Architecture's 'Young Savior' rebooted after the bottom fell out

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Architecture's 'Young Savior' rebooted after the bottom fell out
Joshua Ramus at the Perelman Performing Arts Center in Lower Manhattan, on Oct. 10, 2023. It took 17 years, but Ramus is lifting off. “He’s really inflexible,” said Rem Koolhaas, “which in certain conditions is extremely useful.” (Vincent Tullo/The New York Times)

by Sam Lubell

NEW YORK, NY.- Joshua Ramus really doesn’t want to talk about Rem Koolhaas anymore.

Seventeen years ago, Ramus, then 36, a diligent, buzz-cut partner at the New York office of Koolhaas’ famed architecture firm, OMA, bought out Koolhaas, took the helm of the staff of 35 and rebranded the office Rex. Since then, through recessions, competition near-misses, abandoned projects, the COVID-19 pandemic and the more routine challenges that confront new firms, he’s been wrestling with sky-high expectations, lingering doubts and Koolhaas’ XL-size shadow. With two groundbreaking new buildings, he is primed to — finally — emerge from all of this.

The structures are the Perelman Performing Arts Center at ground zero in lower Manhattan in New York City, which opened last month, and the Lindemann Performing Arts Center at Brown University, which opens in Providence, Rhode Island, on Oct. 19. It’s not hyperbole to say that both are achievements that mask brain-twisting, herculean complexity behind serene simplicity. (Michael Kimmelman, in his review in The New York Times, called Perelman “the most glamorous civic building to land in New York in years.”) Both also take theater architecture into new territory, pushing the notion of flexibility to its limits, to the point where you wonder if the whole idea of a theater — or any building, for that matter — might be changing with them.

These are the types of buildings that were more or less expected of Ramus almost two decades ago, largely due to his pedigree (Yale University, Harvard Graduate School of Design, OMA); the success of buildings he helped lead with Koolhaas (particularly, the acclaimed Seattle Central Library); and the track record of so many former OMA staffers (like Zaha Hadid, Bjarke Ingels and Jeanne Gang, who all started their firms in their early 30s). Ramus was touted as The Next Big Thing. What could go wrong?

In 2008, Esquire called Ramus “The Young Savior of American Architecture.” At the time, Ramus and Rex were working on a handful of buildings that most designers could only dream of. That included Museum Plaza, a 62-story, $397 million skyscraper in Louisville, Kentucky, that linked varied towers containing a hotel, apartments and offices, with a glazed public “island” 24 stories in the air.

But all didn’t go according to plan. Even as the accolades were pouring in, the global economy was imploding, and the Great Recession would vaporize all but one of the nascent office’s small stable of projects. Rex went from 65 to eight people in a single month, Ramus said last month, eventually shrinking to four. Adding to the injury, Ramus’ marriage to Annemarie Prince would fall apart. (The divorce prompted a child custody dispute and lead the designer to change his name from Prince-Ramus back to Ramus.)

“There was a moment when I thought about folding. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to pay salaries, pay the rent or pay my mortgage,” Ramus said in his strong baritone voice about his rock bottom moment at the depth of the recession. “But there was no way I was going to do it.” What got him through, he said — and what has buoyed him through the unrealistic expectations, the comparisons to Koolhaas, the lost projects, single fatherhood — was what he calls his “bullheaded determination,” along with his spectacular love of process: just methodically grinding out what you have to do and letting the other pieces fall into place.

“I just kept going,” he said. In lectures, he tells his students, “There’s going to be a moment when the bottom falls out, and you are going to be in your underwear at your dining room table, and you are just going to do what you do.” Architect Erez Ella, 52, who helped Ramus found Rex and now leads his own Tel Aviv, Israel-based firm, HQ Architects, said, “If something is unreachable, he will just try harder to get it. He will take on a challenge until it’s solved.”

Ramus’ unrelenting, even ascetic focus has always been an anchor in his life. Through his childhood, he channeled it into music, becoming an elite French horn player. He played in the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra, making plans to become a professional musician. At Yale, where he received his undergraduate degree, it was honed as a member of the rowing team. “There’s something about the obsessiveness and intensity,” he said. “You’re trying to perfect a thing by doing something over and over and over almost infinitely. You have to ride the edge between near explosion and meditative calm.”

He would reach the 1996 U.S. Olympic trials, making the semifinals in the single scull. And then he truly found a home in the Netherlands at OMA, where he was surrounded by people who were equally smart and unrelenting. He was mentored by Koolhaas, who drove his staff to the limit, questioned every convention, trusted associates with vast responsibility and would only take no for an answer in the face of a mountain of evidence. “Your frame of reference totally changes,” Ramus said. “You now know what it’s like to work at the highest level.”

Ramus, now living in the Financial District while renovating his loft in Tribeca, still manages to row every day, either on a machine or in the water (“If I don’t do it, my skin starts to crawl,” he said). And despite his chiseled, severe looks (he was recently featured in Vogue posing, clenched-jawed, hands in pockets, black suit over black V-neck T-shirt alongside a couture-clad model) and lecture circuit charisma (he wows clients and TED attendees alike with meticulous presentations), at heart, Ramus is a details guy who calls mission statements “deeply beautiful” and loading docks “sexy.” Don’t go on a building tour with him (even on a video call) unless you have a couple of hours to spare.

“Joshua is incredibly invested in how something gets pulled off. That’s when he lights up the most — describing the underbelly and the technical side,” said Sarah Whiting, the dean of architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design, who has known Ramus for about 20 years. Understanding and orchestrating each element of a building, Ramus said, helps keep his vision whole.

Joseph Mizzi, the president of Sciame Construction, the Perelman’s construction manager, recalls his team sending thousands of images of marble pieces, both backlit and not, from a quarry in Portugal for Ramus and his team in New York to arrange inside a digital mock-up. Staring up at the hypnotic finished product one evening this month, Ramus, whose temporary apartment is just three blocks north of the Perelman, said he would stop by its construction site every day. “Nothing could be more of a nightmare for a contractor,” he said, laughing.

A philosophy major in college, Ramus loves a good argument — one that has been so intensely stress-tested and reformulated that it is basically leakproof.

Bill Rauch, the artistic director of the Perelman, remembers debating stairway wall colors day after day for about six months before settling on purplish gray.

“He’s very smart, really rigorous and really inflexible, which in certain conditions is extremely useful,” said Koolhaas. (He added that “I have no resentment” about their professional breakup. “It had become obvious that there was a kind of situation of tension about owning the office that was not productive,” he said.)

Rex’s buildings are radical, but not in an in-your-face way. They grow out of a methodical but searching process, addressing technical constraints while leaving room for serendipity and the ability to go back to the drawing board as ideas evolve.

The Perelman (also called the PAC), a commission that Rex won in a 2015 competition after the initial designer, Frank Gehry, was dropped, was shaped by a setting that is not just a terrorist target, across from a hallowed memorial, but sits over four stories of infrastructure — train and subway tracks, loading docks, ventilation shafts — through which its branching support columns can only touch down in seven locations.

In response, the architects shifted the three-level structure to sit slightly off-axis; lifted its lobby 21 feet over a grand stair and black granite base; and clad its facade in glass-sandwiched, translucent, cream-colored marble squares hung from a massive steel truss that maximizes blast resistance. Ramus wanted the building to feel tactile and become a “mystery box,” hinting at surprises inside. Rex has made it a sober counterpoint to the memorial during the day that lights up like a veined amber beacon at night. (From the inside, its iridescent walls come alive as the sun and clouds shift.)

At the Lindemann, a shimmering, fluted (and fluted again) aluminum curtain wall nods to the intricacy of its historic campus surroundings and evokes a billowing stage curtain disappearing into the ground. To avoid the challenges of the location — including vibration from a bus tunnel and an exceedingly large footprint on Brown’s modestly scaled campus — the firm scrapped its plan and started over, well into the process — convincing school leaders to use another site that was home to Brown’s history department: the 1872 Sharpe House, which was moved to another location. The firm created a raised, wedge-shaped, glass-wrapped lobby that beckons visitors and glows from within at night.

These two buildings embody Ramus’ obsession with detailing and “exquisite restraint,” a term he uses to describe the work of one of his idols, midcentury architect Gordon Bunshaft. Inside, their auditoria are advanced machines that can enable virtually any type of creativity — at a show’s earliest conception or during the performance itself. The Perelman’s three theaters (plus a rehearsal room) can be shifted and merged into 10 different proportions and arranged into 62 seating configurations via movable walls, blinds, stages, balconies, floors and more.

The Lindemann has only a handful of configurations, but they can be transformed to accommodate wildly different uses: ensemble music, dance, theater, mixed media, cinema, narrative arts, spoken word. Ramus calls it one of the most automated buildings in the world. Even the connection between the performance space and the campus outside can change, via movable perimeter drapes.

The guts of these buildings look like futuristic factories filled with industrial mechanisms, used in unfamiliar ways: gantries, pulleys, engines, hoists, steel tracks, bridges and spiraling lift mechanisms. Ramus can rattle off adaptable supporting systems as if he were a mechanical engineer.

Pragmatic flexibility is another central pillar of Ramus’ story. His parents divorced when he was young, and between kindergarten and 12th grade, he attended seven different schools across North Carolina, Virginia and Washington state. This flexibility was sharpened at OMA, via undertakings like the Dee and Charles Wyly Theater in Dallas, a collaboration between OMA and Rex. Here, Ramus and his colleagues developed the idea of “presets,” like you see on a car radio, offering practical, preconfigured spatial choices. The Wyly theater had only four presets. Ramus calls the Perelman “Wyly on steroids.”

The new theaters, and their designer, have been lauded by Rauch and Craig Barton, the university architect at Brown, who not only point to Ramus’ clear vision but his ability to keep teams rallying around that vision, even when doubts creep in.

But they are, it should be said, a self-selecting group. It takes certain types of passionate, risk-taking clients to go on this journey. “He needs top A clients to be able to do his vision. A B client won’t have the money, time and commitment,” said Matthias Hollwich, the founder of HWKN Architects, a longtime friend and former OMA colleague.

In 2015, the Times reported the Perelman’s budget to be $200 million. In 2020, the PAC president Leslie Koch ordered what she called a “forensic” examination of the project’s costs, resulting in a final $500 million budget. She pointed to myriad factors for the change, like an ambitious initial brief, inflation, supply chain issues, COVID-19 and the unique challenges of the site. But she acknowledged that the design’s novelty and complexity played a role. “It was a long and complicated journey,” she said. “Innovating in multiple directions introduces stress. My hair was a different color when I started.”

“I found him to be challenging in a way that was energizing,” said architect David Rockwell, whose firm designed the Perelman’s wavy-ceilinged lobby and hospitality spaces. He points to “lots of hashing” over color, pattern, lighting, flow and an evolving program that would come to blend varied entry floor spaces and a lobby stage — its own performing space. “Joshua is incredibly passionate and quite obsessive, which I appreciate,” he noted. “I felt we needed to be equally obsessive about details, clarity and having a point of view and narrative.”

Ramus, 54, said that as he has matured, he’s become more willing to admit when he’s wrong (although often after the fact). And he’s gotten better at narrowing his “must-have” elements. “We’ve learned to lean into a few really strong ideas and are prepared to lose everything else,” he said.

With the two new buildings punctuating a growing list of completed work — including innovative office buildings in Washington, D.C., and New York — it appears that he’s fulfilling his early potential, even if it’s a little later than some expected. But those expectations may have been unrealistic to begin with.

“He’s had to build his proof that he didn’t need Rem. It takes a long time,” Hollwich said. “This is a milestone for him. Now he is going to bend clients toward him,” he added, “changing what clients can imagine.”

New work in the pipeline is already pushing the boundaries of convention and in many cases proving that convention can be pretty outdated. Two modular towers in Perth, Australia, are designed to adjust to market fluctuation, by shifting individual hotel, office and residential components. Rex’s Urban Mobility Centers for Kia in South Korea are set to combine digital retail (including virtual test drives) with exhibition, community and performance functions, reconfigured via demountable walls and infrastructure. And two mixed-use towers at the Domino Sugar complex in Brooklyn are set to employ mesmerizing patterns and reflections to help address issues of privacy, light and views.

Ramus is happy he got a chance to essentially start from scratch after the bottom fell out, to make something that was truly his own rather than letting the seeds of OMA just grow and grow. “I could rebuild with intention,” he said.

He is trying to ensure that as commissions arrive, Rex doesn’t grow so huge — like OMA, which has about 1,500 employees, or Bjarke Ingels Group, which has a staff of 700 — that he and his fellow office leaders can’t maintain oversight or feel excited by every project. The firm’s completing construction of its minimalist offices on the 45th floor of 140 Broadway, an elegant modernist lower Manhattan tower by, yes, Bunshaft. It will only fit 50 people, for that very reason. Ramus acknowledges this is “not always the best business strategy.” (But if there’s a compelling case for it, they’ll find a way to expand a bit. You know, flexibility.)

“My idea is we’d be humming along at 45 people, having eight to 10 really, really nice projects at all times that we just love,” he said. “That would be Valhalla for me.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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