The art of structural complexity at the Perelman Center

Written by Bill Millard

The 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks is an occasion for reflection not only on the tragedy itself but on the city’s resilience in making the World Trade Center neighborhood a multipurpose civic asset. The original master plan by Daniel Libeskind incorporated an arts center along with the towers, memorial plaza, and transportation hub. After a long on/off/on process involving changes in design teams and recurrent pauses to accommodate nearby projects, controversies, finances, and the pandemic, construction has resumed on a challenging design by Joshua Ramus and REX Architects, with Davis Brody Bond as executive architect. The steel structure of the Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center, which topped out last June and is scheduled to open in 2023, expresses the same levels of creativity, innovation, and discipline found in its architecture and in the events it will house.

The 138-foot-tall Perelman will contain three flexibly configured theaters within an approximately cubic volume, distinguished by a bi-directionally translucent marble façade that will admit sunlight by day and glow from within by night. With the mass cantilevered above the exterior staircase, and with a site so tight and complex that construction there has been described as four-dimensional chess, the building is unique in both structure and program, says Jack Falcone, Jr., vice president of steel construction firm Stonebridge. It rests above the West Bathtub Vehicular Access ramp (providing underground truck access to the whole WTC site), which itself is built above rail tracks. “A bit of a Russian doll,” Falcone calls it. “The structural intervention system to support the Perelman was limited to only a handful of locations in order to not interfere with the WBVA program space. As such, the Perelman is supported by only seven structural columns. These stand in seven unique, non-orthogonal locations, relative to the structure above.”

The Perelman’s own program calls for 499-, 250-, and 99-person auditoria that can combine to form seven additional proportions, plus a rehearsal room; all eleven potential spaces can adopt different configurations and stage-audience relationships. Circulation, both front-of-house and back-of-house, can vary to allow different flows of patrons for entry, intermissions, and exits. The main floors, designated Trap (third floor) and Play (fourth), required “an intersecting grid of trusses,” Falcone continues, that “establishes the geometry of, and provides support for, the rest of the structure above”—which has no structural support columns above the main levels. “The balance of the building is supported by a series of vertical and diagonal columns located at the perimeter of the structure, each connecting to a girder system at the roof level. When complete, the entire perimeter of the building acts as yet another larger truss system, with the trusses at the Trap/Play level serving as the bottom chord of the system.”

The WTC site requires designs for blast resistance, Falcone notes; life-safety components such as stairs, elevators, and mechanicals are protected by a surrounding system of hardened wall panels. To meet the acoustic demands of theatrical work—particularly difficult in a space located above and adjacent to subways—the building contains a separate vibration-isolated structure supporting the walls, seating gallery, and roof of each theater area. A floating structural slab mitigates sound and vibration. The building’s combination of delicacy and robustness, achieved by an adventurous design team and expert union labor, make it, in Falcone’s view, “a Swiss watch, indeed.”

Images/video courtesy of REX