For more than 50 years, American-Argentine architect César Pelli has been pushing the boundaries of modern design in his construction of some of the tallest buildings in the world. Drawing on varied materials and inspiration, his work is distinctive for being both structurally expressive and powerfully connected to the local culture and habitat. We look at the fascinating trajectory of this high achiever.
‘The desire to reach for the sky runs deep in our human psyche,’ declared architect César Pelli, one of the 20th-century’s most preeminent architects whose life-long ambition has been to excel. His myriad of urban landmarks that include the elegant World Financial Center in New York and the innovative Twin Petronas in Kuala Lumpur range from public spaces to libraries, transport buildings and performing arts centres all share one common attribute: their cloud-piercing stature.
Pelli was born in October 1926 and grew up in the provincial city of Tucumán, northern Argentina, where a landscape of flat plains encompassed by mountains offered little inspiration for his future in modernist, urban design. Pelli’s talents were recognised at school, and he went on to study architecture in Argentina and the United States before emigrating to America in 1952. He later became a full-fledged American citizen.
In the 1960s and 70s, Pelli gained hands-on experience designing high-rise buildings as an architect at various top American various firms in Los Angeles. There, he contributed his expertise to a wide-range of projects, including the futuristic design of the Trans World Airline Terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and the American Embassy in Tokyo. Through a breadth of ventures, Pelli came to recognise the need to steer away from the architectural fixation on creating an individual style and instead be adaptive, altering his designs depending on place and purpose at hand. His aim was to create a new type of architecture that responded to new functions, materials, technologies and social systems of the time.
In 1977, Pelli founded his own company, Cesar Pelli & Associates, and became Dean of Yale University’s School of Architecture. He began focussing on the sculptural quality of design, using abstract glass shapes streaked with lines of coloured metal or stone to create elegant, taut-walled edifices. His firm became distinguished for its work with public, non government-funded public space, such as the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles – nicknamed ‘the blue whale’ due to its gleaming blue-glass cladding – and the expansion of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. In London, his pyramid-roofed One Canada Square that opened in 1991 became an iconic symbol of the city’s powerful financial hub, Canary Wharf, and was the United Kingdom’s tallest building until the opening of the Shard in late 2010.
Pelli’s construction of the striking $1.5 billion Winter Garden Atrium at the World Financial Center gained particular attention. Its four glass-and-granite office towers range in height from 35 to 51 stories and have an adjoining barrel-vaulted atrium, with Italian-inspired marble floors and indoor and outdoor gardens for New Yorkers to enjoy all year. On completion it was hailed as one of the city’s finest new cultural landmarks.
In 1998, Pelli completed one of his most acclaimed feats; the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Not only praised for their lofty stature (at 452 metres with 88 stories, the two circular, step-tapered twin skyscrapers were the tallest structures in the world until 2004), but also for Pelli’s conceptual ingenuity. While the towers’ futuristic appearance mirrored the country’s high-tech ambitions and reflected its economic growth, their glass, steel and concrete facades incorporated motifs from Islamic art. This illustrated Pelli’s preoccupation that ‘A building must be both background and foreground. As foreground, it must have some exceptional qualities. But it must also try very hard to knit into the fabric’. His efforts were recognised when he received the acclaimed Aga Khan award for the design in 2004.
According to Pelli, ‘I always look forward to the next project. That is one of the wonderful things about architecture.’ Today, he continues to dedicate himself to ground-breaking architecture. His firm is behind various exciting projects under construction, including Torre Mitikah in Mexico City, the 2,500-seat Utah Performing Arts Centre in Salt Lake City and the revamped Transbay Center in downtown San Francisco that will stand next to the city’s tallest tower, also designed by Pelli. The untiring architect has written extensively on architectural issues, has had nine books published, received 12 honorary degrees and over 200 awards for design excellence. His architectural achievements have often been the subject of exhibitions around the world.
During an illustrious career spanning more than half a century, Pelli’s architectural triumphs have restored a sense of wonder and possibility to cityscapes across the continent. Be it towering spires or landmark obelisks, Pelli’s work has been governed by his ultimate belief in the conceptual role of skyscrapers; that their elevated silhouettes so dominant on an urban skyline means they hold an important role as citizens of the city, and therefore must share the aesthetic qualities of their surroundings and actively participate in the cultural identity. Such a community-focussed, humanistic approach to architecture means that Pelli’s lofty towers do not just rise as design marvels of glass and concrete, but instead exist as powerful beacons human aspiration in each city they watch over.