REX’s Perelman Center for the Performing Arts sits as a dynamic, silent monolith in Manhattan
Rising 21 feet above the street and resting on four levels of city infrastructure, which includes a subway and an access ramp for the Port Authority structure, the final public element of New York’s World Trade Center site sees the opening of the Perelman Center for the Performing Arts (PAC NYC) as a muted cubic volume. The project, designed by local firm REX, was developed as part of a 2023 master plan to rebuild the 16-acre historic site with structures that, according to Daniel Libeskind’s vision, are “Healing New York,” a “site of memory.” “, and “A space to witness America’s resilience.” PAC NYC is located next to One World Trade Center and across from the September 11 Memorial and Museum in Ground Zero. Spanning three levels of 12,000 square metres, the arts complex followed an eight-year process before opening to the public at September 2023. With REX’s David Brodie Bond as executive architect, the project has multiple collaborators that include Rockwell Group as restaurant and lounge interior architect, Charcoalblue as theatrical consultant, Tillotson Design Associates as lighting design consultant, and Threshold Acoustics as insulation partners.
From across the street, what makes the building stand out from its neighbors is its facade: clad in marble, the panels appear solid by day, and as evening approaches they take on a warm, translucent appearance. Thin slabs of veined Portuguese marble, slotted between glass panels on both sides and fabricated in insulated panels, envelop all four sides of the structure, lending an overall monolithic identity. The biaxially symmetrical pattern of marble veining is formed through a process REX refers to as “book matching.” During the day, as natural light filters through the building envelope, it reflects the amber glow of the marble onto the interior spaces while the exterior remains a muted monolith. Suspended LED lights illuminate the interior corridors from top to bottom, illuminating the building’s exterior reflecting an amber glow from the inside out.
With dedicated programming for music, theatre, dance, opera, film and other special events, PAC NYC was designed with the idea of providing unparalleled theatrical flexibility, fostering powerful artistic expression, and providing technologically advanced, digitally connected spaces for creative performance. REX’s vision for the center replaced Frank Gehry’s previous design—forming an assemblage of irregularly stacked cubic volumes—which was shot down due to logistical and financial roadblocks. The Gehry building was close to twice the size of the REX building, and when the latter joined, all sub-grade infrastructure had already been built as well as seven load-bearing columns erected for the Canadian-American architect’s vision of the center’s main building.
By overcoming the structural complexities arising from Gehry’s unexecuted vision, REX also faced the challenge of accommodating spaces for different performances, an essential requirement of the project brief. Reconfigurable theater design emerged at PAC NYCs as a solution to these limitations.
From bottom to top, the center’s three levels house the audience, artist and stage areas. With a charcoal gray base running centrally, a wide staircase leads to the building’s general level. Designated as a living room in lower Manhattan, the area consists of a restaurant, bar and outdoor terrace, as well as a lounge for free programming. The Rockwell Group’s lobby design positions the building in its place – and their interpretation of the glowing lobby ceiling can be seen from the street, like the signage. “Interior design becomes an invitation, architecture, wayfinding and illumination all in one,” says REX Studio.
Above this are landscaped spaces that support artistic activities such as dressing rooms and the “trap” containing the mechanical elevators underneath. The stage level is central to the building, accommodating three reconfigurable performance spaces, two scene pools, and a rehearsal hall. The John E. Zuccotti Theater, Mike Nichols Theater, and Doris Duke Theater have capacities of 450, 250, and 99″ and can be used concurrently or in combination and can be reconfigured to more than a dozen proportions and more than sixty stage-audience arrangements, ranging from 90 to 950 seats, according to the design team at REX.
The reconfiguration is achieved through a mechanism built on four massive vertically sliding walls called guillotines which can be raised or lowered to separate or merge performance spaces while maintaining acoustic separation. The center consists of different theatrical forms, from courtyard and horseshoe to circular stage and propulsion arrangements, which are modified by movable seating towers in all performance areas. Within the stackable programming of the building, to ensure the smooth performance of lowering and raising floors without the use of standard hydraulic lifts that would have added two more floors to the scheme, Rex used a series of tubes containing serrated stainless steel segments that coil and uncoil.