César Pelli, an architect whose soaring towers defined the skylines of cities around the world, died on July 19 at the age of 92. A versatile designer, Pelli penned museums, airport terminals, and hospital campuses. But he was best known for his skyscrapers, which departed from strict modernism in their integration of historic forms and broad palette of materials.
Born in 1926, Pelli was raised in San Miguel de Tucumán, the capital of the Tucumán province in northern Argentina, and graduated from university there before obtaining a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1954. He then spent a decade working for the great midcentury designer Eero Saarinen, offering significant creative input on projects such as the TWA Flight Center and Ezra Stiles College and Morse College at Yale University.Pelli later started his own practice. He was extremely prolific, but his most famous works include the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, the World Financial Center (now Brookfield Place) in Manhattan, Norwest (now Wells Fargo) Center in Minneapolis, the Bank of America Corporate Center in Charlotte, the Patronas Towers (which from 1988 until 2004 were the tallest buildings in the world) in Kuala Lumpur, and the recently-completed Salesforce Tower in San Francisco.
César Pelli has also contributed much to the architecture of Houston. Between 1982 and 1983, the Four Oaks Place and Four Leaf Towers were completed. Four Oaks Place consists of four buildings of various heights and are covered by a skin of blue and gray ceramic glass. The Four Leaf Towers are two tall residential towers featuring curtain walls of pink and brown ceramic glass and topped with octagonal truncated pyramids. Their height and design made them landmarks of Houston’s Uptown skyline.
Pelli also designed the O'Quinn (formerly St. Luke’s) Medical Tower, which was completed in 1990. The 25-story building, located between Fannin and Main Streets, is characterized by two octagonal towers covered with a tight glass and mullion system. The so-called “Twin Syringes” have become an architectural focal point of the Texas Medical Center.
Pelli was the architect of record for 1500 Louisiana Street, which was commissioned by Enron; however, Enron collapsed before the building was completed in 2002 and never occupied it.
Pelli has also contributed to the architecture of Rice University as well as the University of Houston. Herring Hall, the home of Rice’s Graduate School of Administration, was completed in 1984. The Ley Student Center was completed in 1986. Both buildings conform to the Beaux-Arts scheme of Rice University while being decidedly modern, with a banded red brick façade. On the sides of Herring Hall, the brick is laid in a diagonal pattern, while the brick at the Ley Center is accented with blue, further reinforcing Pelli’s experimental use of color. On the University of Houston campus, Pelli designed the Science and Engineering Research and Classroom Complex, which was completed in 2005. It features steel, buff brick and red clay tile as building material and is located prominently along Cullen Boulevard.
I studied César Pelli extensively as an architecture student at the University of Houston and I enjoyed his work. I am saddened that he is no longer with us.