César Pelli, Designer of Iconic Buildings Around the World, Dies at 92


The architect César Pelli, whose firm designed Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia and other of the world’s most recognizable buildings, died on Friday, according to La Gaceta newspaper in his hometown, San Miguel de Tucumán, Argentina. He was 92.

Mr. Pelli’s many distinctive works include the World Financial Center in New York (now Brookfield Place); the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, known for its bright blue-glass facade; and a terminal at Washington’s Reagan National Airport. He won hundreds of awards, including the American Institute of Architects’ 1995 gold medal, and served as dean of Yale’s School of Architecture from 1977 to 1984.

Mr. Pelli, who lived and worked in New Haven, Conn., was known for his innovations with glass, and he spent much of his career trying to reconcile modernism with his interest in shape, texture and the architecture of the past. Many of his buildings used colored panels to try to get a sense of variation into the idea of a modern glass building.

His biggest successes came later in life. Mr. Pelli did not open his own firm until he was 50, and even then, he said, “It was only because I was forced to.”

That was in 1977, when he was chosen to design the renovation and expansion of the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan and founded Cesar Pelli & Associates Architects with his wife, the landscape architect Diana Balmori, and a former colleague, Fred Clarke, to handle the project.

The firm grew, eventually becoming Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects in 2005, with his son Rafael as a named partner.

Mr. Pelli considered his entire career to be improbable. He grew up in San Miguel de Tucumán, a small city in northern Argentina where, he said, there was little of architectural interest. He said he decided to study architecture at the National University of Tucumán because it combined two of his favorite subjects, history and art.

In 1952, he moved to the University of Illinois to continue his architecture training. He said he had no money, and no plans to remain in the United States after his nine-month fellowship expired.

But one of Mr. Pelli’s professors, Ambrose Richardson, recommended him to Eero Saarinen, the great Finnish-American architect then working in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Mr. Pelli spent almost 10 years at the Saarinen firm, where one of his projects was Kennedy Airport’s famous TWA Flight Center, which is now the TWA Hotel.

In the 1960s, he took a job in California at the architecture and engineering firm known as DMJM (pronounced Dim-Jim), many of whose clients wanted buildings erected quickly and on budget.

As long as he met those goals, he was given artistic license that allowed him to experiment with the tight glass wrappers that eventually became his trademark.

In 1968, he moved to Los Angeles-based Gruen Associates, where he took on one of his best-known projects, the Pacific Design Center. He said he took “a very ugly building type, which is showrooms, which are normally brick boxes,” and “turned it into something joyful” by covering it in bright-blue glass.

The project’s initial 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.

He had barely settled in when he won the MoMA competition. Mr. 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.

His design for MoMA was not universally applauded. The critic Carter Horsley compared its interiors, with their prominent escalators, to those of a “not terribly successful” shopping mall.

Paul Goldberger, writing in The New York Times, said the exterior was “more bland and dull than one might have expected” from Mr. Pelli, “particularly given the panache of much of his other work.” As for the 52-story Museum Tower, a condominium designed by Mr. Pelli as part of the expansion, Mr. Goldberger said: “It looks not a lot different from numerous skyscrapers of less ambition.”

By the time MoMA opened in 1984, the Pelli firm was at work on a number of prominent projects, including what is now Brookfield Place. (These days, it faces the Goldman Sachs building in Jersey City, another Pelli creation.) Brookfield Place, formerly the World Financial Center, is famous for its glass-roofed Winter Garden, which was heavily damaged in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and later restored.

The firm’s most monumental work — the Petronas complex in Malaysia’s capital — is a pair of 88-story towers linked by a skybridge about 500 feet off the ground. The bridge has a practical purpose, but Mr. Pelli said his goal was aesthetic: The bridge and the towers’ upper floors form a kind of gate suggesting a portal to a higher world. The towers themselves were the world’s tallest buildings from 1998 until 2004.

Mr. Pelli never apologized for designing buildings that satisfied their owners rather than challenging them. Architects, he wrote, “must produce what is needed of us. This is not a weakness in our discipline, but a source of strength.”

Mr. Pelli and Ms. Balmori often collaborated professionally, including on the Winter Garden Atrium. They had two sons, Rafael, the architect, and Denis, who is a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University. They survive him. Ms. Balmori died in 2016.

Other notable Pelli projects include the International Finance Center in Hong Kong; Francis Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College; the United States Embassy in Tokyo; and Carnegie Hall Tower in New York.

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