From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
César Pelli was broadcast on the 9th April 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
Mention the name César Pelli and you can almost predict the sort of building you might see – shiny, sleek, and tall. Usually very tall. For decades, Pelli has been a byword for skyscrapers, and was even awarded a Lifetime Achievement by the Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. When he died in 2019, his practice had completed over a hundred major projects, many of them dominating the skyline of the major cities of the world. And while they’re hard to fault, they can sometimes be hard to love. But does that matter?
Pelli was born in the Tucumán region of Argentina where he studied architecture at the local university and met his future wife, the landscape designer, Diana Balmori. In 1952, they emigrated to the US, with César studying at the University of Illinois under the guidance of Eero Saarinen. He later worked with Saarinen on the futuristic TWA Flight Center at JFK airport. There’s certainly something of Saarinen’s Scandinavian simplicity in Pelli’s work, and yet where Saarinen showed a definite joie de vivre, Pelli’s work is more restrained.
An early commission was the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, built in 1974 and later extended. Known locally as the Blue Whale, it established Pelli as an architect who wanted to make a statement. The Blue Whale’s playful shape and colour had a Post-Modern feel to it but Pelli quickly moved into more conventional modernist territory, becoming a master of glazing and translucence. He claimed that it was unimportant to have a signature style but it was vital that a building responded to its site. His buildings, with their smooth, shiny exteriors, quickly became symbolic of the cool efficiency of commerce in the capitals of the world. Like One Canada Square, the steel-sheathed tower that anchors London’s Canary Wharf business district, which rose in the early 1980s and was taller than any in London. Its style matched the towers he designed for the World Financial Center in Manhattan, thereby unifying the banking worlds of both cities. Later towers, often beautifully glazed with surgical precision, are visually striking, especially when glinting in the morning or evening sunlight, and dominate the skyline of cities from Santiago in Chile to Seville in Spain.
The most famous is the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the tallest in the world for several years after opening in 1998 and built to show that the Asian capital meant business. The idea was interesting – rather than one massive tower, he created two, linked by a slender sky bridge. They were inspired, he said, by Islamic shapes and Buddhist temples, each rising to over 450 metres, and are covered in such shiny steel that they gleam like sacred objects. They speak not of spirit, of course, but of money. And that’s always there in Pelli’s work. His buildings have the sober aesthetic of a German luxury car or a well cut suit, things that work very well but don’t always excite, even when muscling everything else out of the way. Pelli wasn’t alone in creating this language of the global village, or its financial centres, at least, but he was a master of it, creating symbolic little black dresses for the great cities of the world. Sometimes elegant, always refined, and shining every bit as brightly as the piles of money that paid for them.