César Pelli obituary

Distinguished architect who designed the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and One Canada Square in London

César Pelli will be remembered as a designer of world-beating skyscrapers, but for him the quality of his projects was more important than their height. The Argentinian-American architect, who has died aged 92, is best known for the towering landmarks he added to the skylines around the world: the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (formerly the world’s tallest building), One Canada Square in London, the World Financial Center in New York, the Torre de Cristal in Madrid, the Gran Torre Santiago in the Chilean capital, the International Finance Centre in Hong Kong, and the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco.

Many of those structures are the among the tallest in their respective city or country, but Pelli preferred to judge his own work in more abstract terms: the emotional responses they generated, the clarity and economy of their designs, and their contribution to their cities as visual symbols, as spaces rather than objects. At the opening of One Canada Square, he quoted the Chinese philosopher Laozi: “The reality of a hollow object is in the void and not in the walls that define it.”

Beyond his skyscrapers Pelli designed a wide range of lower-rise buildings, including the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles and the National Museum of Art in Osaka, Japan, both of which look like the work of a different designer entirely.

‘I believe it’s a mistake to have a style,’ César Pelli once said.
‘I believe it’s a mistake to have a style,’ César Pelli once said. Photograph: Denver Post/Getty Images

“I believe it’s a mistake to have a style,” Pelli once said. “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 born in the provincial city of San Miguel de Tucumán in north-west Argentina. He studied architecture at the National University of Tucumán and married his fellow student, Diana Balmori, in 1950. Having won a scholarship to study at the University of Illinois, Pelli and his wife went to the US in the early 1950s and liked it so much they decided to stay.

For a decade (1954-64) he worked for the celebrated architect Eero Saarinen in Michigan, and then became a US citizen. He contributed to Saarinen’s curvaceous, futuristic TWA Flight Center (now a hotel) at John F Kennedy Airport, New York, and to two colleges – Morse and Ezra Stiles – that Saarinen built for his alma mater, Yale University. It was the beginning of Pelli’s long association with Yale: he was dean of the Yale School of Architecture between 1977 and 1984 and designed other buildings for the campus.

One Canada Square, London, was designed by Cesar Pelli and completed in 1991.
One Canada Square, London, was designed by Cesar Pelli and completed in 1991. Photograph: Peter Thompson/Heritage Images/Getty

In 1977 he also established his practice (now Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects) in Yale’s home city, New Haven, Connecticut, having won the commission to expand the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and build a 56-storey residential tower on top of it.

From Saarinen, Pelli inherited a principle of practical modernist minimalism, although his own design sensibility soon distinguished itself. A landmark building was the Pacific Design Center, which became known as the Blue Whale. Its form is audacious: an irregular side profile, reminiscent of an architectural moulding, extruded without variation for the length of an airport terminal and clad in a sleek skin of translucent blue glass.

The building made no apparent concession to context or even function; it was a freestanding sculptural object housing exhibition space for design-related businesses. Derided by critics but recognised as a key work of American postmodernism, it put Pelli on the map while giving little indication of where his career was headed.

The huge World Financial Center in New York, begun in 1982, was a more accurate signpost. The project, involving four granite and glass towers and a 10-storey public Winter Garden, demonstrated Pelli’s ability to organise large, complex urban schemes, and as the global city landscape came to be dominated by ambitious, corporate-backed commercial developments, Pelli’s practice thrived.

The redevelopment of Docklands in London in the 80s brought Pelli a commission for its 770ft (235 metre) high centrepiece: One Canada Square, at the time the tallest tower in the UK. Clad in linen-finished stainless steel panels and capped by a glass pyramid, it became a symbol of Thatcherite capitalism, and for some, an affront to British urban values, by dint of its height if nothing else. “I personally would go mad if I had to work in a place like that,” Prince Charles told Pelli in 1988.

The Torre Sevilla in Seville, Spain, designed by César Pelli.
The Torre Sevilla in Seville, Spain, designed by César Pelli. Photograph: David Cherepuschak/Alamy

Petronas Towers, completed in 1998, brought Pelli an even higher level of global recognition. The commission originally called for a single tall tower and a shorter one beside it; Pelli correctly assessed that it would make more of an impact to build twin towers of equal height – ultimately 88 storeys – linked by a sky bridge halfway up. Pelli based the floorplan 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 (452 metres, or 1,483 ft) was no longer in the US.

Pelli’s brand of slick skyscrapers has become something of a global cliche: a non-structural outer skin of glass curtain-wall, a regular floor plan repeated up the majority of the tower, culminating in a more considered crown at the top, and some allusion – possibly token – to historical or regional context. But to Pelli at least, each building was different and specific. “I definitely sense that there is an emotional response to the challenge of a tall building,” he said in 2017. “It’s a very emotional thing, I connect with it, I connect with what the buildings are and what the buildings wish to be, what they seek to be.”

Pelli Clarke Pelli – the second Pelli is his son, Rafael – has built more than 100 projects around the world, not only skyscrapers and offices but also residential, educational, civic and cultural buildings. Pelli was named one of the American Institute of Architects’ 10 most influential living American architects in 1991, and was awarded the gold medal by the same body in 1995. His many accolades also included the Lynn S Beedle lifetime achievement award from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH).

Pelli’s work continued to evolve, often invisibly. To the Blue Whale of the Pacific Design Center he later added new, equally sculptural buildings, one bright green, one bright red. Later, low-rise buildings such as the National Museum of Art in Osaka (2004) and the Connecticut Science Center (2009) also took on more sculptural qualities. In April this year the Salesforce Tower (326 metres, or 1,069 ft, 2018), was named best tall building worldwide by the CTBUH in reconition of its “multi-pronged focus on occupant health, sustainability, structural efficiency, and a significant level of integration with the surrounding urban habitat”.

Despite his global status and his relaxed, charming personality, Pelli shied away from the “starchitect” label he could easily have claimed. “The qualities that make him so exceptional are a fundamental intelligence and clarity of mind,” said Rafael in 2016. “He also has an incredible discipline and drive. This is what he loves to do. He has no hobbies.”

Diana, who became Pelli’s in-house landscape designer, died in 2016. He is survived by their sons, Denis and Rafael.

• César Pelli, architect, born 12 October 1926; died 19 July 2019


Steve Rose

The GuardianTramp

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