New York City Welcomes a Performing Arts Center at Ground Zero

At the $500 million Perelman Performing Arts Center, the minds behind it sketch a hopeful future for a downtown arts scene for New Yorkers and visitors alike in the latest phase of the 9/11 site.

Credit (all images): Iwan Baan

To live in or even visit New York City is to be inundated with reminders of the 9/11 terrorist attacks more than two decades ago. One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the complex, is visible from all boroughs and New Jersey. Much like the twin towers that preceded it, the supertall is one of the quickest ways to regain one’s bearings when emerging from the subway and a favorite of camera-happy tourists eager to document their proximity to one of the city’s defining landmarks. Those who’ve worked in the building—or one of the adjacent towers—know the sudden solemnity evoked by being yanked from self-absorbed thoughts of commutes, chores, and deadlines as they pass the reflecting pools of Michael Arad’s National September 11 Memorial. New Yorkers past and present will never forget. But 22 years on, the site is still evolving. 

Its current stage is marked by the completion of the Perelman Performing Arts Center (PAC), a marble-enclosed “mystery box” as REX’s founding principal Joshua Ramus describes the cube rising above the ground zero site. Yesterday, it hosted Michael Bloomberg, Governor Kathy Hochul, and Mayor Eric Adams for a ribbon-cutting ceremony ahead of its official opening on September 19. In his remarks, Bloomberg, who now chairs the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, recounted the effort of working with nine governors, three states, and 13 transit lines to rebuild the site, explaining that a center for the arts was part of the plan “from the beginning.” 

The center is the product of an epic undertaking by a pages-long list of collaborators, including design architect Joshua Ramus, lobby and restaurant designer David Rockwell, and artistic director Bill Rauch. While it may be brand-new, it’s not a blank slate. The location, as much as its performers, programming, and audience experience, will play a pivotal role in the experience of seeing a play or grabbing a bite at Metropolitan, chef Marcus Samuelsson’s lobby restaurant.

It’s difficult to think of someone better suited to the challenge of designing the Perelman PAC lobby than Rockwell. At their core, lobbies are transitional spaces; Perelman’s lies between the bustling street level, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, and the upstairs performance spaces that will welcome programming as diverse as next year’s Tribeca Film Festival and a reimagining of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. Rockwell, a longtime resident of Lower Manhattan, is deeply familiar with the site’s emotional and logistical complexities—his eponymous architecture studio shaped some of the public’s earliest interactions with it by creating a viewing platform there with Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

In an interview with Surface, the architect likened designing the lobby to “creating a warm embrace” through the materiality of sapele wood ceilings with integrated lighting, textural felt walls, and panoramas of the translucent amber marble selected by REX. Ultimately, Rockwell views it as “a place where new stories are going to be made. It felt like a continuous ribbon of moving from outside and the rest of the city into the world of artists who were going to be invited here from around the world to tell their stories.”

Those stories are in the hands of Perelman PAC artistic director Bill Rauch, with whom Rockwell is collaborating on the set design for Refuge, the center’s opening concert series, which features performances by musicians who have long made New York City their home. Rauch, a Broadway veteran and former artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, wants to give “as many different audience members as many excuses to come to this building as possible,” he says, through a combination of eclectic, cross-disciplinary programming, including lobby performances that will be free and open to the public during the daytime. 

Rauch sees the depth of programming and its accessibility as an inextricable part of the “existential task” of reaching as many New Yorkers as possible. It’s part of the reason he refutes any grumblings of whether New York really needs another performing arts center. “Our location is the thing that sets us apart, because whatever performance we share in this building will be received differently,” he says of the center’s proximity to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. “It automatically sets a different tone. In terms of the work, frankly, it will open audience members’ hearts to what’s happening in this building. And that’s a gift.”

Perhaps no one has thought more about the proximity of the Perelman PAC—with its ticket holders, restaurant and bar patrons, and lively intermission crowds—to the memorial site than Ramus, who was joined by REX director Alysen Hiller Fiore in an interview with Surface. The building’s most defining characteristic is not the guillotine walls of its theaters, which can raise and lower to combine and divide its four theaters as needed, or the automated lifts and movable seating towers that can create up to five dozen seating and stage configurations. Its monolithic facade, created from luminous amber-hued Estremoz Luminati marble, has the biggest impact, even on those who never plan to set foot in the building.

The architecture, with the severity of its form and sheer size, walks a fine line. “You have this very pure platonic form,” Ramus says. “If you don’t have a means of making it human, of making it organic, making it accessible, and making it warm, it might actually have been a bit standoffish.” At the same time, sight lines between the theater and memorial were “discouraged” from the beginning, to avoid making a spectacle of the memorial site or detracting from its solemnity. Ramus used the words “disorientation” and “cocoon” to describe the effect achieved by the quietude created by the sound- and light-locks that delineate the outside world from the theaters. 

Put another way: “Stepping into this building, not creating those views and connections to the outside allows the suspension of disbelief to start,” Hiller Fiore says. “It’s all part of the sort of procession that one undergoes into the theater spaces, to give you that distance from your day, from your office, work, whatever it might be.”

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