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Swept up by waves

Times Staff Writer

WHEN architect Cesar Pelli was designing a skyscraper in Minneapolis in the 1980s, he asked his client to reduce its height so it wouldn’t become the tallest building on the skyline. The local spirit of modesty and deference, he explained, made that seem inappropriate -- and his corporate client bought the pitch.

A decade later in Malaysia, a booming Muslim country ready to announce its emergence on the world stage, Pelli designed a towering structure of interlocking Islamic motifs that became the world’s tallest building.

He’s the kind of chameleon designer, then, who fits his projects to the culture in which he works. Still, during a recent visit to Orange County, Pelli, 79, comes across like a distinguished visitor from another world. Through eyes smiling behind bifocals, he looks out at a late-morning party that seems oddly anachronistic -- Southern California as a blond, wealthy, Caucasian paradise. Almost a head taller than most of the guests, the lank Argentine seems genial and wise as he leans down to shake hands and converse.

And when Pelli takes the microphone to introduce his $200-million Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, which he promises will be “one of the best in the world,” he speaks with a mellifluous accent to cheers and flashbulbs. “A concert hall is a building, but it is also an instrument at the same time,” he says. “This is going to be the Stradivarius of concert halls!”

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The scene would overwhelm many scholarly men approaching their ninth decade, but the New Haven, Conn.based Pelli hardly seems wearied. A few hours later, as he dons a hardhat in the baking sun to offer another tour of the hall, he waves off any suggestion of fatigue. “I like these long days,” he says with a laugh.

That’s a good thing, because the project has been a very long day already. Dreamed up in the late ‘60s as part of the original concept of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, the idea hibernated until fundraising began in late 1998 -- shortly before the dot-com bust. Subcontractor trouble, construction challenges and escalating material prices have deviled the project; the county’s libertarian streak means public funding won’t ride to the rescue. Despite a mostly completed hall and scheduled galas that will kick off a fall concert season with the resident Pacific Symphony and other groups, about $60 million still needs to be raised.

Pelli, though, is five decades into a career that inspires confidence. To design writer John Pastier, whose essay appears in “Cesar Pelli: Buildings and Projects 1965-1990,” he’s an elegant Apollonian who “would fit very nicely into a 1930s film about life on the Riviera” -- a pragmatic problem solver with no hobbies and few outside interests who pours himself entirely into his work. “Had he not become an architect,” Pastier writes, “he very well could have been a scientist, a law professor, an essayist, a corporate head or a philosopher.”

He’s also, clearly, a diplomat who can charm captains of industry and leave the construction crew calling him “a great guy.” When he talks about Orange County, he emphasizes the area’s growth, its relaxed prosperity. It’s not hard to tell why clients love him: Henry Segerstrom, the developer who has donated millions to the hall complex, praises “his versatility, his adaptability, his flexibility and his ability to listen.”

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For all his high-placed admirers, others whisper, when the microphones are turned off, that Pelli hasn’t designed a compelling structure since 1975’s Pacific Design Center or that his personal charm has gotten him further than his talent could. It’s hard to find anyone to assail him personally, but it can be just as difficult to find enthusiasm for his last few decades of output.

Pelli doesn’t mind that he’s unfashionable. His career has been defined by a lover’s quarrel with Modernism and a quest to re-create the spirit of place in glass and steel. As his new Orange County hall prepares to open, some see signs that the master may be back on his stride.

At Saarinen’s side

TUCUMaN, Argentina, sometimes called the nation’s garden, is better known for its sugar cane than modern architecture. In 1952, in his mid-20s, Pelli left his native region for the United States and, after receiving a master’s in architecture at the University of Illinois, took his first important job in the offices of Eero Saarinen. It was a natural place for Pelli to begin, since the Finnish modernist kept high standards and worked in a wide range of projects -- from hip chairs to corporate towers -- each calling for its own solution.

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Pelli says he picked up a dedication more than a philosophy. “He wasn’t one for making big statements,” Pelli says. “He was very pragmatic.”

Pelli gained recognition as project designer of the swooping TWA terminal at what is now New York’s Kennedy International Airport, completed in 1962, which may be the Saarinen office’s most lyrical project.

Pelli soon headed to Los Angeles, where he worked for Daniel, Mann, Johnson and Mendenhall and later for Gruen Associates. He laughs now as he recalls how easy it was to traverse the city, how his family would pick movies out of the paper and be sure they could reach their destination in just a few minutes, with curbside parking.

He designed many Southland projects, including San Bernardino’s City Hall; the glass, brick and concrete Worldway Postal Center near LAX; and Culver City’s Fox Hills Mall. His boldest mark on the region was surely the Pacific Design Center, promptly nicknamed the Blue Whale, whose massive glass silhouette dominated the surrounding bungalows in what later became West Hollywood. (He’ll complete the center with a $100-million Red Building slated for construction next year.)

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In this period, Pelli was considered idealistic and risk-taking, but with the power of established firms behind him; the PDC made this evident. Craig Hodgetts, who taught with Pelli at UCLA, thinks that an earlier project could have been as significant as the Blue Whale. Sunset Mountain Park was a Pelli design for a Santa Monica Mountains site that won a 1966 Progressive Architecture award.

“It blew everybody’s mind,” Hodgetts recalls. “It was a dense, extremely modern version of a Mediterranean hill town but very streamlined. And of course in Los Angeles it was not well received. If it had been built it would have changed people’s mind, could have demonstrated another possibility” beyond the postwar dream of the detached home. It also could have, he says, opened up a less commercial direction for Pelli, whose work grew increasingly corporate.

In 1976, when Pelli left the city to become dean of the Yale University School of Architecture, he was credited with drawing the field’s eye to L.A. Charles Moore, then head of UCLA’s architecture program, called Pelli “my favorite of the big-shape modern architects,” someone who “knows how to change a conflict into harmony” with “some kind of Argentine magic.”

Critics saw a lack of edge, and the charges that he was a corporate functionary grew over the next decade. Even admirers conceded that his Four Leaf Towers, a residential complex in Houston, for instance, showed little imagination.

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While at Yale, Pelli was chosen to expand New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “It was a barometer for where tastemakers thought commercial, urban architecture was going,” says Carol Willis, then a student in New York and now director of the city’s Skyscraper Museum. “That was his great talent, to speak to common sense and also to business concerns.”

But others called the MoMA job -- which the New Yorker’s Paul Goldberger later described as “unnaturally attenuated, like a stretch limousine” -- a muddle.

“The commissions he got were prestigious but somehow did not have the zeal of his previous projects,” Hodgetts says. “It’s anomalous because it didn’t fit the career path you’d have expected for Cesar.”

When MoMA sought to expand the museum again in the late ‘90s, it didn’t turn to Pelli. Nicolai Ouroussoff, then the Los Angeles Times’ architecture critic, called it a tacit admission that the space was “more mall than museum” and that Pelli was “a reliable commercial designer without great talent.”

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Pelli, though, has never defined himself as a high-art auteur. “Architecture is not painting,” he has said. “It is about extraordinary creative responses to specific situations.... But I believe these supposedly nasty constraints are the lifeblood of architecture.”

Modernism reconsidered

PART of what happened in the ‘80s was that Pelli moved into the past. This architect, schooled in rigid Modernism, grew disenchanted with the movement: 1920s skyscrapers and Victorian brick took on new meaning.

“Pelli’s interest lay in creating a visual and sculptural energy that orthodox Modernism lacked,” critic Goldberger wrote in an introduction to “Buildings and Projects 1965-1990,” “and to achieve such results, he was more willing to indulge in design gestures that a Miesian would have considered unthinkable.” These included bold colors, visual richness and a respect for the Beaux-Arts tradition of sensual beauty many Modernists rejected as decadent or old-fashioned.

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Or course Modernism, long after its midcentury heyday, has become a chic and vastly expensive style of design. It dominates high-end furniture shops and shelter magazines. Despite its fashion, Pelli has spent his last few decades falling further away from its austere functionalism and cult of the new.

“The idea that novelty had a high value is a recent and nefarious idea not yet 100 years old,” Pelli says. “One of its intentions was to break away from history. ‘Thanks to science we can create a whole new world.’ We now know that was an illusion with some very bad results.”

He detests the notion that we’d want to live in isolated Corbusian towers instead of cities with streets and buildings, each serving as foreground as well as background. He blames Modernism’s make-it-new spirit for urban renewal as well.

“The issue really is the city. Buildings are secondary. Architects don’t understand this. They think their building is the most important in the whole world. But a building is part of a city.”

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He’s a generation too old to be comfortable with postmodernism and its promiscuous blending of historical references. He loves the architecture of the Renaissance and calls Milan’s 18th century La Scala opera house among his favorites, with its boxes occupied by generations of the same family. But the architecture cannot be repeated because the culture it served, he says, is dead.

Modernism, then, is what we’re left with.

Site-specific principle

ONE of Pelli’s key breaks with Modernism -- which famously created an International Style in architecture and oriented music and poetry to avant-garde cosmopolitanism -- was the issue of local roots. Pelli is famous for soaking up and reflecting the spirit of a place; a criticism of his work is it has no signature, no aesthetic soul.

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Pelli is unconcerned. “Designing to fit a place culturally, physically and historically is very important,” he says, adding that it’s hardly new: Architects fit their work to the site for centuries until the International Style, and careerism, made architects see themselves as auteurs who bring their signature to any site.

In Orange County he designed the hall very differently than he did Miami’s Knight Concert Hall, where he took advantage of deep, richly colored skies sometimes full of glorious clouds. (That hall, part of the vastly over-budget Carnival Center for the Performing Arts, is scheduled to open in October.)

In Orange County, he says, “What is important is that this building is very elegant and also very relaxed. Full of dynamism, energy, faith in the future -- all good qualities of Orange County.”

The building’s skin, which encases an expansive lobby, is an 87-foot-high, undulating clear-glass curtain that suggests both sound waves and the Pacific Ocean -- which Pelli says give the region its character. The wave motif continues on balconies inside the 2,000-seat hall, which uses maple walls and doors and a silver-leaf canopy as flexible acoustic elements to be tuned by acoustician Russell Johnson.

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The lobby glass, Pelli says, plays to the county’s love of the outdoors and leaves a barely perceptible separation between the lobby and plaza -- and the new Richard Serra sculpture outside. The complex also includes the 500-seat Samueli Theater, which can accommodate rock and jazz. Nearby is Pelli’s stainless-steel Plaza Tower as well as his sleek expansion of South Coast Repertory.

Pelli is especially proud of the lobby, which looks out over the old Segerstrom Hall and is designed with a central stairwell to encourage people to circulate. “It is one of the best ways for people to socialize,” he says, and “one of the main reasons people go to a concert.”

A concert hall, says Pelli, is a special kind of building, because architecture and music “are such different art forms as to be complementary. Architecture is so collaborative, so extended in time” -- he began designing the hall in 1999 -- “it becomes very cerebral. A musical performance is instantaneous, immediate, fragile. I love that back and forth.”

A period of rebirth

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HODGETTS thinks Pelli has bounced back over the last few years, especially with his recent projects in Hong Kong and Japan. “I’m seeing the old Cesar and the daring and invention that I associate with him. Architects have long lives, so I’m expecting great work for him.” But he wonders if Pelli has any currency for the next generation in these days when young architects are “fixated on their careers” and on generating hype.

The Skyscraper Museum’s Willis calls 1998’s Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur -- twin 88-story buildings with a 120-foot-deep foundation, which was until 2003 the world’s tallest building -- “Pelli’s masterpiece among his skyscrapers.” As for his U.S. projects: “These buildings that function like machines in cities are much harder to make into jewels. You have to evaluate the building as ‘Do they work?’ rather than ‘Are they exquisitely detailed?’ ”

Juan Azulay, a 34-year-old Glendale architect who shares Pelli’s Argentine roots, says Pelli is relevant to young architects as well as the students Azulay teaches at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. “Especially if the discussion is about how cities are made rather than what buildings look like,” he says. “I think he’s caused us to shift the discussion a little bit.”

Pelli often worked with his now ex-wife, landscape architect Diana Balmori, over their long marriage. One son, Rafael, is a principal in his firm; the other, Denis, is a neuroscientist. Pelli has a number of important projects coming, including the PDC’s Red Building, which he hopes will open onto a center more accessible to the public, with bustling cafes and foot traffic. The architect will also design an office complex in Milan and a science center in Connecticut as well as airport terminals, university buildings and office towers around the world.

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The Orange County concert hall, which opens Sept. 15 with galas and new musical commissions, was criticized from the outset. Five years ago, Ouroussoff called the plans for it “a flop. Its conventional, relatively unimaginative design does not rise to the level set by Disney Hall, to which it will be inevitably compared.” Yet whatever the eventual evaluation, whether by media, musicians, the public or his profession, the architect seems assured of his vision.

Criticism doesn’t seem to bother Pelli: It’s projects that fall apart, or the rare client he can’t persuade, that frustrate him. He says he loves all aspects of the architectural process, from conversation to completion; pain arrives only when plans don’t work out. As with most things, he’s philosophical about the possibilities.

“It’s just as you can’t have life without death,” he says with his characteristic smile. “You can only enjoy this kind of success if you know that failure is also there.”


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