In Memoriam

César Pelli, Argentine architect of the modern skyscraper, dies at age 92

Argentina's president Mauricio Macri (left) with the late César Pelli (right). (Russavia/Wikimedia Creative Commons)

Argentine architect César Pelli passed away on Friday at his home in New Haven, Connecticut, according to a state news agency and government officials. He was 92 years old. 

The award-winning architect was responsible for designing some of the most famous skyscrapers in the world, including the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, The Landmark in Abu Dhabi, the recently completed Salesforce Tower, and the first phase of the adjacent Transbay Transit Center, both in San Francisco. While Pelli was largely known later in his career for his innovative glass towers, his earlier years in architecture were majorly influenced by who he worked with and where he lived. 

Upward angle shot of two connecting skyscrapers with bridge

Petronas Towers (clayirving/Flickr)

Born October 12, 1926, in San Miguel de Tucumán, Argentina, Pelli completed his undergraduate architectural studies at the Universidad Nacional de Tucumán. After briefly working in the country, Pelli moved to the United States in 1952 to pursue his masters at the University of Illinois School of Architecture. From there, he worked in Michigan under Eero Saarinen for a decade, designing small pieces on projects such as the TWA Terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport. 

Before starting his eponymous firm Cesar Pelli & Associates in 1984, Pelli held leadership positions at Daniel, Mann, Johnson, and Mendenhall and Gruen Associates in Los Angeles. At the latter firm, he designed his seminal Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, the all-glass, 1,600,000-square-foot facility known as the “Blue Whale.” In 1977, Pelli began his 12-year tenure as dean at the Yale School of Architecture in New Haven, where he continued to live until his death. 

Seven years into his deanship, Pelli received the commission for the 1984 expansion and renovation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which, according to the New York Times, forced him to open his firm. He then went on design the World Financial Center and Winter Garden (now known as Brookfield Place) in Lower Manhattan, additional terminals for the Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., and scores of towers in London, Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, and Jersey City, among other global cities. 

In 2005, Pelli renamed his studio to Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, giving credit to his long-time partner Fred Clarke and son Rafael, who assumed a large role in the company. His wife, Diana Balmori, was a landscape architect, urban designer, and a partner on his team as well. She passed away in 2016. They are survived by another son, Denis, and two grandchildren. 

Though Pelli didn’t open his firm until age 50, the impact he made on architecture within the last four decades of his life was widespread. He designed hundreds of buildings and was awarded just as many times for his efforts. Pelli received the profession’s highest honor, the AIA Gold Medal, in 1995.  

In response to Pelli’s passing, Robert Ivy, chief executive officer of the AIA, provided the following statement:

“César Pelli was a consummate architect, teacher, and mentor. Rooted both in the creative legacy of Eero Saarinen and the pragmatic leaders of west coast development, César transformed skylines around the world and influenced the modern city as we know it. A master of both the urban scale and the carefully conceived individual detail, he leaves a legacy that stands as tall as the buildings he designed and as rich as the lives of the many architects whose careers were shaped by his generous teaching.” 

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