Standing in the midst of Downtown's Citicorp Plaza, architect Cesar Pelli looks up at the rising white shaft of the 53-story 777 Tower he designed on Figueroa Street and reflects on his unique relationship with Los Angeles.
"I'm an outsider who was an insider," Pelli says, recalling the 13 years (1964-77) he worked in Los Angeles. He designed the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood and several Wilshire Boulevard office buildings. "In this city I formed my style and launched my career. Here's where I became an American architect."
Trained in his native Argentina, Pelli, 64, worked with famed Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen in Bloomfield, Ill., before coming to Los Angeles as director of design for Daniel, Mann, Johnson &Mendenhall.;
During his time at DMJM, and later as a partner with Gruen Associates, Pelli and his colleague Anthony Lumsden perfected the "stretched skin" style of Modernism epitomized in the sleek profiles of the Pacific Design Center.
The 777 Tower, which heralds Pelli's return to Los Angeles, marks a further evolution of the "skin" style that he has made his trademark.
Sheathed in an off-white, steel-curtain wall system with subtle profiles and strong silhouettes, the tower--when completed later this year--will be one of downtown's most graceful commercial high-rises.
Using rounded mullions, alternated with knife-edged surfaces, the metal panels that enclose the tower rely on the distinctive Los Angeles light to make sharp shadows.
Where the top of the tower steps back, delicate projecting cornices emphasize the transition against the bright sky.
A further subtlety is the widening of the spacing of the window mullions from the center to the edges of the tower's rounded east and west facades. This adds to the sense of curvature and emphasizes the tower's vertical thrust.
Pelli lets his penchant for color loose in the building's three-story lobby. There, sweeps of red, green and ocher marble add grandeur to the deliberately oversized scale of the volumes.
In this lush space, a grand escalator links the upper levels of Citicorp Plaza with the corner of Figueroa and 8th streets.
A variation of 777 Tower's metallic skin system will also be used in Pelli's design for the 21-story IBM-Segerstrom building recently announced for Costa Mesa.
In Orange County, the building's skin will be finished in gleaming stainless steel, a material Pelli says "connotes strength, durability and precision."
Precision is a key word in Pelli's vocabulary, one that he believes is particularly appropriate to Southern California.
"With its postwar tradition of high-technology industries such as aerospace and electronics, its fascination with fast cars, Southern California is at home with precision," Pelli says. "Angelenos are not afraid of it, they have no sentimentality for the imprecise, for its own sake.
"In this tower," he says, "I've tried to create a poetry of precision, technology as metaphor, not for its own cleverness but as an expression of our increasing intimacy with the sophistication of our artifacts."
Since leaving Los Angeles to become dean of the Yale School of Architecture and to set up a flourishing practice in nearby New Haven, Conn., Pelli has made an international reputation in "skin" architecture for major commercial clients ranging from New York's Museum of Modern Art to the consortium developing London's Canary Wharf on the Thames River.
His most dramatic project now is the 125-story Chicago super skyscraper dubbed the "Skyneedle," a leading contender for the title of world's tallest tower.
In the Skyneedle, the stretched-skin style is drawn as tight and light as it can go without snapping.
Looking back at the genesis of the style, Pelli recalls that the stretched skin developed as a cross-fertilization between imagination and necessity.
"During my practice with DMJM and Gruen, many clients came to us with no concern for architecture," he says. "They just wanted to enclose the maximum amount of space at a minimum of cost. To add architecture, we had to refine our style into a package that would sell."
Glass membranes, such as the one that sheathes the Pacific Design Center, offered Pelli a chance to design commercial buildings that were cheap to build yet architecturally meaningful.
Such membranes, a refinement of the glass curtain wall then popular in office buildings, expressed the lightness of the skins needed to enclose steel and concrete frame buildings, where the outer walls carry no structural loading.
"For thousands of years, structural stone was the major material for clothing big buildings," Pelli explains. "Stone is heavy, it transfers the weight of the building down through its walls. It can be modeled in three dimensions but allows for a limited variation of color, tone and pattern. By contrast, the skins that clothe large modern structures are light and two-dimensional and give themselves to a vivid range of pattern and coloration."
Pelli was in love with glass in the heyday of his early explorations of the material.
"Glass is fragile as the wings of a butterfly," he said. "It's alternately opaque and transparent, ephemeral and light-sensitive, reflecting the changes of the sky color and tone. An architecture that depends for its expressive qualities on such quick-changing responses reflects the nature of modern urban life."
The vivid, original, 1975 "Blue Whale," as the Pacific Design Center is familiarly known, recently joined by a bottle green annex, was the prime result of Pelli's experiments with the nature of glazed membranes in modern architecture.
Such experiments could only have happened in Los Angeles, he says.
"During the 1960s and '70s, L.A. was in the kind of cultural vacuum that allowed me to play around," he says. "I was free to make my own mistakes, which were very fruitful for me."
When he moved to Yale in 1977, the East Coast's sharper intellectual rigor forced him to hone his perceptions and develop a clear rationale for his architectural intuitions.
As an example of New York's tough critical climate, Pelli cites the aesthetic grinder he had to survive on his first major East Coast commission--the high-rise tower added to the Museum of Modern Art.
"I had to make over 100 presentations of my schematic design for the MOMA tower, instead of the usual half dozen I was accustomed to, to various pressure groups. It was work in a fishbowl, with hooks, nets and harpoons all around. But such scrutiny was good for me at a time when my style was formed but still questing."
Another change spurred by his move to the East Coast was the rediscovery of stone as a valid material with which to clothe his "skin" architecture.
In the decade that followed his relocation in New Haven, Pelli, with his partner and wife, Diana Balmori, designed a host of buildings finished in granite, marble and brick--from the multitowered World Financial Center in Manhattan to Herring Hall at Houston's Rice University. In Minneapolis' Norwest Center, Pelli's latest office high-rise, the silhouette is sheathed in golden Kasota limestone that glitters richly in the city's summer sunsets.
Pelli justifies this shift from pure glass membranes to skins where glazing alternates with more solid materials like stone as a response to the new technologies that have made it possible to slice marble and granite slabs as thin as 25-hundredths of an inch and hang them on light metal frameworks similar to those that carry standard glazing.
"Stone has become a skin almost as thin as glass," he explains. "And the use of colored granites and ceramic metal panels has made my buildings more expressive and less abstract, more sensual and less intellectual, especially in the duller climates and cloudy skies of the East Coast.
"In Southern California, however, an architect can simplify his surfaces and rely on the power of the natural light to bring a building's skin to life."