Argentine-born American architect, Cesar Pelli, is considered as one of 20th century’s preeminent architects. Born in Argentina in 1926, he completed his undergraduate studies at the National University of Tucuman, Argentina. Pelli migrated to the US, receiving his Master's degree from the University of Illinois, School of Architecture at Urbana-Champaign.
Pelli was known for his diversity of approaches and locales-- the common thread of his work was a strong sensitivity to place and environment. In public perception, Pelli was known as a skyscraper architect who created tall buildings in cities across the world.
His most recognizable work was the 452-metre tall ‘Petronas Towers’ in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which was one of the tallest in the world, and remains the tallest twin towers in the world. Pelli based the floor plan of the towers on the Rub el Hizb – an eight-pointed Islamic symbol of overlapping squares. For the first time since 1908, the world’s tallest building was no longer in the US. This was the building for which he was awarded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, and in particular, for its harmony with Islamic culture in Malaysia.
Besides ‘Petronas Towers,’ Pelli’s studio created numerous high-rise landmarks, such as: ‘Salesforce Tower,’ the tallest building in San Francisco; ‘One Canada Square Tower’ in London, the tallest building in the country from 1990 to 2012; ‘Gran Torre Santiago,’ the tallest building in Latin America; ‘World Financial Center’ in New York; ‘Torre de Cristal’ in Madrid, and ‘International Finance Centre’ in Hong Kong.
In his projects Pelli’s avoided imposing a uniform signature, but embodied preferences: orientations, materials and colors. This is evident from his perspective on architecture: ‘Design for me is not a single idea that comes complete in your mind, not like Athena born with her armour; it is more like a plant. You start with a small plant and you allow it to grow.’
His repertoire of notable projects include: ‘Pacific Design Center’ in Los Angeles; ‘US Embassy’ in Tokyo; expansion and renovation of the ‘Museum of Modern Art’ in New York City; ‘World Financial Center’ and ‘Winter Garden’ in New York City; ‘Canary Wharf Tower’ in London; and ‘Carnegie Hall Tower’ in New York City.
Each of these projects was a unique response to context. For instance, the reflective, opaque blue-glass exterior and geometric design of the ‘Pacific Design Center’ was its highlight. Likewise, the ‘Museum of Modern Art’ gallery expansion and residential tower was hailed as an innovative reworking of an important cultural landmark. Similarly, the Argentine heritage provides a greater prominence of outdoor and open spaces in Latin America—which was the hallmark of the ‘Winter Garden’ and exterior plaza of the ‘World Financial Center.’
Commenting on his design style, Pelli opined, ‘I believe it’s a mistake to have a style. We architects, today we work in too many different places, too many different uses … we need to be more responsive to what we do. We need to strengthen the quality of a place and not weaken it. If you do your own thing, you are weakening the quality of the place where you build.’
Pelli was bestowed with a string of honours and awards: the prestigious Gold Medal Award by the American Institute of Architects (AIA); Cemex's Life and Work Award; the Konex de Brillante Award; Lynn S Beedle lifetime achievement award from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH); and the Konex Foundation distinction for being the most relevant figure in the visual arts of Argentina over the past decade. During his long distinguished career, Pelli was the dean of Yale’s school of architecture, lectured and published extensively, and won more than 80 awards for design excellence.
Pelli was not confined to skyscrapers—he also designed a range of low-rise buildings, including the ‘Pacific Design Center’ in LA and the ‘National Museum of Art’ in Osaka, Japan. A cursory look makes one believe that both of them are done by different designers.
Pelli who passed away in the US at 92 in July 2019, had once said at a talk at the National Building Museum in 2012: ‘Most architects know that there are some buildings that speak, but very few buildings sing and many more are mute. We know that we appreciate buildings that sing, that's why we spend money to visit cities like Paris or Venice. It's because those cities are full of architectural music. And those qualities can only be gained overtime, building by building. So, ultimately, each building that we design may contribute, or contract to the total quality of the city.’
Hemalatha is a Chennai-based architect practising and teaching architecture; and co-founder of SIDART Photography and two centers of Globalart.