En español | Movie magic. That’s what Cesar Pelli sees when he watches the 1999 Sean Connery film Entrapment, filmed at the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. That’s because Pelli designed the buildings, which are now the tallest twin towers in the world.
“You can tell immediately all the tricks they used in the movie, showing things that are not in the building, totally impossible in the building,” laughs Pelli, 82, whose love affair with architecture began at age 16, when pondering college majors. “It’s very flattering, and that was a very entertaining movie. I have other buildings in terrible movies. But it’s okay. It’s entertainment, after all.”
The Argentina-born Pelli, named one of the ten most influential living American architects by the American Institute of Architects in 1991, has designed some of the most spectacular buildings in the world, from high-rise office towers to private homes. Landmarks such as the U.S. embassy in Tokyo, the World Financial Center and Winter Garden in Lower Manhattan, and the Petronas Twin Towers have earned his firm more than 100 awards for design excellence.
His theory: we should judge a building not by how beautiful it is in isolation, but by how much better or worse it makes the city.
“I see my buildings as pieces of cities, and in my designs I try to make them into responsible and contributing citizens,” says Pelli, a principal of Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects in New Haven, Connecticut.
In Pelli’s work, that manifests through universal design, designing for aging populations, and developing livable communities. “I’m particularly interested in the public role that all buildings play,” says Pelli. “I believe that we architects should try to go beyond our basic obligations to the public, and our opportunities to do so are many.”
Pelli is widely credited with bringing universal design principles into the mainstream. This philosophy is apparent in projects like the Petronas Twin Towers and the Reagan National Airport terminal in Washington, D.C., says Stan Mathews, an architectural historian and associate professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York.
“Pelli has demonstrated that ensuring accessibility need not restrict an architect’s creativity,” says Mathews. “For example, in his Reagan Airport terminal, his use of color and light-dark contrast makes visual way-finding much clearer.
“Pelli’s [work] sets a high standard for designs for aging populations,” adds Mathews. “He considers architecture to be a process of community building, and the principles of livability are a vital part of that process.”
“The greatest pleasure is to sense that you have contributed something that will make other people’s lives better in some dimension,” says Pelli. “Citizens have a right to expect that every new building will contribute to a better city and a more humane world.”
He finds satisfaction at every stage of the project—taking a holistic approach to architecture that takes into account each structure’s relationship to its surroundings—and thrives on the constant challenges of his chosen profession. “Each project is in a different site, in a different place, for different uses, for different clients, and so each project is unique,” says Pelli. “The fact that I am continuously having to deal with emergencies, with people that disagree with me, is somehow what keeps me alive.”
For all his accomplishments and awards, Pelli isn’t finished making his mark on the world. He’s contributing to the Las Vegas skyline with the 61-story, 4,004-room Aria Resort & Casino: two curved glass towers that will use natural light to showcase an interior that features reclaimed wood and native sandstone elements. The sustainable design of the resort, which opens in December, includes use of wood products from responsibly managed forests, high-efficiency water use both inside and outside, and features that raise energy-efficiency to 30 percent above standard building codes.
“Such a project suggests Cesar Pelli’s ability and willingness to adapt to the needs of a given project,” says Kevin Fuller, technical director at Gensler, a global architectural design firm headquartered in San Francisco.
Pelli’s firm is also working on new projects in Latin America, Amsterdam, Spain, London, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, China, Japan—just about anywhere new buildings are rising from the dirt.
Among Latin American projects, Pelli recently designed Torre Libertad, a 31-story mixed-use tower along Mexico City’s grand historic boulevard Paseo de la Reforma. In response to its historically significant site, the design of the tower is simple and sculptural. As with the Aria, the building is designed with energy-efficient features and state-of-the-art, eco-friendly technology, including the first use in Mexico of an “intelligent” automatic water-saving system.
And back in his motherland, Pelli recently designed the Repsol-YPF Headquarters in Buenos Aires. Its shape consists of a triangular prism juxtaposed to a rotated square prism topped by a five-story winter garden with sweeping views of the city.
After 60 years designing landmarks, does he have a favorite? The question elicits a smile: “My buildings are like my children, so I cannot have favorites,” Pelli says.
He finds architectural design as rewarding now as when he started and has no plans to curb his pace. “Architecture adds dimensions to my life that would be impossible to acquire if I retired,” says Pelli, who came to the United States at age 26 with $10 in his pocket. “The beautiful thing about architecture is that every project is brand new. I am forced to renew myself with every project. Isn’t that wonderful?”
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