Rethinking What Buildings Can Do

The founder of New York architecture firm Rex weighs in on how his buildings solve problems and make the world around them come in to focus.

Done right, architecture is about problem-solving as much as it is about aesthetics. Joshua Ramus, founder of the New York firm Rex, comes up with precise solutions that not only seem less busy than his rivals’ work but actually expand the field of vision for his clients; his designs make the world look both bigger and clearer.

Take Ramus’s 2017 redo of one of New York City’s ugliest Brutalist hulks, 5 Manhattan West. The sloping sides couldn’t be updated to current building codes without losing interior space—but then Ramus had an aha moment: He added a “pleated,” ziggurat-like glass façade that actually helps the structure shade itself, saving money and energy, retaining square footage, and also making it a lot more pleasant for those inside and out.

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Ramus, 51, says he goes for the “most elegant and most pure” approach. He started to make a name for himself heading up the New York branch of Rem Koolhaas’s Office of Metropolitan Architecture, where he worked on projects like the award-winning Seattle Central Library. In 2005 he went out on his own and today leads a staff of 25.


FROM LEFT: BURAK TEOMAN; LUXIGON

Next year comes the largest-scale test of his ingenuity: the debut of the 90,000-square-foot Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center, located near the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan. Ramus has emerged as an important voice on concert hall design, at least partly fueled by his background as a classically trained French horn player. “Architects love them because they provide a chance to do an extroverted design,” he says of the dramatic shapes concert halls have taken on, “but that often results in bad acoustics.”

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At night the partly translucent exterior—essentially a box with one dramatic wedge-shaped cut—will glow, an effect derived from sandwiching stone laminate between layers of glass, “but it still conceals activities that you don’t want to see from the memorial,” says Ramus, respectfully deferring to the 9/11 tribute.

The three main auditoriums can be reconfigured seven-plus ways, creating what he calls a “machine that encourages experimentation.” He carefully calculated how moving walls will affect performances and audience experience, adding that “even a ten-foot difference can have a radical impact.”

In 2022 Rex will also debut the Brown University Performing Arts Center, equally ambitious and flexible on the inside, but at a more boutique scale. “We’re really committed to the idea that buildings are not just representational,” Ramus says. “They can do things.”