One of the most impressive things about César Pelli—aside from a long career designing buildings—is his charm. He’s almost 90 years old, but doesn’t look a day over 70. When we meet, he pulls out a chair for me, and pours me tea. In conversation, he’s refreshingly candid, when he’s not erupting into bouts of laughter. Pelli has the air of someone who has ridden life’s rollercoaster through the peaks and gullies, always taking the good with the bad.
The Argentine architect and former dean of Yale’s School of Architecture is the definition of longevity. His first project was completed in the mid-1960s, and over the ensuing decades he built iconic buildings such as the World Financial Center in New York, Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, and Hong Kong’s International Finance Centre. Unlike many architects whose style is easily recognizable, Pelli doesn’t have a hallmark aesthetic. He dwells in anonymity, designing buildings that fit in with their natural surroundings or the client’s wishes.
It may seem with a portfolio full of financial towers that Pelli could be perceived as a stooge for “The Man” or architecture’s corporate crony. This doesn’t seem to be case, but critics don’t necessarily fawn in unison over his work. As Sarah Williams Goldhagen, The New Republic’s former architecture critic, puts it, “Pelli is a perfectly mediocre architect.” And then there is Thomas Hine, who wrote in The New York Times: “As a serious architect who functions so well in the commercial arena, Mr. Pelli risks being underestimated.”
Those sorts of opinions come with the territory for someone who seesaws between the commercial and public worlds. While Pelli doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously, he does speak earnestly about his work. “My projects are like my children,” he says. “So I cannot have a favorite.” But if he must point his finger, it’s always to the ones that are currently under construction.
Currently in progress at his firm, Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, is the soaring 60-story Residences by Armani/Casa in Miami. The residential condominiums are designed by Armani himself and located in Sunny Isles Beach, just north of Bal Harbour. It will rise like a set of inverted sails, widening at the top and “appearing to move,” Pelli says.
The skyscraper was commissioned by developers Jorge Pérez and Gil Dezer, two local real estate heavyweights who were impressed with Pelli’s drawings, which subtly nod to the area’s signature Art Deco architecture. “You have high expectations when working with someone that has the kind of talent possessed by César, but the way in which he was able to reinterpret and modernize South Florida’s established style was spectacular,” Pérez says. “The tower looks like something a futurist from the 1920s would have thought of, but been unable to build.”
Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, founded four decades ago in New Haven, Connecticut, is a fitting match for this kind of grand, innovative undertaking. The firm is known for designing some of the tallest buildings in the world, a specialty attained after winning a competition to design the World Financial Center in the early ’80s. “We had a tiny office at the time, and we won,” Pelli says. “That forced us to restructure our firm to do large-scale projects.” He starts to chuckle with an expression of wonder, as if to say “Can you believe it?”
But Pelli’s steady rise over the years isn’t hard to comprehend. His talent was spotted early on as a graduate student attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. One of his professors recommended him to Eero Saarinen and Associates, where he ended up working on the famous TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport. About a decade later, Pelli found himself at Yale, and shortly afterwards was asked to design an expansion to the Museum of Modern Art at its former location in Manhattan.
I called his son Rafael, who is one of the firm’s three principals, to ask about the key to his father’s success. “The qualities that make him so exceptional are a fundamental intelligence and clarity of mind. He also has an incredible discipline and drive,” he says. “This is what he loves to do. He has no hobbies.”
The elder Pelli sees things a little differently: “I’ve been successful but not too much, which is probably better,” he says. “Fame is a very corroding thing, I can see it in a couple of friends of mine. You lose touch with reality and everything becomes possible and easy, and that’s not life.”
Pelli grew up in Tucumán, a small province in northwestern Argentina where he attended the school of architecture at Universidad Nacional de Tucumán. Ultimately, though, his skill and enthusiasm were far too great for that anonymous corner of South America. In the early ’50s, he traveled to the United States with his wife, Diana Balmori, and never left. “I could have been stuck there,” he says, growing somber for the first time during our talk. “I used to think the only option I had was to practice in Tucumán.”
Getting stuck is the opposite of what happened to Pelli, who’s entering the tenth decade of his life shepherding one of the biggest projects of his career: a transit hub and public park in San Francisco spanning five blocks. The Transbay Transit Center, slated to be partially unveiled in 2018, will transform the city’s downtown along with its entire transportation system. Renderings show an elongated, undulating structure wrapped in translucent white lattices consisting of perforated metal panels created by the British mathematical physicist Roger Penrose. During the day, light and air will filter in through the tiles. At night, the building will glow like a lantern. A densely planted, 5.4-acre urban park designed by PWP Landscape Architecture will occupy the roof. “It’s very contemporary, not just architecturally but also technologically and structurally,” Pelli says. “It’s an immense undertaking by the city.”
It’s also a monumental endeavor for Pelli, who acknowledges matter-of-factly the challenges at every corner. One gets the sense that nothing fazes him, it’s all just part of the ride. “He’s one of the great 20th-century architects and yet he maintains a humility and accessibility,” Pérez says.
Even after working for more than half a century, and earning numerous awards, Pelli’s focus remains on getting the job done. “I work every day,” he tells me from his unassuming office across the street from Yale’s historic Old Campus. “Except weekends.”