Unlike one of his predecessors at the New York Times, Herbert Muschamp, architecture critic Michael Kimmelman has seldom written a rave or a rant about a particular building. His years as an art critic taught him not to hew too close to the avant garde elites in the art world, and he has been duly cautious in poking the sleeping tiger of the starchitect class. Stephen Holl has gotten more than his share of dutiful praise from Kimmelman, as if he should merit such kid glove treatment. Avoiding any mention of the work of Robert A.M. Stern and Partners has kept him in the good graces of the AIA and the academic establishment. And, to his credit, Kimmelman has written more pieces on developing-world issues, housing policy, and climate-change challenges than on individual buildings and their designers. He has also steered clear of some controversial battles in the Manhattan real estate arena.
So when an unqualified rave of the Perelman Center for the Performing Arts, near Ground Zero, appeared in September, I was intrigued. Upon reading the review, I could not help but delve into the inner workings of this high-tech machine for showing off. I had seen the competition entry and was nonplussed by its extravagant claims as a truly innovative theater complex. Had REX, and Joshua Ramus, pulled a rabbit out of a hat?
A month after Kimmelman’s piece, the Times ran a glowing profile of Ramus (formerly Prince-Ramus, a rather Egyptian title) and published glamorous photos of the architect in his building. Bedazzled as much by the man as by his work, Sam Lubell, the author of the piece, crowned the young maestro as the next big thing in his profession. An enviable résumé didn’t hurt: Yale B.A., Harvard M.Arch., and work at several world-class firms, not to mention his prowess as an Olympic-class oarsman. Dressed in black, he looked every bit the leading man in the next installment of The Matrix saga.
In his review, Kimmelman glossed over the fact that Ramus had been a partner with Rem Koolhaas in OMA, New York, and had claimed responsibility for the design of the Seattle Central Library, usually ascribed to the senior designer. As now generally acknowledged, the extraordinary hype that followed that building’s completion has given way to post-occupancy damnation of all those involved in its design and construction. Seattle users now avoid it like the plague, making way for architectural tourists who see no one reading or borrowing books. It’s also falling apart at an alarming rate.
No longer hiding behind his Dutch mentor, Ramus established his own firm, REX, and has prospered over the past decade. A slick performing-arts complex at Brown University won praise from many corners, establishing REX’s bona fides. It’s fair to say that building a lauded major building at the World Trade Center site would establish any architect as part of an elite group of name-brand designers.
“With the engineering costs associated with gimmicks like the cantilevered entrance in mind, one needn’t look hard for where the money went. This is clearly one of the most expensive baubles ever constructed in the U.S.”
Is the Perelman Center such a paragon of performing arts technology and design? Though only time will tell with actors, directors, musicians, and producers as judges, I am suspicious of several claims trumpeted in Kimmelman’s piece. First, I do not buy the hype associated with its marble facades that glow in the evening. Given the obscene price tag of $500 million (over twice that of Rice’s new opera house), expectations should be very high indeed. And with the engineering costs associated with gimmicks like the cantilevered entrance in mind, one needn’t look hard for where the money went. This is clearly one of the most expensive baubles ever constructed in the U.S., running over its budget by 200%.
Funded not only by the Perelman family but also by the likes of Michael Bloomberg, the building’s patrons could not afford to fail, especially in the fraught environs of Lower Manhattan, where Santiago Calatrava lost his reputation and several major firms have struggled to complete projects. Glitzy facades are a dime a dozen near the 9/11 Memorial, so a glowing amber cube may be a breath of fresh air amid the giants, as Kimmelman avers. But with black-veined marble resembling leopard skin? Ramus’ OCD is on display there, as all of the individual panels had to be book-matched like fine woodwork (cha-ching!). Bob Dylan will be laughing when he refuses to perform here—Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat indeed.
There are three multiform theaters in the upper levels of the building, ostensibly the reason for its construction in this location. The conceit of putting several sculpted spaces inside a rectilinear box is hardly new; Alvar Aalto made several magnificent performing arts buildings this way. In his case, each special theater needed its own perfect shape to accommodate plays, operas, and concerts. Like many great architects, Aalto understood that theater is an art form with precise and very limiting factors for designers. Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonie let those conditions dictate both the interior and the exterior, with the former a clear benefactor.
And Off-Broadway theaters, such as LaMama and Playwrights Horizons, have functioned beautifully in all sorts of purpose-built and renovated spaces for decades. Who will rent three multiform halls with unduly complex technologies that require tweaking with every performance?
Typical of his generation, Ramus has ignored such precedents, turning back to the ideas associated with George Izenour (1912–2007) in placing his trust in machines rather than in purpose-designed theater spaces. Izenour taught for decades at Yale with the likes of Ming Cho Lee, and for a time in the 1970s and ’80s was awash in commissions for performing arts centers around the world. His theory of multifunction, variable seating halls took the theater world by storm—until reviews came in about the advantages and disadvantages of such high-tech wonders. As Izenour had it, there would no longer be a need to seek out rentable halls with specific back-of-house and seating limitations. But he vastly overestimated the technological and functional superiority of his theaters. In Houston, the orchestra has sealed off the upper levels of their Izenour-designed concert hall because the giant wall and ceiling moving machines ceased to function properly, and audiences hated the seating arrangements. Most of his halls and theaters no longer rely on any Izenour system save for his patented light-dimming technology. No serious scenographer or theater architect employs his ideas today. And Off-Broadway theaters, such as LaMama and Playwrights Horizons, have functioned beautifully in all sorts of purpose-built and renovated spaces for decades. Who will rent three multiform halls with unduly complex technologies that require tweaking with every performance?
The Perelman’s three multiform theaters, which sit wrapped in giant trusses to support their mechanized metal gadgets, are very like the marble panels mentioned above: showpieces that were not necessary for the building to function as advertised. With overreaching goals and obsessive attention to “innovation,” REX firm not only overdesigned this otherwise useful performing venue, but created a potential disaster for those who will use it on a daily basis. Ramus’ lavish presentation drawings and videos show dozens of potential configurations for the three spaces, but who will require such incredible flexibility? And will rents, surely to be among the highest in the city, merit using a 500-seat theater downtown when Broadway offers cheaper alternatives? Doubtful, especially in an area where arts groups have not flourished.
Kimmelman also points to one of the building’s clever and necessary conceits—the appearance of floating more than 20 feet above grade—as an example of the designer’s superior talent. However, the Port Authority owns the ground-floor rights to the site and demanded that its functions be above that level. Employing the cliché of a “floating cube” and paying his engineers handsomely to make it happen, Ramus decided to go one step further by tucking the stairs under the building, and in deep shadow. That dark corner sets the tone for the two floors above—purportedly lively public spaces for dining, parties, weddings, and fundraising events. But darkness is everywhere once one enters: black walls, black columns, dark floors and carpets, and lots of metal make it difficult for even bright LED lighting to cheer up the interiors. Apart from a dining room designed by David Rockwell, this is a kind of steampunk stage set, and it follows plenty of nightclubs in using a sci-fi precedent. Why here? The upper levels are little different, and only red seat cushions brighten the theater interiors.
With so many wrong turns, should one trust this new starchitect with more public commissions, especially when there is so much riding on success? It’s a fair question, one that Kimmelman does not ask. By going with the art museum crowd, and its glamorous patrons, he has forgotten his brief as an arbiter of both taste and the public good. Art does not require the latter to succeed. Architecture depends upon it, and this building fails where it really counts. Admire its glow in the evening, but beware its dark recesses.