Pelli, César: 1926—

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César Pelli: 1926: Architect

Argentinian-born César Pelli is the architect of some of the most striking skyscrapers on the urban American landscape. Pelli's buildings often boast innovative new design strategies, frequently in the form of an unusually textured or rippled outer "skin." A modest practitioner in a profession known for oversized egos, Pelli rejects architectural style labels such as modern or postmodern, and instead simply insists that a building should reflect its surroundings. Time 's Kurt Andersen said of Pelli, "Remarkably, his very big buildings are thoughtful, likable, rich in detail, humane." In 1991 the American Institute of Architects (AIA) named him as one of the ten most influential living American architects.

Won American Scholarship

Pelli was born on October 12, 1926, in San Miguel de Tucumán, Argentina, a town with a rich legacy of Spanish colonial architecture. His grandfather was an immigrant from Italy, while his mother's family was criollo, the term used for Argentines of Spanish-settler descent. Pelli studied at the University of Tucumán, and earned an diploma from its renowned architecture program in 1949. He married Argentine Diana Balmori, a landscape designer, the following year.

Early in his career Pelli developed a strong affinity for the work of Le Corbusier, the French architect whose radical designs revolutionized twentieth-century architecture. For a time, Pelli worked for an Argentine government agency that sponsored and built subsidized housing, and then won an Institute of International Education scholarship and came to the United States for further professional training. Between 1952 and 1954 he worked toward earning an advanced architecture degree from the University of Illinois at its Urbana-Champaign campus. After graduating, he joined the prestigious firm of Eero Saarinen and Associates. The Finnish-American Saarinen was a leading name in modernist architecture at the time, and Pelli has said that the renowned Michigan firm had a tremendous influence on his own work. The architects in Saarinen's offices worked collectively, and studied design problems through the use of models.

Years in New York and Los Angeles

During his ten years with Saarinen as an associate architect, Pelli worked on one of the firm's most significant commissions, the Trans World Airlines Terminal Building at John F. Kennedy International Airport outside New York City. He was also involved in the design and construction of the Morse and Stiles Colleges at Yale University. In 1964 Pelli joined Daniel, Mann, Johnson, & Mendenhall, a Los Angeles architectural firm, as its director of design. In 1968 he became a design partner with Gruen Associates, another Los Angeles firm, and spent the next eight years there. During that time, Pelli designed the earliest examples of what would become his own landmark architectural style, the Pacific Design Center and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.

At a Glance . . .

Born October 12, 1926, in San Miguel de Tucumán, Argentina; immigrated to the United States, 1952; naturalized citizen, 1964; son of Victor V. and Teresa S. Pelli; married Diana Balmori, December 15, 1950; children: Rafael, Denis. Education: University of Tucumán, Dip.Arch., 1949; University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, M.S.Arch., 1954.

Career: Began career in Argentina for agency responsible for subsidized housing; Eero Saarinen and Associates, Bloomfield Hills, MI, and Hamden, CT, associate architect, 1954-64; Daniel, Mann, Johnson, & Mendenhall, Los Angeles, director of design, 1964-68; Gruen Associates, Los Angeles, design partner, 1968-76; César Pelli and Associates, New Haven, CT, principal, 1977. Dean of the School of Architecture, Yale University, 1977-84; has taught extensively in the United States and South America.

Member: American Institute of Architects.

Awards: Firm of the Year, American Institute of Architects (AIA), 1989; AIA named Pelli as one of the ten most influential living American architects, 1991; AIA Gold Medal, 1995; Charles Bulfinch Award; American Academy of Arts and Letters (academician); International Academy of Architecture (academician).

Address: Office: César Pelli and Associates, 1056 Chapel St., New Haven, CT 06510-2402.

In 1977 Pelli was appointed dean of the Yale School of Architecture. He also decided to open an architectural firm in the New Haven area, realizing that he might miss some of the more creative design aspects of his work. He told Time, "I came east without a [design] job, without connections, without a client, nothing. My intention was to be a teacherand maybe do kitchen additions." With his wife, he founded César Pelli and Associates in New Haven, and proceeded to win a far more impressive commission than a kitchen renovation: the renovation project for New York City's Museum of Modern Art, with the addition of a residential tower. Pelli asked a former colleague, Fred W. Clarke, to join him, and by 1984 César Pelli and Associates had won so many top commissions that Pelli decided to resign from his position at Yale. One of his landmark buildings from this era was the World Financial Center and Winter Garden at Battery Park in New York City, adjacent to the World Trade Center complex. According to the Encyclopedia of World Biography, this project was hailed as one of the ten best works of American architecture designed since 1980. Its four towers and landscaped public plaza opened in 1988. The commission helped earn César Pelli and Associates the AIA's 1989 Gold Medal for Firm of the Year.

Designed World's Tallest Building

Pelli's other buildings include the San Bernardino City Hall in San Bernardino, California, Herring Hall at Rice University in Texas, the Princeton University mathematics building, and several impressive skyscrapers. The 57-floor Norwest Center in Minneapolis is a dominant part of the Twin Cities skyline, and Pelli's Canary Wharf Tower in London, at 776 feet, is the tallest building in England. Pelli has also designed Carnegie Hall Tower in New York City, an extremely narrow structure just 50 feet in width. Five different shades of brick provide visual detail on its exterior. "This slender, elegant slab is like a dancer among thugs," praised Andersen in Time. When the building opened in 1990, Andersen termed it "the finest high-rise to go up in New York City in a generation." In the early 1990s, Pelli completed his 777 Tower in Los Angeles. The skyscraper featured a unique aluminum exterior skin with curved vertical ridges, which was hailed by Progressive Architecture critic Morris Newman, who wrote, "These [ridges] result in seemingly changing bay widths that play an optical game, making both convex and flat elevations appear curved. In the simply detailed lobby, the elevator bank is covered with red marble to startling effect."

Pelli has also designed the NationsBank Corporate Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the Chase H&Q building in San Francisco. He created the terminal for Washington National Airport, renamed the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, and in 1996 finished the world's tallest buildings, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The twin 88-story structures were finished in 1998 and stand 33 feet higher than the Sears Tower in Chicago. Despite such record-book achievements, Pelli is known for his modesty. "I don't feel I'm building masterpieces," he told Time 's Andersen. "If a building is a masterpiece, that happens after the fact." Awarded another Gold Medal from the AIA in 1995, Pelli did admit to being pleased by the recognition, which is the professional organization's highest honor. Ann C. Sullivan of Architecture quoted him as saying, "It reassures you that what you are doing is not only right in your eyes but in others' eyes, too."

Soaring, Light-Flooded Spaces

Pelli's structures often feature large skylights or walls of glass. He told Capital Times journalist Kevin Lynch, "I believe that everybody enjoys natural light. You can have it in many places. The openness to light does two things: It brings natural light to the materials, and opens up the views and makes you feel you are in a larger, grander space. But most importantly today, it opens the interior to the city, so the activities that take place insidein the lobbies and balconiescontribute to the sense of life and excitement for passersby on the street." Architecture critics often commend Pelli for drawing upon surrounding elements to create a unique structure that fits in with the surrounding block. As Pelli told National Real Estate Investor writer Ben Johnson, "Some architects just plop a building down in the middle of a city, and to them it is a piece of art. But that is a building that draws attention to itself, not to anything around it. Unfortunately, some buildings only relate to themselves."

In 2001 Pelli had started work on a new structure for the Enron Corporation in Houston. He was devastated by the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; the following day, thousands of workers at the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lampur were evacuated. The events have caused him to reexamine the human desire to build towards the heavens. "I imagine there will be a slowdown in the pursuit of very tall buildings for a while," Capital Times reporter Samara Kalk quoted him as saying. "In some ways, it was an attack on architecture." Pelli said that as a designer of such structures, he was tremendously affected by the images of the collapse. "All I could think about were the people and the lives, not the buildings," Kalk quoted him as saying. "Buildings can be replaced. Human lives cannot."



Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Gale, 1998.


Americas (English Edition), November-December 1990, p. 36.

Architectural Review, March 1997, p. 27.

Architecture, January 1995, p. 23.

Capital Times (Madison, WI), December 4, 1999, p. 1A; September 26, 2001, p. 1A.

Crain's New York Business, September 18, 2000, p. 41.

Library Journal, January 2000, p. 98; November 1, 2001, p. 13.

National Real Estate Investor, June 1995, p. 114.

Presentations, March 2002, p. 38.

Progressive Architecture, April 1985, p. 86; June 1988, p. 27; March 1989, p. 73; July 1991, p. 25; February 1995, p. 31.

San Francisco Business Times, August 4, 2000, p. 14.

Time, September 24, 1990, p. 98.

Wisconsin State Journal, November 2, 2000, p. A9.

Carol Brennan

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Pelli, César: 1926—

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