Defining Details of the Perelman Performing Arts Center

By Ellen Rogers

For Joshua Ramus, designing the city’s Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center (PAC NYC) was more than a noteworthy project. It was more than a complex structure, more than a performing arts center, more than the World Trade Center.

“As an architect, to do a performing arts center is exciting; as an architect, to do a performing arts center on this site is an incredible honor. But as a New Yorker who was in Lower Manhatten on 9/11, it’s surreal,” says Ramus, founding principal of New York-based REX Architecture.

He lived only blocks away from the towers on 9/11. “I probably have a more personal response to the site than most,” he says of the project.

The PAC NYC, which opened on September 15, 2023, is one of the final pieces of the World Trade Center reconstruction. The 129,000-square-foot cube has been called “delightfully deceptive.” What looks like marble is, in fact, a unique glazing system.

The project was orchestrated carefully, bringing together a symphony of architectural and glazing experts. In collaboration with façade consultant Front Inc., REX designed a façade of ½-inch translucent marble slabs, sandwiched between glass and fabricated into insulating glass units (IGU). Each of the 4,896 IGUs measures 5 feet by 3 feet and weighs 295 pounds. The panels allow daylight inside while upholding energy performance and protecting the marble from the elements.

“I can’t imagine a project being more complicated than this. It’s a performing arts center. Those are complicated, but this has not one auditorium, but three, that combine to
make ten shapes and 60 configurations. And then you take that and place it on top of this
particular site—which is absolutely the right site because of where it is—but otherwise, it’s
the absolute wrong site. It’s sitting over four stories of infrastructure, including all the Port
Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) train tracks, the number one subway line, a truck-loading route that runs around the site and a pedestrian connection.”

He continues, “We’re building a highly sensitive performing arts center over four layers
that rattle. That created this wildly complex structural problem and acoustic vibration
problem—and it’s in a blast zone. It had to be designed for high-security measures at the
World Trade Center. Then we compounded the problem by doing crazy things like this
façade. Either imposed or self-inflicted, the project’s complex.”

The Genesis

As a firm, REX believes that architecture should “do things” for its users and communities, challenging and advancing building typologies and promoting the agency of architecture.

“If we design a museum, we want to advance what it means to be a museum. If we design a
theater, we want to change what it means to be a theater. If it’s a library, we want to advance what libraries do,” Ramus says.

The PAC NYC’s design stems from two intertwining ideas to accomplish this goal. Ramus says one of the most important foundational details is the L-shape of the theater’s
three reconfigurable, different-sized auditoriums. Large movable walls and adjacent scene
docks allow the theaters to be combined or transformed into ten different proportions
and more than five dozen configurations.

The second part was its proximity to the 9/11 Memorial.

“We wanted to create something pure, elegant, respectful; something that would assert
a respectful individuality when it was in operation, which is typically early evening,” he
says. “That’s where the idea of wrapping the building in translucent marble [came from].
During the day, it would be this very calm, sedate edifice. Then, at night, it would de-materialize and glow.”

Those two ideas became intertwined in the design competition, he says, when they were
discouraged from allowing areas such as ticket sales, the restaurant and intermission spaces to be seen.

“All of that led us to wrap the building and conceal what was on the interior,” he says.
“Wrapping [the reconfigurable auditoriums] meant the more people use the building, the
less they understand it. The more mystified they are in how all these different experiences
could happen when they’re inside. They can’t orient themselves to the outside, and that
helps an artistic director guide the audience into whatever world they’re hoping to create.”

Material Perfection

To make this vision a reality, REX turned to Front Inc. and founding principal Marc Simmons.

“We’ve collaborated on dozens of projects, and the relationship has evolved such that we
[Front] assist with nearly every competition or proposal that REX undertakes, at REX’s invitation,” says Simmons, who has worked with Ramus for more than 20 years. “PAC NYC was an international competition and we were part of the REX team. We had previously done laminated glass and stone facades so we enabled this being the basis of the competition submission.”

He adds that once REX was awarded the commission, Front still had to interview and
go through a competitive bidding process for the facade consultant role. Once awarded,
Front was involved from competition through construction to opening day. The firm’s extensive scope included research, design, analyses, drawings, models and specifications, and comprehensive review of submittals, shop drawings, mockups, testing and more.
Material selection was essential to the design’s overall aesthetic. Rather than specifying a stone, REX and Front planned a process through which they specified the performance and aesthetics of the stone and glass lamination.

“We highly specified the aesthetics of the stone, hoping to guide the bidding,” says Ramus. “And in their bids, the façade contractors had to give preliminary evidence that they were sure they could meet the technical specifications.”

The façade contractors also built mock-ups using the glass and stone materials they proposed in their bids. This allowed REX to evaluate the aesthetic qualities, the technical reports of the lamination and how the materials reacted to one another, among other details.

Josef Gartner (Gartner), part of the Permasteelisa Group, was the façade contractor tasked with meeting those requirements. According to Wolfgang Rudolph, director of project management, stone selection was one of his company’s first tasks.

“We made sure that the product could be manufactured and that it could be incorporated into the façade,” he says of selecting LSI Stone in Portugal. “This was essentially the stone the architect wanted from a visual appearance.”

Once selected, the stone was cut in Portugal and sent to AGC Interpane in France for laminating. Those panels were sent to an Interpane facility in Germany for IGU production using the Quanex Super Spacer product, and then to Gartner, also in Germany, for curtainwall fabrication. Each task took about six months.

Eduardo Rosa, AGC Interpane’s international business manager, says lamination
posed a few challenges. Finding the right interlayer, for example, required testing to ensure material compatibility.

“At the beginning, we tested with one ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA), and it didn’t have what
we were looking for. We had to research and dig deeper into these products because we [Interpane] typically use poly vinyl butyral (PVB),” says Rosa. “EVA was a bit of an unknown product for us, so we went to the source in Japan where the EVA had been developed. We used [a product from Bridgestone] because it gave us the technicalities, performance and adhesion we needed. Also, it didn’t have incompatibilities with the stone, humidity or the lamination process.”

Sevasa’s LuxPrint acid-etched glass was used in the outboard lite of the IGU. This
helped ensure the PAC NYC looked like a stone rather than glass building. Rosa says the
slight acid etch on the exterior surface helps eliminate unwanted light reflections.

“So now when you are in front of it, you just see the stone. You don’t see the glass, even
though [it’s there].”

Bookmatching

Every panel on the façade is different. The result is a distinctive bookmatching aesthetic.

“I think most people think that was aesthetically driven, but it was a very intense discussion we and Front had. During the earliest days of concept design, we talked about how to create a concept that optimizes the dimension of the stone for the procurement process, how to create panels that would optimize the procurement and fabrication and shipping of the facade system.”

The entire process—from quarrying the stone, laminating it to glass, building the IGUs
and then fabricating and shipping the panels—required a significant amount of time.

“The duration meant that we had to commit to the composition of 20% of the tiles before we knew what the next 20% looked like,” says Ramus. “From a design standpoint, it was
terrifying.

“Since we had to commit to a design, our fear was, ‘What happens if, when we start
getting the next 20% or the next 20%, the stone[’s aesthetic] has changed, and it ends up
looking like a horrible mistake?’” says Ramus. “So we proposed making the facade biaxially symmetric, meaning there’s a bookmatch fold line that goes vertically down the center and a bookmatch fold line horizontally through the center. For every tile, there are four tiles. They’re identically bookmatched in both directions.”

Panel sequencing was critical for installation. “We took a photograph of every single
panel and had a virtual layout that REX designed, clearly identifying every piece’s specific location on the building,” says Rudolph. “We had to manage almost 5,000 panels to
ensure every piece was in the exact location where REX designed it to be. Making sure that, of all those pieces, there wasn’t one in the wrong spot was a logistical challenge.”

With proper sequencing in place, the rest of the installation was standard work for Gartner. The process had two main components. The first was the facade support steel, which included 35-meter-long steel beams.

“We needed to hang those steel beams and adjust them to the right location. Next, we installed the curtainwall units,” says Rudolph. This process took about nine months.

“I can’t stress enough the technical hurdles that the whole team went through successfully and that whole process, orchestrated by Front and met with incredible technical prowess from Gartner and Interpane,” adds Ramus. “As an architect watching, seeing how the
team collectively addressed all these material science issues was impressive.”

From selection to fabrication to installation, there were material challenges. Alternative products might have been simpler and with a similar aesthetic. But not for this job.

“One of the potential contractors proposed [printed glass] when we were selecting contractors, and I told the client they’re out,” says Ramus. “Anyone who thinks that’s a viable alternative shouldn’t be on this job. No. There was never any chance that at the World Trade Center site, we would print stone onto a building.”

He continues, “It’s undeniable that the design is a very obsessively simple reductive
form. And the fact that it doesn’t feel that way is precisely because the stone is a living, natural material. That’s what humanizes it; everything about the marble makes the project not static and uptight. When you’re on the inside during the day, when you see it from the outside at night, the qualities of the natural stone are evident. If we had done that artificially … I’d just do something else.”

Ramus adds that the translucency of the façade was an intentional effect.

“The building has a kind of sobriety to it, particularly during the day, but can exude a
kind of optimism and warmth in the evenings. It’s the one piece within the master plan about optimism,” he says. “I think it’s important that it [the PAC NYC] simultaneously plays well with the Memorial, which is about commemoration, but can still be unabashedly optimistic.”

Ambitious Achievement

From concept to reality, the PAC NYC took more than nine years to complete. It wasn’t
simple.

The completion leaves a lasting mark on those involved.

“The opportunity to work on such a unique project on such a special site is something that
you do probably once in your lifetime. It’s also so special that we didn’t use an existing product,” Rudolph says. “The team selected a stone [that] was visually the best for the architect and we made sure it could be incorporated into glass units and the building.” Rosa agrees.

“It’s a milestone. I don’t know if anyone else could do a similar building,” he says. “And
it was a challenge, not only for the manufacturer, but everyone involved.”

For Ramus, though, he will need time and distance before truly evaluating the work.

“I can’t see it right now, other than the combination of history and complexity and pain
[of the design]. I need some distance before I can go in and just enjoy it. You kind of have to forget why you even did things,” Ramus says. “That allows me to appreciate it or see it with new eyes and, hopefully, enjoy it, or at least see it the way others will see it. Right now, I’m in that moment where I’m super proud of it. It was a very emotional experience and a very positive one.”

Ellen Rogers is the editorial director of USGlass magazine. Email her at  rogers@glass.com and connect with her on LinkedIn.

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