Cesar Pelli, U.S. architect who altered skylines, dies at 92

Cesar Pelli and Henry Segerstrom
Architect Cesar Pelli, left, and Henry Segerstrom. Pelli has died at 92.
(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Cesar Pelli, the Argentinian-born U.S. architect who designed some of the world’s most famous skyscrapers such as the Petronas Towers in Malaysia and the World Financial Center in New York, has died. He was 92.

His son Rafael Pelli confirmed the death but did not provide a specific cause.

Pelli and his New Haven, Conn.-based firm have created more than 100 major projects including office buildings, museums, residential towers and libraries. The firm’s best-known work is Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers, twin 88-story skyscrapers linked by a 41st-floor sky bridge. Built in 1998 and standing at 1,483 feet (452 meters), the glass, steel and reinforced-concrete structures replaced Chicago’s Sears Tower as the world’s tallest buildings. Petronas kept the honor until 2004 and remains a national icon.

“Building a tall skyscraper is one of the best ways for an emerging society to prove it has arrived because not everybody can do it,” Pelli told the New York Times in 2001. “It takes money, political stability and an economy big enough to fill the building when it’s finished.”

Pelli also changed the skyline of lower Manhattan with his World Financial Center office-building complex, now called Brookfield Place, located steps away from the Hudson River. The site’s four copper-crowned towers, made of granite and glass, include more than 8 million square feet of space and the Winter Garden, a 10-story glass pavilion open to the public.


Canary Wharf

His other works include Hong Kong’s International Finance Center complex; several skyscrapers in London’s Canary Wharf business district; and the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles.

In addition, Pelli designed the glass-and-steel tower in New York City where the U.S. headquarters of Bloomberg LP, parent of Bloomberg News, is located. The 55-story building in Manhattan also includes luxury apartments.

The American Institute of Architects in 1991 named Pelli one of the 10 most influential living American architects and the organization awarded him its Gold Medal in 1995.

Many of Pelli’s buildings feature colorful or reflective glass and round edges, a deliberate departure from the boxy, straight-edge skyscrapers designed by the previous generation of modern architects.

‘Glass Skins’

He was among the first building designers to use glass as a nonstructural outer wall, as seen in the facade on the Museum of Modern Art’s adjacent apartment tower in Manhattan. Dubbed “curtain walls” or “glass skins,” the outer walls are intended to support a building’s form and pay homage to the local culture and environment, Michael Crosbie, chairman of the architecture department at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, said in the 2005 book “Curtain Walls.”

“Pelli is one of the few architects designing tall buildings today who consistently thinks of them in terms of their relationship to an entire skyline, as well as their immediate surroundings and to the streetscape,” Paul Goldberger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic, wrote in his introduction to “Cesar Pelli: Buildings and Projects 1965-1990,” published in 1990.

Leaving Argentina

Born on Oct. 12, 1926, in Tucuman, in northern Argentina, Pelli first studied building design at the University of Tucuman, graduating in 1949. Three years later, Pelli and his wife, Diana Balmori, who would become a landscape architect, immigrated to the U.S., where, in 1954, he received a Master of Science degree in architecture from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

During his formative years, Pelli’s main influences were German architects Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, pioneers of modern design whose structures featured flat roofs and walls made of glass and steel.

Pelli then spent a decade in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, as an apprentice to famed architect Eero Saarinen, who designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, and the TWA terminal at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, a historic landmark. In 1964, Pelli moved to Los Angeles to become design director for Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall, and four years later, he joined another firm, Gruen Associates.

Hired by Yale University to serve as the dean of its architecture school, Pelli in 1977 moved to New Haven, Conn., where he opened his own design firm. The studio grew to include Fred Clarke and son Rafael Pelli as senior partners, and a staff of more than 100 people.

Pelli and his wife Diana had two children: Denis Pelli, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University, and Rafael, who runs the firm’s New York office.