Cesar Pelli, who designed some of the world’s most recognizable buildings, died Friday at his home in New Haven, Connecticut. He was 92.
His son Rafael confirmed the death.
Pelli’s works included the cluster of towers making up the World Financial Center (now called Brookfield Place) at Battery Park City in New York, famous for the glass-roofed Winter Garden at its center; the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, known for its bright blue glass facade; and Ronald Reagan National Airport outside Washington.
Although his work was wide-ranging — he designed the U.S. embassy in Tokyo, the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami and the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, among other projects — Pelli was particularly known for his skyscrapers.
His Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia were the tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2004. Other Pelli towers, if not record holders, commanded the skylines of cities around the world. He designed the One Canada Square tower at Canary Wharf in London; the Carnegie Hall Tower in New York; the Salesforce Tower, now the tallest building in San Francisco; the International Finance Centre in Hong Kong; the Wells Fargo tower in Minneapolis; the UniCredit Tower in Milan; the Torre Banco Macro in Buenos Aires; and the Goldman Sachs tower in Jersey City, New Jersey, among many others.
He won hundreds of architecture awards, including the 1995 gold medal of the American Institute of Architects, its highest honor.
Pelli’s success came late in life. He didn’t open his own firm until he was 50, and even then, he said, “It was only because I was forced to.” That happened in 1977, when he was chosen to design the renovation and expansion of the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.
With his wife, landscape architect Diana Balmori, and a former colleague, Fred Clarke, he formed Cesar Pelli & Associates Architects to handle the MoMA project.
The firm grew, eventually becoming Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects. The second Pelli in the name is his son Rafael, who practiced out of an office in Manhattan while Pelli and Clarke ran the New Haven office that Pelli set up in 1977 in a modest two-story building across the street from the Yale School of Architecture, where he was then serving as dean.
It was an unprepossessing location for a firm that would become one of the most prolific designers of skyscrapers around the world. It remained Pelli’s base until his death.
Although Pelli’s office thrived, the MoMA building didn’t. Completed in 1984, a portion of it was torn down in 2002 so that the museum could replace it with a larger structure by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi.
Pelli said he wasn’t hurt by seeing some of his building disappear, which he understood as motivated by changes in the museum’s mission. “Life is full of surprises,” Pelli said, adding that he enjoyed more than his share of good ones.
Indeed, he considered his entire career improbable.
He grew up in San Miguel de Tucumán, a small city in northern Argentina, where, he said, there was no architecture to speak of. (His mother was a teacher; his father, a civil servant reduced by the Depression to doing odd jobs.)
At the Universidad Nacional de Tucumán, he decided to study architecture because it combined two of his favorite subjects, history and art. But, he said, he was able to take a chance on architecture only because his parents had started him at school two years early (at the age of 5, instead of 7). Because he was so much younger than his classmates, Pelli recalled, “I didn’t have girlfriends, and I was never picked for teams.” But at the university, “I felt I could choose architecture, which was a lark, because I had two extra years to play with,” he said.
In 1952, he came north to continue his architecture training at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At the time, he said, he had no money and no plans to remain in the United States after his nine-month fellowship expired. Complicating matters, his wife, Balmori, whom he had met as a teenager in Argentina and who was with him in Illinois, discovered she was pregnant.
The couple never returned to Argentina to live. Instead, one of Pelli’s professors, Ambrose Richardson, recommended him to Eero Saarinen, the great Finnish American architect then working in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Pelli spent almost 10 years at the Saarinen firm.
One of his projects there was the TWA Flight Center at Kennedy Airport. As Pelli recalled it, Saarinen was unhappy when structural engineers informed him that the building’s two central columns would have to cross each other, forming a giant X. Saarinen asked Pelli to try to sculpt those columns into something beautiful, which, in Pelli’s account, led to the celebrated gull-winged building.
Later, Pelli was assigned by Saarinen to work on two new residential colleges at Yale, which were being built on a tight budget. Saarinen came up with a scheme to use walls of reinforced concrete with large, exposed stones — an inexpensive way of evoking Yale’s older masonry buildings. When Saarinen died in 1961, Pelli continued working on what became Ezra Stiles College and Morse College, considered exemplars of gentle modernism.
Jayne Merkel, a Saarinen biographer, said Pelli was “the real creative right-hand man” on both the TWA and Yale buildings.
In 1967, Pelli took a job in California at a giant architecture and engineering firm known as DMJM. The firm’s commercial clients wanted buildings quickly and on budget, and Pelli enjoyed great freedom as a designer, as long as he met those goals.
He became particularly well known for his experiments with new forms of glass facades, and designed numerous buildings covered in different forms of reflective glass, including glass in colored panels. But the glass skins, which obscured pretty much everything behind them (but often offered gorgeous reflections of the sky) weren’t right for every situation. At his San Bernardino City Hall, the glass wall, he said, was too off-putting and abstract. “A city hall should feel comfortable, friendly, easy to approach,” he said.
Pelli added that he had taken “a liberty” with the project that he should not have. Unlike “most of my colleagues,” he said, “I don’t believe architects have the right to experiment with people’s needs.”
In 1968, he went to work for Gruen Associates, a large Los Angeles-based architecture firm, under whose aegis he designed the Pacific Design Center. He said he had taken “a very ugly building type, which is showrooms, which are normally brick boxes,” and had “turned it into something joyful” by covering it in bright blue glass. That first building, which comprised more than 700,000 square feet and quickly became known as the Blue Whale, was later joined by a second building, in green glass. A final building, in red glass, was added some 40 years after Pelli had first laid out the original scheme for the center.
Pelli said he had been ready to leave Gruen and the corporate practice of architecture when, in 1976, he was selected as the dean of Yale’s school of architecture. Pelli moved to New Haven and settled into the famous art and architecture building designed by Paul Rudolph, intending to embrace academic life; what he wanted to do, he said, was teach and write books.
While he eventually wrote “Observations for Young Architects,” a 1999 volume that combines his personal history with his views on the profession, his plans were disrupted when he won the MoMA commission. Pelli attributed his selection in part to the museum’s financial constraints, which led the search committee to choose an architect with strong practical skills. It did not hurt that his Pacific Design Center, recently finished, had received wide and favorable publicity.
His design for MoMA was not a universal success. Critic Carter Horsley compared its interiors, with their prominent escalators, to those of a “not terribly successful” shopping mall.
But by the time MoMA opened, in 1984, Pelli had received numerous other requests to design large commercial buildings, and while he continued his association with Yale and remained in New Haven, he came to spend more of his time on large corporate projects than he ever had in Los Angeles.
Among the firm’s most memorable buildings were the Petronas Twin Towers, a pair of 88-story, nearly 1,500-foot-high buildings linked by a skybridge about 500 feet off the ground. Although the bridge turned out to have a practical purpose — it provided an extra means of egress for the upper reaches of the towers — Pelli said his goal was aesthetic: The bridge and the upper floors of the towers form a kind of gate, suggesting, particularly in Asian cultures, a portal to a higher world.
While Pelli began his career as a confirmed modernist and achieved fame initially for his creative work with glass facades, his work continued to evolve, particularly as far as skyscraper design was concerned.
Like many architects, he worried that modernism was not sufficiently expressive, and he admitted to a great admiration for many early skyscrapers. How, he wondered, could he bring some of their feeling into his work without being too imitative? At the World Financial Center in the early 1980s, he tried to find a middle ground by giving his towers different kinds of tops and exteriors that were mainly constructed of stone at their base and moved toward more glass as they rose, as if to say that they had their roots in the past and their tops in the present.
Within a few years, however, he was moving more forthrightly toward using historic form. His Norwest Tower (now Wells Fargo) in Minneapolis owes a clear debt to 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the centerpiece of Rockefeller Center in New York.
His Carnegie Hall Tower took much of its inspiration from the concert hall to which it was, technically, an addition, replicating its color and many of its details. Later, however, in buildings like Goldman Sachs in Jersey City, and the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, Pelli developed a curving tower form that appeared to bend inward gently as it met the sky, a shape that returned to modernism but that replaced sharp edges with a natural, sculptural ease. His late work would increasingly be defined by softly curving facades of glass, and a determination to find quiet, understated but memorable sculptural form, part of a lifelong search for alternatives to the boxy towers of midcentury modernism.
At the same time that Pelli was reaching for the sky, Balmori was staying closer to the ground, becoming a renowned landscape designer. Although the couple divorced in 2001 and Balmori moved her base to New York, they continued to collaborate on numerous projects, 70 years after they had met in Tucumán.
Pelli and Balmori had two sons: Rafael, the architect, and Denis, who is a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University. They survive him, as do two grandchildren. Balmori died in 2016.
Pelli never apologized for designing buildings that satisfied, rather than challenged, their owners. Architects, he wrote, “must produce what is needed of us. This is not a weakness in our discipline, but a source of strength.”