An ethereal stone-glass facade masks the structural complexity of REX’s WTC performing arts center

More than two decades after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the reconstruction of the World Trade Center complex remains a work in progress. The effort mixes the politics of collective trauma and memory with structural and infrastructural complexity, as well as the interests of real estate developers. Dozens of master plans and architectural diagrams have been presented and shelved over the years. Today, the area is home to both memorials and shimmering commercial buildings. A crucial addition is the Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center (PAC), designed by New York-based architecture firm REX with executive architect Davis Brody Bond.

Sharing a block with One World Trade Center, whose tapering curtain wall has quickly become a symbol of 21st-century New York, the PAC strikes a marmoreal, if not funeral, note. Its semi-translucent glass stone facade, continuous on all four sides, masks serious structural sorcery beneath a veil of purist simplicity.

The south facade of the building with a visualization depicting the marble facade bathed in daylight and the same study at night. (Courtesy of REX)

The project was originally awarded to Gehry Partners and Snøhetta in 2004, but after the Joyce Theater and Signature Theater exited as stakeholders, the commission passed to REX and Davis Brody Bond in 2014. The 90,000-foot complex squares is named after philanthropist Ronald O. Perelman, who donated $75 million to the cause in 2016. Construction work, led by Sciame Construction, began in 2019 and is expected to be completed in 2023.

For REX’s founding director, Joshua Prince-Ramus, the most important aspect of designing the PAC “was to create a concept that was both respectful and successful in having a strong identity that conveyed the building as the object signifying the restorative powers of art”. He noted that the regime should be aware of its context and possess a certain sober deference.

construction team installing a building facade
Construction crews are installing the 5-by-12-foot megapanels. (Field conditions)

The PAC originated from a very complex site in New York. It’s actually the tip of the proverbial iceberg of about four stories of underground operational space owned by the Port Authority, which includes a PATH rail line and truck loading docks. This infrastructural node below precluded a conventional foundation. Instead, the design team, in conjunction with structural engineer Magnusson Klemencic Associates (MKA), received a predetermined foundation system from the Port Authority that dictated seven load paths to the concrete structure below. below, all located outside the building footprint.

Jay Taylor, Senior Director of MKA, explained what this process entails. “We were provided with a spreadsheet that lists the carrying capacity at each of these points, so we generated what we called the ‘red dot plot’ to illustrate what was happening below ground level,” he remembers. The team “had to reverse engineer the building and develop a concept that started with the foundation,” which “evolved into a system to engage all the points that support a building. Basically, it is a three-dimensional vertical truss system that carries all loads to these seven support points. (The structure also incorporates base isolators to dampen the rumble of public transport below so as not to spoil performance above.)

section of a performing arts center
A section revealing the three theaters (Courtesy REX)
architectural illustration of a performing arts center
The rooms can be reconfigured and even combined. (Courtesy of REX/Chris-Janjic)
architectural drawing of support beams
Long-span exposed steel mullions support the stone megapanels. (Courtesy of REX)

This heroic achievement is hidden behind the intensely fascinating marble facade of the project. Each elevation is almost identical and uses both horizontal and vertical symmetry whose center lines define a turbulent zone of densely veined panels. The facade design marks a new partnership between REX and facade consultant Front, continuing a partnership spanning almost two decades.

The animated marble board, set between layers of glass, “exceeded our wildest dreams,” said Prince-Ramus, who recently presented the project to A’s Facades+ New York Conference. Achieving the pattern for the facade is nothing short of miraculous, considering the great lengths the stone had to travel, starting with a mountainside quarry in Estremoz, Portugal.

marble panel detail
Matching marble panels (courtesy REX)

Once quarried, the marble was processed by Portuguese stone manufacturer LSI. Then the nearly 5,000 5-by-3-foot marble tiles, each 12 millimeters thick, were shipped to France by AGC; individual parts have been triple laminated on their exterior faces, double laminated on their interior faces and treated with a low-e coating. Their journey continued in Germany, where the manufacturer Interpane placed them in insulated glass units. Then the panels were shipped to Permasteelisa Gartner’s factory in Gundelfingen, Germany, where they were semi-unified into 5-by-12-foot megapanels, four tiles high. This size is similar to the unitized glass curtain wall panels found on any standard commercial office building, which simplified packaging, shipping and ultimately installation in the Lower Manhattan.

Taking inspiration from Yale’s Beinecke Library, designed by Gordon Bunshaft in the early 1960s, the facade of the PAC also glows at night. The stone goes almost all the way to the end of the panel, except for “a small edge sealer to protect the stone from any kind of delamination,” noted Marc Simmons, partner at Front. This arrangement “allows transmitted light to shine around the steel and aluminum [structure]which is a key aesthetic element, as opposed to a huge amount of visual shadows from the opaque frame.

This same attention to detail applies to the programming and layout of the three halls of the PAC. But that tally is misleading, Prince-Ramus said; in fact, the PAC has “three primary configurations that can be combined into 22 different configurations”. Likewise, the circulation is flexible, so that “any part of it can be defined as front or behind the house. One can share the Wagnerian experience where the public circulates around an auditorium, or one can stage an intermission zone between different auditoriums in simultaneous use.

photo of a stone quarry
Granoguli stone quarry in Portugal (Courtesy of SCIAME)
view of marble panels in a factory
The panels of the Permasteelisa Gartner factory in Gundelfingen, Germany. (Permasteelisa Gartner)

When PAC opens next year, it will add a geological glow to New York’s galaxy of cultural destinations.

Design architect: REX
Executive Architect: Davis Brody Bond
Location: New York

Construction Manager: sciame
Structural engineer: Magnusson Klemencic Associates
Front company: Gartner
Facader: Permasteelisa Gartner
stone maker: LSI
Glass manufacturer: GAC
Manufacturer IGU: Interpane

Sharon D. Cole