The Story of the Marble-Clad Cube That Became the Perelman Performing Arts Center
Three theaters and more occupy a site that took years to fill
Eight years ago, the site of the majestic, marble-clad cube that is now the Perelman Performing Arts Center in Lower Manhattan was a massive hole in the ground: a temporary PATH station, subway lines, a spiral truck ramp and the beginnings of a building started by another architecture firm littered the inside of a 70-foot pit.
REX Architects took over the project from Gehry Partners — of starchitect Frank Gehry fame — after winning a design competition. The assignment was to build a performing arts center with room for several hundred people that pays tribute to the solemnity of Sept. 11 and its nearby memorial.
“There was so much going on below the surface, and it took a huge amount of work to make sure we were hitting all these infrastructural things we needed to hit,” said Alysen Hiller-Fiore, a director at REX who oversaw the $500 million project. “[There were] structural gymnastics that went into us planning for a much smaller building, from the perspective of inheriting a pre-existing condition, down to the location of our loading dock and the scene lift,” which had been installed before REX got involved.
So the firm spent years doing structural and engineering work below grade — with the help of structural engineering firm MKA — and came up with a design that could work on the unusual site. They set a cube-shaped steel cage inside the pit, and then slotted in a sloped rectangular granite base around it. The base has a triangular cutout in the front to allow for a large entry stairway, and a corresponding recess in the main structure allows people to look out onto the main stairs from seating arranged around floor-to-ceiling windows inside. The marble exterior cantilevers over the granite base, with the lights from the lobby peeking out slightly from inside the dark interior at the top of the stairs.
Above-ground construction began in 2019, following two years of subterranean infrastructure work, and marched on through the pandemic until the building formally opened to the public in mid-September.
REX also spent a year and a half bookmatching the marble on the facade, which is composed of 5,000 pellucid cream-colored stone strips from a quarry in Portugal. They photographed the surface of the quarry and then cut the photo into rectangular strips, arranging them so the veins on the stone radiated outward in both directions. The pattern gets calmer near the edges and repeats on all four sides of the facade. The marble is also encased in glass on both sides, both to protect the stone and to make the building more energy efficient. The marble sheets are thinly sliced and translucent, meaning that sunlight can shine through to the interior during the daytime, and interior pendant lights illuminate the facade from within at night.
“Throughout the day, the light starts to glow from the inside, and you start to realize the life and creation happening inside the building,” said Hiller-Fiore. “That cream marble, when you backlight it, it glows amber because of the iron.”
The inside of the building turned out to be equally complex. The lobby, connected restaurant and bar, and outdoor terrace are all on the second floor and open to the public. Rockwell Group handled the design of those spaces and chose dramatic ceiling details.
A series of curved wooden lines run across the top of the restaurant and lobby, shaped like a three-dimensional maze accented with LED lighting. Midcentury-inspired seating — orange and red velvet couches, white upholstered armchairs, wooden booths with blue-upholstered bench seats — dots the space, which also includes a long, marble-topped bar in front of floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked with booze. In the evenings, bartenders sling cocktails, and there is a long table by the door to the terrace where visitors can buy drinks and bar snacks to bring outside. A separate lobby seating area with a small stage also offers a place for people to watch more casual performances.
And then there are the theaters themselves. Above the lobby is a floor for performers and stagehands, with dressing rooms, prop rooms, and special mechanical lifts for the stages and orchestra pits. Next up are the three theaters: the John E. Zuccotti Theater, seating 450 people; the Mike Nichols Theater for up to 250 people; and the Doris Duke Theater for up to 99 people.
The trio of theaters is acoustically insulated from the rest of the building using foot-thick rubber pads, to ensure noise from the subways and PATH trains below does not disrupt performances. The performance spaces can be rearranged using heavy, acoustically insulated sliding walls, movable seats and movable stages. They can be reconfigured, too, into more than 60 different combinations ranging from 90 to 950 seats, including a proscenium in the round, a traditional concert hall, and more intimate black-box theater arrangements.
There’s also a two-level system of catwalks for theater and scene rigging, 56 separate lifts, and a set of removable catwalks and detachable audience balconies, allowing for even more flexibility in seating and stages. Four sets of stairs and elevators give performers easy access to different parts of the theaters from the floor below.