Designer Spotlight: César Pelli

Cesar Pelli is an Argentine-American architect hailed as one of the most acclaimed architects of the 20th century, having won over 200 awards for his work.

Born on October 12, 1926, and raised in Tucumán, Argentina, he grew up in a small, provincial town where he learned to value his environment and its function. This is manifested in how his structures imbibe a strong sensitivity to place and environment.

“The city is on the plains. From Tucumán to the Atlantic Ocean it is all relatively flat, but just west of Tucumán are the Andes. You always knew where the west was because there was the tall line of mountains. I realize now that the presence of those mountains was quite uplifting.” – Cesar Pelli in an interview with Architectural Digest

As a child, Pelli was a voracious reader and was surrounded by creativity from his father, who sculpted and drew, and education from his mother, who was a teacher.

After graduating high school at 16, he came upon architecture in a catalog given to him by his father and decided to go into this field of study. Pelli became passionate about his choice in profession when he realized good architecture could positively shape people’s lives. He earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture in 1949 from the Universidad Nacional de Tucumán.

Pelli taught at the Universidad Nacional de Tucumán for two years while serving for two years as the Director of Design at OFEMPE, a state organization for subsidized housing in Tucuman, for which he was able to design low-cost housing in a very simple and economical construction.

“Cities are our most important responsibility. They are the whole of which our buildings are the parts. Making a building one with its place has been a constant goal of architecture throughout the ages. Technological and cultural changes have weakened this relationship, and it is the responsibility of each one of us today to consider it in our work.” – Cesar Pelli in an interview with ArchDaily

In 1952, Pelli was accepted into an international education scholarship program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He earned a Master’s Degree in Architecture two years later.


Early Influences

After graduating from the University of Illinois in 1954, Pelli was offered a positon to work with world-renowned architect Eero Saarinen at his office in Michigan. Pelli’s first project with Saarinen was the Masonic Temple in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He worked with Saarinen for ten years, whom he credits as one of his greatest influences along with Le Corbusier, a Swiss-French architect who pioneered modern architecture.

During his tenure at the firm of Eero Saarinen & Associates in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan and Hamden, Connecticut, Pelli was able to work as Project Designer for the TWA Terminal Building at JFK Airport in New York, and the Morse and Stiles Colleges at Yale University, and, for a short time, the U.S. Embassy in London. These early works served his interest for publicness, materiality, and formal expression.

TWA Terminal Building at JFK Airport in New York City

TWA Terminal Building at JFK Airport in New York City


The New American

In 1964, Pelli was granted American citizenship. He then moved on to become the Director and Vice President of Design with Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall (DMJM) in Los Angeles. In 1965, he designed the ambitious Sunset Mountain Park Urban Nucleus in Santa Monica for which he won the 1966 Progressive Architecture Awards program. Another notable project by Pelli while at DMJM is COMCAST Laboratories, which also received a Progressive Architecture Design Award in 1968.

Pelli served as a Partner of Design at Gruen Associates in Los Angeles from 1968 to 1977. He was also a visiting professor at the University of California Los Angeles. During this period, Pelli designed several award-winning projects that would solidify his name and design reputation. Such projects include U.N. City in Vienna, which won first place in an open international competition, San Bernardino City Hall, the Pacific Design Center, the Commons of Columbus in Indiana, and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.

Pacific Design Center Blue Building in West Hollywood, CA

Pacific Design Center Blue Building in West Hollywood, CA


Cesar Pelli & Associates 

In 1977, Pelli was appointed Dean at the Yale School of Architecture, known as America’s most prestigious architecture program. At this time, he won a competition to design the extension of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His work for MoMA was hailed as “an innovative reworking of an important cultural landmark.”

That same year, he founded his architecture firm, Cesar Pelli & Associates, in New Haven, Connecticut.

West Wing Expansion of the Museum of Modern Art, New York

West Wing Expansion of the Museum of Modern Art, New York

Since the beginning of his firm, Pelli took a very hands-on approach in designing his projects. In 1984, he resigned from his post at Yale to focus on the work of his architecture firm. It was also at this time that Pelli was becoming known as one of the most influential architects in the profession.

“We should not judge a building by how beautiful it is in isolation, but instead by how much better or worse that particular place … has become by its addition. If the city has not gained by the addition, we should seriously question the design and the building itself, no matter how beautiful and theoretically correct it may be.” – Cesar Pelli

One of his large-scale projects in 1988 was the World Financial Center and Winter Garden at Battery Park City in Manhattan. The building features four office towers ranging from 34 to 51 stories. The World Financial Center received numerous awards including a Design Award from the Society of American Registered Architects, and the American Institute of Architects cited it as one of the ten best works of the decade.

World Financial Center, New York

World Financial Center, New York

In 1989, the American Institute of Architects awarded Pelli’s firm with the Firm Award, the most prestigious honor for an architectural practice.

In 1995, Pelli was granted the prestigious Gold Medal by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) for his lifetime of distinguished achievements in architecture.


The Malaysian Twin Towers

The Petronas Towers, built in 1997, is a global landmark. Known as the tallest buildings in the world until 2004, they are still the tallest twin towers in the world. The iconic design was drawn from a pattern often seen in Islamic culture—an eight-pointed star. Pelli also drew inspiration and consideration for the climate and light, creating a glass and stainless-steel façade to gently reflect the natural light.

The Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

“There is nothing quite so pleasurable for me as to visit my buildings when they’re finished and occupied. It is like being part of a miracle taking place. Months and even years of caring and dreaming become a reality.” – Cesar Pelli, 1988 Architectural Digest essay

In 2004, Cesar Pelli was granted the Aga Khan Award in Architecture for successfully harmonizing Islamic culture in Malaysia through his design of the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur.

In 2005, the firm’s name changed to Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects to acknowledge the contribution of collaborators Fred Clarke and Rafael Pelli. Since then, Pelli continues to design notable landmarks throughout the world, such as Bloomberg Tower in 2005, the Shanghai International Finance Center in 2011, and Salesforce Tower scheduled for completion in 2018.


Pelli Clarke Pelli Architect’s (PCPA) Cabin Stack for Revolution Precrafted

Cesar Pelli, along with Rafael Pelli and Craig Copeland, is part of an exclusive group of architects to make high-design attainable for Revolution Precrafted. The Cabin Stack is a prefabricated home designed to meet this generation’s demand for modern and sophisticated homes that are quick to install and adaptable to any location and climate.

Cabin Stack for Revolution Precrafted

Cabin Stack for Revolution Precrafted