César Pelli, 1926-2019

John Hill
21. July 2019
Pelli's most famous project: Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1997 (Photo: Marcin Konsek/Wikimedia Commons)

César Pelli, the famed architect of the Petronas Towers, the world's tallest buildings from 1998 to 2004, died on Friday, July 19, at the age of 92.

Well before Pelli designed the record-breaking twin towers in Kuala Lumpur, the Argentina-born architect worked in the offices of Eero Saarinen and Victor Gruen. With Saarinen he was project designer on the TWA Flight Center, and at Gruen's office he was responsible for the Pacific Design Center's Blue Building; later he would design PDC's Green and Red Buildings at the eponymous firm he founded in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1977. That year is when he became dean of Yale's School of Architecture, serving at that post until 1984. His firm was renamed Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects in 2005 in recognition of his partners.

Pelli's most high-profile buildings in the 1980s were the four towers of the World Financial Center in Battery Park City, built on the landfill from the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. Those office towers, relatively short for NYC, were each capped by a roof with a different geometry (pyramid, dome, ziggurat, and cut pyramid), and were accompanied by an impressive Winter Garden. The last was beloved enough (and the project was recent enough) that it was rebuilt to its original specifications just one year after it was damaged from the events of September 11th. 

His design of the Petronas towers featured floor plates generated by overlaying two squares, rotating one 45 degrees, and adding semicircular bulges at each of the eight corners. The resulting 24-sided plan gave the pair a distinctive Eastern motif, in which Pelli's corporate modernism was made sympathetic to its context and garnered the project the 2004 Aga Khan Award. His firm's towers this century, though, have been variations on a theme, with square plans and curved, tapering tops: e.g., Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, Torre Costanera in Santiago, and the International Finance Center in Hong Kong.

Pelli was married to landscape architect Diana Balmori, who died in November 2016 at the age of 84. Together they had two children, Denis and Rafael, the latter who is also an architect and is the second Pelli, alongside Fred W. Clarke, in Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects. The firm is headquartered in New Haven and has branch offices in New York, San Francisco, Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, and Tokyo..

Blue Building at Pacific Design Center, 1975 (Photo: Gary Minnaert/Wikimedia Commons)
July 19, 2019, statement from Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects:

It is with a heavy heart we announce the passing of César Pelli, co-founder of Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects. 

César Pelli was born October 12, 1926, in San Miguel de Tucumán, Argentina. He received a Diploma in Architecture from Universidad Nacional de Tucumán in 1950 and a Master in Architecture from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign School of Architecture in 1954. Named Dean of the Yale School of Architecture in 1977, Pelli opened his own practice in New Haven, Connecticut with partners Diana Balmori and Fred Clarke. More than four decades of projects were completed around the globe 

Under Pelli’s leadership, the firm received international attention and accolades, including the American Institute of Architect’s most prestigious recognition for an architectural practice, the Firm Award. In 1995, the American Institute of Architects awarded Cesar Pelli the Gold Medal, its highest honor for an individual. In 2004, the firm was awarded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for the Petronas Towers. 

César Pelli designed both buildings and a practice, which continue to this day under an esteemed group of design leadership, many who have collaborated with him for over thirty years. 

The Pelli family will make a public announcement shortly. We ask the media to provide the family with privacy at this time.

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