A Spectacular Marble Cube Rises at Ground Zero

The new Perelman Performing Arts Center is the most glamorous civic building to land in New York in years.

The official ribbon cutting is on Wednesday. You may have noticed the building under construction if you were near the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan during the past year or so. A floating, translucent marble cube, it nestles at the foot of One World Trade Center, just eight stories high, a runt in a herd of mega-tall commercial skyscrapers but impossible to miss.

The $500 million, 129,000-square-foot project arrives at a moment, and in a New York, very different from the one in which it was conceived two decades ago. Back then, the city was all-consumed by grief and fear, its economy in free-fall, ground zero still a smoldering gravesite. We were reminded just this week of the toll when the names of the thousands of dead were again read aloud.

The focus after Sept. 11 was rightly on the families of victims, some of the most vocal ones lobbying to enshrine the entire 16-acre site as a memorial; and officials struggled to reconcile those pleas with the urgent need to restore the economy and downtown. Authorities trumpeted shiny new office towers as middle fingers to Osama bin Laden, secured by new checkpoints and bollards, and surrounding the twin memorial pools.

At the same time there were downtown residents and others who argued that a retort to terrorism — and what the neighborhood needed to come back to life — was a place for the arts. “The community that stayed was steadfast in supporting a cultural component,” Catherine McVay Hughes, the former chairwoman for the area’s Community Board 1, told The New York Times in 2016. “It was important that something alive gets created here, right here, at the World Trade Center site.”

An aerial view of the World Trade Center that shows the white cube of Perelman irreverently angled slightly off-kilter. Credit…Iwan Baan

A staircase that is a stoop for the neighborhood rises under the south corner of Perelman, which is raised up like the hem of a skirt.Credit…Iwan Baan

A generation has now passed. New York has weathered other crises and faces more. Perelman opens post-pandemic, when the theater business is hemorrhaging jobs and it’s not clear how many people will return to work in offices, much less venture to the World Trade Center for an evening of contemporary dance or global pop. Ground zero remains unfinished, with major parcels still empty, and Perelman is hardly the last piece of the puzzle — just the most public, welcoming one so far that isn’t a shopping mall or a Path train station.

And the most promising.

Its architect is Joshua Ramus. He refers to the building as a “mystery box,” alluding to the three exquisitely engineered, shape-shifting theaters tucked inside it. Small, medium and large, they’re swathed in modular acoustic wood panels, resting on thick rubber pads that further dampen the rumble of subways passing under the building, and they can be combined and reshuffled into more than 60 configurations, their floors raked or flat, balconies collapsed or thrust, walls moved, stages lowered.

This trio of high-tech theaters is veiled behind a facade made up of thousands of half-inch-thick, richly veined marble panels that are sandwiched between whisperingly thin sheets of glass. The veins create lozenge-shaped patterns that ripple across all four sides of the building. After dark, when the memorial park across the street empties and office workers head home, Perelman lights up like a lantern. Its white stone turns amber. And chandeliers in the towering corridor hugging the center’s curtain wall cast the silhouettes of milling theatergoers onto the glowing marble, summoning the neighborhood back to life.

Perelman during the day, with its veined marble patterning, when the building cedes the stage to the memorial across the street.Credit…George Etheredge for The New York Times
People pass by the memorial pools across the street from Perelman.Credit…George Etheredge for The New York Times
The view from the entrance to the elevated lobby, looking back down toward the street and through Perelman’s thin marble curtain wall.Credit…George Etheredge for The New York Times

Lower Manhattan didn’t die. It flourished after Sept. 11, its residential population tripling. But the World Trade Center has remained an alien zone. An arts institution became an early casualty of the chaos. Frank Gehry was hired to design it, and then fired. Tenants came and went. The Port Authority jammed down the public’s throat a vain, profligate showpiece building called the Oculus, by Santiago Calatrava, to house that Path station and shopping mall. Dreams of an arts center gradually slipped down the memory chute.

But they never evaporated. In 2015, Ramus’s marble cube prevailed in an international design competition staged to reboot the project. The following year, Ronald O. Perelman, the cosmetics mogul, donated $75 million to rally funding.

Ramus, who is now 54, had led the design of Seattle’s Central Library more than a decade earlier, one of the very great buildings of the early century. A partner at the time with Rem Koolhaas, he co-owned their New York office. The partners then separated, and Ramus took over the office, rebranding his firm Rex.

The Seattle library clearly became a precedent for Perelman, a design of similarly obsessive rationalism, with its vertiginous, flexible interiors. I gather Ramus and his team also visited the great Milanese Chiesa di Nostra Signora della Misericordia, from the 1950s, with its matte glass shell. The most obvious source is Gordon Bunshaft’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale — not just because of its translucent marble, but for its sarcophagal aura.

The theaters in Perelman can be reconfigured into more than 60 different arrangements. Credit…Iwan Baan
Credit…George Etheredge for The New York Times

In the Perelman center’s case, the structural challenge was building it over four underground stories of knotty, immovable infrastructure — a maze of train tracks, ventilation ducts and truck ramps that service the World Trade Center site. The first 21 feet above the sidewalk also belonged to the Port Authority, for practical and security reasons.

Ramus partnered with Davis Brody Bond, the veteran New York architecture firm, and the structural engineer Jay Taylor, a senior principal at Magnusson Klemencic Associates, the engineering firm that worked on the original Twin Towers. Among the tracks and ramps, they found far-flung load-bearing points in the bedrock to support a system of belt trusses, which cradle the theaters. Ceding the Port Authority its 21 feet, they raised Perelman onto a black granite plinth, tucking an entry stair below the south wall of the building, whose cantilevered corner lifts enticingly up from the sidewalk like a pleated skirt.

The staircase becomes the closest the World Trade Center has to a public stoop for hanging out, which it needs. Fingers crossed, security won’t shoo sitters off the steps.

That stairway deposits visitors who don’t prefer to use an elevator at a lobby that serves as the building’s warm, inviting underbelly. Designed by the Rockwell Group, with a sculptured ceiling of lights tucked into spirals of wooden ribs, the lobby level features a stage, a lounge, and a restaurant by Marcus Samuelsson. From morning until late at night, this floor of the building will be free and open to the public, with a terrace that gives a High Line-level view of Lower Manhattan.

Credit…George Etheredge for The New York Times
Credit…George Etheredge for The New York Times

Superbly crafted, Perelman ultimately cost twice its initial budget, enough to support who knows how many existing community arts organizations around the city for who knows how many years. Most of the money was privately donated, with Michael Bloomberg contributing the biggest chunk, $130 million. New Yorkers may recall that, as mayor, he lobbied to include housing and schools along with offices and a smaller memorial at the World Trade Center, but his idea was shouted down.

Now he is putting his money where his mouth was, even ginning up business for Perelman like a chamber of commerce president, telling The Times “it’s a great place” for “weddings, bar mitzvahs, confirmations, graduations.”

Housing should finally be arriving at ground zero, too. Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York recently announced that 5 World Trade Center, a KPF-designed tower slated for the south end of the site, will include 1,200 apartments, 400 of them subsidized.

More subsidized units would be helpful, but that’s a step in the right direction. The World Trade Center may yet turn into a recognizably mixed-use neighborhood.

I walked the other day along that tall corridor hugging the curtain wall in Perelman, a 10-foot-wide space rising 78 feet into the rafters. Summer sunlight filtered through the marble. I was reminded of the colonnade at the Jefferson Memorial, another exalted retreat from a tourist mecca.

Then I exited onto the plaza straddling One World Trade, which Perelman plans to use for open-air events. If you look closely, you may notice that the building’s footprint is oriented at a slight angle to the skyscrapers around it. A serendipity of the underground engineering, the angle is a tad irreverent.

At ground zero, irreverence is new and good. Perelman’s success will now depend on its public space and program of events to entice visitors to the World Trade Center.

But this much is clear: Lower Manhattan could have hardly asked for a more spectacular work of public architecture.

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