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The Flexible Innovation Behind the World Trade Center’s New Performing Arts Theater

Credit: Luxigon

If you have been to the World Trade Center Memorial in the past few months then you are one of the lucky few to see the final shape of the new Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center. The $275 million dollar 9,000 square foot building might not look like much now; it is essentially a cube, giving it the nickname ‘Mystery Box.’ But when it is finished it will be one of the most innovative and, maybe more importantly, most flexible buildings of its kind in the world. 

When finished the complex will actually house three theaters, one with 499 seats, another with 250, and a third with only 99. What makes the building so flexible is that each area is connected by large vertically-retractable guillotine doors that can be raised or lowered to create up to thirteen different arrangements, including one that spans the entire building and will accommodate 1,200 seats. This process is done by utilizing removable platforms, seating lifts, four moveable towers, demountable balconies, and of course a lot of money. 

The purpose of this flexible arrangement is not only to accomodate for all sizes of audiences but also to allow directors to create a completely unique theater experience. Joshua Prince-Ramus, Principal of the buildings developer REX had this to say about it:

“The Perelman Center is an immensely flexible canvas on which directors can script the patrons’ entire experience from their very entrance into the building. It is a ‘mystery box,’ a constant source of surprise for theatergoers and the community.”

Despite its malleable nature the building appears to be uncompromisingly rigid. It will have no windows and the facade will be made entirely out of veined marble (the most vain of the construction materials). But don’t let the building’s apparent stiffness fool you. During the day curtains can be raised to let sunlight in through the exterior rock and at night LEDs will project outward through the walls giving the building an almost mystical glow. 

In order to preserve the marble and help the building meet the city’s energy efficiency goals, it will be sandwiched in between sheets of insulating glass. To allow the building to hold the weight of these walls and support the rigging needed for the raisable walls the building is supported by an enormous beam called ‘Big Boy.’ The 374,000 pound, 34 foot long, and 12 foot tall beam can support a load of more that 6,600 tons and was recently put in place atop the structure. 

The flexibility designed into the theater is tough to replicate in other buildings, few have the kinds of resources that this memorial structure has. But designing around flexibility is certainly something that can be adapted to other property types. With the unknown future of office and retail demand we might start seeing more innovation around retractable walls and removable structures. The purpose of the World Trade Center development is to memorialize the past but by using some advanced design and engineering the architects and developers are also able to help us see our future. September 11th, 2001 was a tragedy we have all vowed to never forget. lts silver lining might be made one unforgettable experience at a time.

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