Next Score View the next score

    Cesar Pelli, designer of iconic buildings around the world, at 92

    GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images/File, 2009
    Argentinian architect Cesar Pelli died on July 19, 2019, at the age of 92.

    Cesar Pelli, who designed some of the world’s most recognizable buildings, died Friday at his home in New Haven, Conn. He was 92.

    His son Rafael confirmed the death.

    Mr. Pelli’s works included the cluster of towers making up the World Financial Center (now called Brookfield Place) at Battery Park City in New York, famous for the glass-roofed Winter Garden at its center; the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, known for its bright blue glass facade; and Ronald Reagan National Airport outside Washington.


    Although his work was wide-ranging — he designed the US embassy in Tokyo, the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami and the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, among other projects — Mr. Pelli was particularly known for his skyscrapers.

    Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
    A look at the news and events shaping the day ahead, delivered every weekday.
    Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

    His Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia were the tallest skyscrapers in the world from 1998 to 2004. Other Pelli towers, if not record holders, commanded the skylines of cities around the world. He designed the One Canada Square tower at Canary Wharf in London; the Carnegie Hall Tower in New York; the Salesforce Tower, now the tallest building in San Francisco; the International Finance Centre in Hong Kong; the Wells Fargo tower in Minneapolis; the UniCredit Tower in Milan; the Torre Banco Macro in Buenos Aires; and the Goldman Sachs tower in Jersey City, N.J., among many others.

    He won hundreds of architecture awards, including the 1995 gold medal of the American Institute of Architects, its highest honor.

    Mr. Pelli’s success came late in life. He didn’t open his own firm until he was 50, and even then, he said, “It was only because I was forced to.” That happened in 1977, when he was chosen to design the renovation and expansion of the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

    With his wife, landscape architect Diana Balmori, and a former colleague, Fred Clarke, he formed Cesar Pelli & Associates Architects to handle the MoMA project.


    The firm grew, eventually becoming Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects. The second Pelli in the name is his son Rafael, who practiced out of an office in Manhattan while Mr. Pelli and Clarke ran the New Haven office that Mr. Pelli set up in 1977 in a modest two-story building across the street from the Yale School of Architecture, where he was then serving as dean.

    It was an unprepossessing location for a firm that would become one of the most prolific designers of skyscrapers around the world. It remained Mr. Pelli’s base until his death.

    Although Mr. Pelli’s office thrived, the MoMA building didn’t. Completed in 1984, a portion of it was torn down in 2002 so that the museum could replace it with a larger structure by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi.

    Mr. Pelli said he wasn’t hurt by seeing some of his building disappear, which he understood as motivated by changes in the museum’s mission. “Life is full of surprises,” Mr. Pelli said, adding that he enjoyed more than his share of good ones.

    Indeed, he considered his entire career improbable.


    He grew up in San Miguel de Tucumán, a small city in northern Argentina, where, he said, there was no architecture to speak of. His mother was a teacher; his father, a civil servant reduced by the Depression to doing odd jobs.

    At the Universidad Nacional de Tucumán, he decided to study architecture because it combined two of his favorite subjects, history and art. But, he said, he was able to take a chance on architecture only because his parents had started him at school two years early (at the age of 5, instead of 7). Because he was so much younger than his classmates, Mr. Pelli recalled, “I didn’t have girlfriends, and I was never picked for teams.” But at the university, “I felt I could choose architecture, which was a lark, because I had two extra years to play with,” he said.

    In 1952, he came north to continue his architecture training at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At the time, he said, he had no money and no plans to remain in the United States after his nine-month fellowship expired. Complicating matters, his wife, Balmori, whom he had met as a teenager in Argentina and who was with him in Illinois, discovered she was pregnant.

    The couple never returned to Argentina to live. Instead, one of Mr. Pelli’s professors, Ambrose Richardson, recommended him to Eero Saarinen, the great Finnish-American architect then working in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Mr. Pelli spent almost 10 years at the Saarinen firm.

    One of his projects there was the TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport. As Mr. Pelli recalled it, Saarinen was unhappy when structural engineers informed him that the building’s two central columns would have to cross each other, forming a giant X. Saarinen asked Mr. Pelli to try to sculpt those columns into something beautiful, which, in Mr. Pelli’s account, led to the celebrated gull-winged building.

    In 1967, Mr. Pelli took a job in California at a giant architecture and engineering firm known as DMJM. The firm’s commercial clients wanted buildings quickly and on budget, and Mr. Pelli enjoyed great freedom as a designer, as long as he met those goals.

    He became particularly well known for his experiments with new forms of glass facades, and designed numerous buildings covered in different forms of reflective glass, including glass in colored panels. But the glass skins, which obscured pretty much everything behind them (but often offered gorgeous reflections of the sky) weren’t right for every situation. At his San Bernardino City Hall, the glass wall, he said, was too off-putting and abstract.

    Mr. Pelli added that he had taken “a liberty” with the project that he should not have. Unlike “most of my colleagues,” he said, “I don’t believe architects have the right to experiment with people’s needs.”

    Mr. Pelli and Balmori had two sons: Rafael, the architect, and Denis, who is a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University. He leaves them, as well as two grandchildren. Balmori died in 2016.