Acclaimed by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1991 as one of the ten most influential living American architects, Cesar Pelli (born 1926) has de signed some of the most remarkable buildings—ranging from high-rise office towers to private homes—in the late 20th century.
Chief among Pelli's award-winning achievements are the San Bernardino City Hall in San Bernardino, California; the Pacific Design Center Phases I and II in Los Angeles, California; the United States Embassy in Tokyo, Japan; and the World Financial Center and Winter Garden at Battery Park, New York, which has been hailed as one of the ten best works of American architecture designed since 1980.
Though Pelli trained as a modern architect in the 1950s and was influenced by Eero Saarinen, he remains unclassifiable. His structures have been praised by Douglas Davis in a 1986 Newsweek article as "lyrical, technically sophisticated buildings that are neither 'modern' nor 'postmodern.' Each attempts to please on many levels at once, captivating clients and public but frustrating critics."
Pelli was born on October 12, 1926, in Tucumán, Argentina. He studied architecture at the University of Tucumán, earning his Bachelor's of Architecture in 1949. After graduating, Pelli married fellow student Diana Balmori, who has become an accomplished landscape and urban designer and who founded the firm Balmori Associates. For the next two years Pelli served as director of design at OFEMPE, a government organization sponsoring and building subsidized housing in Tucumán. In 1952, an Institute of International Education scholarship led Pelli to the University of Illinois School of Architecture in Champagne-Urbana, where he earned a Master's degree in Architecture in 1954.
For the next ten years, Pelli worked as a designer with the firm of Eero Saarinen & Associates in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and Hamden, Connecticut. With Saarinen, whom Pelli credits as one of his greatest influences along with Le Corbusier, he served as project designer for the TWA Terminal Building at JFK Airport, New York, and the Morse and Stiles Colleges at Yale University. Though he had briefly returned to Argentina to teach architectural design at his alma mater, Universidad Nacional de Tucumán in 1960, Pelli became a U.S. citizen in 1964.
The same year, Pelli took the position of director and vice president of design with Daniel, Mann, Johnson, & Mendenhall (DMJM) in Los Angeles. In 1968, he served as partner for design at Gruen Associates in Los Angeles and for two of his eight years with Gruen, Pelli was a visiting professor at the University of California. During this period, Pelli designed several award-winning projects, including the San Bernardino City Hall, the Commons of Columbus in Indiana, the Pacific Design Center, and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.
In 1977 Pelli moved to Connecticut to become the Dean of the School of Architecture at Yale University. That same year, he founded Cesar Pelli & Associates in New Haven with his wife Diana and Fred W. Clarke. Since the firm's inception, Pelli has designed each of its projects, although he actively solicits input from the more than 60 architects and designers who are employed in his studio. In 1984, he resigned his post at Yale, devoting full attention to his firm, but continues to lecture on architecture.
One of the jewels in Pelli's crown of large-scale design is the World Financial Center and Winter Garden at Battery Park City in Manhattan. Begun in 1991, this project features 4 office towers ranging in height from 34 to 51 stories, the Winter Garden, and a 3.5 acre landscaped public plaza. Other gems in Pelli's portfolio include the expansion and renovation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City; the North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in Charlotte; the Arnoff Center for the Arts in Cincinnati; the Francis Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College; Herring Hall at Rice University; and the Boyer Center for Molecular Medicine at Yale University. Commenting on Pelli's design of Carnegie Hall Tower, Douglas Davis has pointed out in Newsweek, that "[despite] the vast discrepancy in their sizes, the new skyscraper and the earthbound … hall seem of a piece. Over and again, Pelli's buildings defer—despite their ingenuity—to their sites and to their context. His architecture is unfailingly humane and courtly."
This observation corresponds with Pelli's own philosophy, which he articulated in the August 1988 issue of Architectural Digest: "We should not judge a building by how beautiful it is in isolation, but instead by how much better or worse that particular place … has become by its addition. If the city has not gained by the addition, we should seriously question the design and the building itself, no matter how beautiful and theoretically correct it may be." Other noteworthy buildings designed by Cesar Pelli & Associates include the Norwest Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota; Nations Bank Corporate Center and Founders Hall in Charlotte; the Mathematics Building and Lecture Hall at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton; North Terminal at Washington National Airport; and the Physics and Astronomy Building at University of Washington/Seattle.
In 1994 construction began on twin office towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, completed in 1996. Cesar Pelli & Associates served as design consultant to the architect-of-record, Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC) Berhad Architectural Division, as well as a host of other U.S., Canadian, and Malaysian firms on an architectural project which ultimately surpassed the Sears Tower in Chicago as the world's tallest building. The office towers are the first phase of a multi-billion dollar development project situated on a 97-acre site in Kuala Lumpur City Centre. Petronas, Malaysia's national oil and gas company that owns 51 percent of KLCC, occupies the towers.
In his distinguished career as an architect, Pelli has been the recipient of numerous awards from such institutions as the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Institute of Architects, the National Academy of Design, and the International Academy of Architecture. He has been awarded the 1995 AIA Gold Medal and the Charles Bulfinch Award; in addition, he is the only architect to have received a Connecticut State Arts Award and is among one of the few American architects to receive First Class licensure in Japan. Several honorary degrees have been bestowed upon Pelli, including any honorary doctorate from the Pratt Institute in New York City.
Perhaps Pelli's greatest reward, however, is to explore one of his completed structures; as he stated in his 1988 Architectural Digest essay, "[there] is nothing quite so pleasurable for me as to visit my buildings when they're finished and occupied. It is like being part of a miracle taking place. Months and even years of caring and dreaming become a reality."
Contemporary Architects, 3rd edition, edited by Muriel Emanuel, New York, St. James Press, 1994, pp. 738-41.
The Encyclopedia of American Architecture, 2nd edition, edited by Robert T. Packard, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1995, pp. 475-79.
Architectural Digest, August 1988, pp. 29-32, 36; July 1990, pp. 124-27, 178; August 1991, pp. 178-79.
Architectural Record, August 1991, pp. 100-07.
Civil Engineering, July 1994, pp. 63-65.
Newsweek, August 4, 1986, p. 61.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from biographical materials acquired from Cesar Pelli & Associates Inc. Architects, 1995.