider minor deviations”.
Already, a few weeks after the opening, the resident company is exploring additional options. Raked seating for 400 in the main space can be reconfigured in 45 seconds and balconies are semi-automated, allowing a proscenium stage to thrust out and to be tightly enclosed as a courtyard in the Shakespearean tradition. That versatility challenged the acoustician at every stage of development. As Ramus recalls, “he asked for a space without physical boundaries. Our ears developed when we were listening for predators in a forest clearing at night. Here, the boundaries are set by wall screens of wooden crown moldings that reflect and absorb sound and the acoustics can be quickly tuned by rotating rollers that are hard on one side and soft on the other”.
The structure posed an even greater challenge. Ramus describes this theater as “a box within a box within a box. Each of the three performance spaces is mounted on separate base isolators to exclude noise and vibrations. To support the structure, there are seven randomly located columns installed for the earlier project, and to reduce weight the entire building is constructed of steel, not concrete, above the blast-proof granite plinth”.
“It’s easy to express complexity in architecture, but much harder to make a complex building appear simple and light”, says Ramus. To provide marble for the curtain walls, 32 widely scattered quarries submitted bids and the stone consultants settled on a small quarry in Portugal. They selected high-iron marble that is less expensive and produces a warm glow as light passes through. Since the theater is close to the memorial, it was forbidden to use signage so the building had to have a distinctive signature — one that would contrast with the expanses of concrete and glass on neighboring buildings.
Ramus recalls the complexity of fabrication and assembly. “We had to pre-order 20 percent of the marble at a time in a process that extended over 18 months and required cutting and finishing in three French and German locations. By some miracle we achieved consistency of color and grain from start to finish. Very thin sheets can bulge, as happened in the cladding of Alvar Aalto’s Finlandia Hall in Helsinki. So the marble had to be laminated between glass to protect it from discoloration and distortion. We wanted stone as thick as possible to limit breakage but thin enough to minimize the differential of thermal expansion between marble and glass”.
To give each façade a strong and identical surface pattern, the architects devised a combination of diamonds at the center, flanked by chevrons to either side, even before they saw samples of the marble. A team of five had to replicate that design from stacks of panels as though they were creating an abstract artwork. As Ramus notes, “certain patterns have a huge impact. Facial recognition is so ingrained that we register diamond shapes as eyes”. Thus the diamonds become the eyes of a windowless building, and the laminated curtain wall serve as a veil tautly drawn over a giant machine that controls the spaces where actors and audiences gather.
Location: new York, USA
Size: 12.000 m2
Design Architect: REX Architects
Executive Architect: Davis Brody Bond
Acoustics: Threshold Acoustics
Restaurant and Lobby Interior Design: Rockwell Group
Structures: MKA Magnusson Klemencic Associates, Silman
Project Manager: DBI
Construction Manager: Sciame Construction
Photography by Iwan Baan, courtesy of the Perelman Performing Arts Center and REX Architects