The Argentine architect, who has died at age 92, created striking projects like the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco.
César Pelli, an architect whose soaring towers defined the skylines of cities around the world, died on July 19 at the age of 92. A versatile designer, Pelli penned museums, airport terminals, and hospital campuses. But he was best known for his skyscrapers, which departed from strict modernism in their integration of historic forms and broad palette of materials.
Born in 1926, Pelli was raised in San Miguel de Tucumán, the capital of the Tucumán province in northern Argentina, and graduated from university there before obtaining a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1954. He then spent a decade working for the great midcentury designer Eero Saarinen, offering significant creative input on projects such as the TWA Flight Center and Ezra Stiles College and Morse College at Yale University.
Not unusually for an architect, Pelli was a late bloomer. He worked for two large corporate firms, DMJM and Gruen Associates, before starting his own practice at the age of 50 with partners Diana Balmori (his wife until 2001) and Fred Clarke. He remained at the helm of the New Haven-based firm—called Pelli Clarke Pelli since 2005—for 40 years and continued to teach at Yale after his deanship ended in 1984. In 1995, Pelli received the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal, its highest honor for an individual.
Below are six of Pelli’s best-known buildings, all of which had a dramatic impact on the cities around them.
Pacific Design Center, Los Angeles
Pelli designed the first phase of the Pacific Design Center—Center Blue—in the mid-1970s while still at Gruen Associates. The big, blue-glass building caused a stir in Los Angeles, where locals compared it to a whale. He designed the complex’s second and third phases, Center Green (shown here) and Center Red, a decade later. Architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne called Center Blue “architecture as abstract geometry … symbolic of that quintessentially Los Angeles building type: the sideways skyscraper.”
Winter Garden, Brookfield Place, New York City
Pelli’s World Financial Center (now Brookfield Place), consisting of four office towers and completed in 1988, was the first big piece of Battery Park City in Manhattan. Its glass-vaulted, palm-tree-planted Winter Garden is the centerpiece of a popular shopping mall and an example of Pelli’s lifelong interest in designing public rooms. “Unlike American architects, I believe that public spaces are more important than private spaces,” he once said.
One Canada Square, London
When it opened in 1991, Pelli’s 50-story skyscraper in London’s Canary Wharf district was the tallest building in the United Kingdom; it’s now the second tallest, having been outstripped in 2012 by Renzo Piano’s Shard. Clad in stainless steel and topped by an illuminated pyramid, the tower does not count Prince Charles among its fans: “I personally would go mad if I had to work in a place like that,” he told Pelli.
Reagan National Airport Terminal B/C, Washington, D.C.
With its lofty steel columns, glass walls, and series of domes, Pelli’s million-square-foot airport expansion evokes 19th-century wonders of iron architecture such as London’s Crystal Palace and the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris. The Washington Post’s Benjamin Forgey hailed the 1997 project as “a backward step in the right direction.”
Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur
The 88-story Petronas Towers were the tallest buildings in the world from their completion in 1998 until 2004, and they remain the loftiest twin towers. Unlike International Style skyscrapers such as Mies van der Rohe’s, these have stepped profiles at the top, and Pelli integrated motifs from Islamic art into the design.
Salesforce Tower, San Francisco
Perhaps no Pelli building has changed a city skyline as dramatically (or controversially) as the Salesforce Tower, which rises a full 200 feet higher than the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco. When it opened in 2018, it instantly became a symbol of the tech industry’s dominance of the Bay Area. “From the top [of the tower], the Transamerica Pyramid, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Coit Tower look like toys,” noted The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal. A crystalline structure that tapers to only the abstract suggestion of a crown, the tower shares an architectural language with other late skyscrapers by Pelli, such as Philly’s FMC Tower and the new Frost Tower in San Antonio. Pelli and colleagues also designed the adjacent Salesforce Transit Center.