The only time I visited Milan, I emerged from a narrow street onto the Piazza del Duomo. As soon as I saw the ornate cathedral presiding over the open square, I started laughing—so much I couldn’t stop. The sight was so overwhelming, absurd even, that I couldn’t look at it for more than a few seconds at a time without bursting into a nervous, incredulous chuckle. I felt like I was looking at something forbidden, scandalous even. Over the course of my stay, I walked by it, next to it, behind it, and across it. I even paid to go inside.
It strikes that the point of the church’s grandeur is to do exactly what it did to me: bowl people over, command the space around it, and summon onlookers inside. Its ability to do that came at a cost, though. Over the more than 600 years that it took to build, the Duomo held something of a monopoly on architectural grandeur, and the members of the poor and working classes who participated in its construction—many of whom never got to see the building completed—likely went home to squalor.
The group of people behind the movement for “beauty” in architecture, some of whom convened recently at the 2023 Traditional Architecture Gathering, argue that buildings with such awesome (in the literal sense of the word) aims are no longer being built; that Modernism and its clean, ready-made lines have wiped aesthetic pleasure off the face of the earth in favor of “intentionally ugly” buildings. I am typically loath to wade into an argument about the definition of something as multivalent as beauty, but it seems to me worth speculating that these people, when they talk about beauty, are referring to the visceral element of architecture’s aesthetics that helps them to connect to something beyond the immediate tangible object, something bigger than themselves that’s mysterious or ethereal.
If their problem is with Modernism, specifically, then they wouldn’t be exactly wrong to say its primary aim was not exactly to connect people to the divine. Modernist churches aside, the movement’s most important projects—the ones that broke with what came before them but also set a precedent for the future—were experiments in how to bring high-quality, easily constructed buildings to more people, many of whom, especially in cities, were still languishing in dereliction. Since then, its aesthetics have been co-opted by corporate America (evidence abounds in clean-lined ads for tech companies and the slick architecture of their headquarters).
If the “traditional architecture” proponents’ problem is with a lack of grandeur in contemporary architecture, then they would be wrong: It’s 2023, and despite, or maybe because of, a litany of world-historic events in just the last few years, grandeur is decidedly on the agenda. Nowhere is that more clear than in the new Perelman Performing Arts Center (PAC), currently under construction in Manhattan’s World Trade Center complex and slated to open in September of this year.
The PAC sits at the foot of One World Trade Center, just north of the memorial pools that fill the now-empty footprints of the Twin Towers. To its southeast, Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus perches uncomfortably, its white, spiny figure resembling a gull, or maybe a gutted fish, taking flight. Just south of the pools, a new Greek Orthodox church, also designed by Calatrava, scans as a sugar cube, disturbingly precious in its diminutive scale. Across West Street, the stubby forms and flat faces of the World Financial Center, a gigantic complex designed in the early ’80s by César Pelli, participate in their own private postmodern parade. When 5 World Trade Center is completed, its 910 feet of glass-covered height will dwarf its next-door neighbor, 90 West Street, a landmarked Gothic building completed in 1907 whose 23 stories measure a mere 324 feet.
Within this landscape of architectural oddities, the PAC stands out not for its short stature (138 feet) nor for its stark geometry (it appears to be a perfect cube) but for its splendor, and more importantly, its purpose—what exactly is a performing arts center doing in FiDi? (Incidentally, one could ask the same question of Hudson Yards’ Bloomberg-funded cultural center, The Shed.) The PAC, once completed, will cost half a billion dollars; some of that budget will have gone toward the 4,896 marble panels that line its exterior. Thin enough for light to pass through them, the panels are glass-laminated on both sides to prevent warping and arranged so that the marble’s undulating amber veining creates a near-kaleidoscopic pattern. The building is beautiful—grand even.
According to The Architect’s Newspaper, the PAC has been backed by a mixture of public and private funding. This includes a $89 million grant by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development and $75 million from billionaire Ronald O. Perelman, for whom the building is named.
The building seems to be an attempt to round out the World Trade Center site as a destination all its own, a sort of micro-neighborhood between Tribeca and the Financial District. It might even seek to give the area its own Duomo-like anchor: a building that, by virtue of its distinctive beauty, summons people inside. Neither the city nor the PAC itself has made clear exactly what sort of programming the center will host once it’s open, so it’s hard to speculate with accuracy about what kinds of crowds it will attract. Despite the use of public funds for its construction, its location suggests that the PAC’s target demographic might be the few who are at home in those environs. One could speculate that part of its purpose is also to clean up those financiers’ image a bit: “culture-washing,” as they say.
Meanwhile, buildings in neighborhoods with lower average rents, where people might experience a bit of everyday architectural grandeur, or take in some art—or both—are quickly disappearing. Early last year, South Slope’s Grand Prospect Hall—a French Renaissance–style building that eventually became something of an icon for Brooklyn-dwellers—was demolished to make way for a flat-faced, gray-and-glass five-story condo building. Grand Prospect Hall, originally built in 1893, had hosted everything from union meetings to boxing matches to weddings, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2019, the East Village’s Sunshine Cinema, a five-screen theater housed in a Dutch Reformed church built in 1844, was demolished so that a nine-story office tower could take its place. As of today, four of its eight rentable office levels remain empty. This is to say: Couldn’t one $500 million performing arts center be disaggregated, that money instead put toward, say, 10 $50 million public halls, or 100 $5 million theaters, or even—given the fact that HUD provided a significant chunk of its funding—some public housing?
In architecture as in the world at large, money—and all of the things it makes possible, such as beautiful building finishes—continues to get concentrated in fewer places in New York. That is, ultimately, the problem with PAC and with buildings like it—of which there will surely be more. Sure, they are striking, but only a small portion of New Yorkers and tourists will experience that beauty. When they do, it will be under rare circumstances—a special trip, a chance encounter—and they will likely go home, maybe not to dereliction and squalor like those Duomo builders, but certainly to something less breath-taking. Buildings like PAC are a siphon for resources that could, and should, be more evenly distributed, so that more people might experience a little bit of everyday grandeur.