People of world renown often come from the unlikeliest places. Cesar Pelli grew up in the small provincial city of Tucumán in northwestern Argentina. “The city is on the plains,” he says. “From Tucumán to the Atlantic Ocean it is all relatively flat, but just west of Tucumán are the Andes. You always knew where the west was because there was a tall line of mountains. I realize now that the presence of those mountains was quite uplifting.”
Pelli had a happy, unpressured childhood in a home where his father was a municipal civil servant and his mother a teacher. They “had a sizable library,” he remembers, “and I went through all of their books. I particularly loved art books with pictures. I was fascinated. I was a voracious reader.”
Pelli likes museum commissions. “You are dealing with clients who understand what architecture is all about.”
As a kid, he says, “I used to do lots of drawings and constructions of all sorts, forts and towers and bridges and things.” He was five years old when his parents sent him to school. “When I finished high school, I was 16, and in Argentina, you have to choose a career right after high school. There is no such thing as a liberal arts education. But I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study. I was not aware that there was such a profession as architecture, but in looking at what the university offered, I came upon architecture. When I read the descriptions of all of the required courses, I was incredibly intrigued and attracted. They seemed to be all the things that I was good at or enjoyed doing—drawing, history, painting, mathematics, art. So I decided to give it a try. When I started designing in school, I discovered that I had a knack for it. I fell completely in love with architecture, and I remain in love with it.”
The man who built such landmarks of modern design as the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, the World Financial Center and Winter Garden in New York, the NTT Headquarters building in Tokyo, the twin Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, and the Mathematics Building and Lecture Hall at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, began his training in a school consecrated to the Beaux-Arts tradition. “I loved it, but I was not sure if it made any sense for me after graduation. It was so disconnected from the realities of the place where I was living, but fortunately, some very bright young architects came to the school and transformed it. We started to design hospitals, schools, all sorts of functional, realistic things that I could do in Tucumán.”
After graduation, the architect taught at the school and found a job “with a large state organization where I was in charge of the design department.” This was still in the era when Argentina was one of the richest and most advanced countries in the world, and Pelli is proud of what he was able to do—design low-cost housing with “lots of square feet in very simple, very economical construction, which was appreciated by the people who ended up living in those houses.”
At this point in his life, Cesar Pelli was a promising talent in an obscure part of the world whose gifts might never have been put to work, but after marrying, he applied for a scholarship to come to the United States. It consisted of tuition at the University of Illinois’s School of Architecture at Urbana-Champaign, a plane ticket, and a $95-a-month stipend from the State Department.
Other than a few trips to Buenos Aires, the young person who got off the plane in Chicago had never been to a big city. With its heritage of great design, Chicago was exhilarating, but Pelli recalls, “I was very lucky to have gone to Urbana-Champaign, because both my wife and I were incredibly naive, and it was a small town and very safe. The people were incredibly generous, kind, open; it was a perfect place for us. If I had landed in Chicago or in New York, I don’t know if we would have survived.”
A teacher who recognized Pelli’s ability helped him get work with Eero Saarinen, on a Masonic temple in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “It was important to me,” he says, “because it was the first time that I worked personally with Saarinen.”
When asked what personally working with Saarinen meant, Pelli replies, “I was given the site. We visited the site, met with the clients. I analyzed the problem, read the codes, and started proposing some ideas to Saarinen. He would reject many or all of the ideas. If he thought some ideas had promise, he would modify them and tell me what he wanted to see the next time. I worked full time on the project, and I met with Saarinen once every three or four days or so. This is a fairly normal process in many architectural offices. It was typical of Saarinen. It is typical in my office.”
After 10 years, Pelli left Saarinen to become design director at Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall in Los Angeles, where he learned that art could be executed with the economy as well as inspiration. “We were given a budget of hours to work with. Several of our projects had very few hours within which we could finish the design,” Pelli says. “It may have been 100 or 200 or 500 hours,” but the time budget could not be exceeded.
After moving on to spend eight years with Victor Gruen, Pelli was readying himself to open his own firm and head the architecture program at UCLA when a call came from Yale, which, by most lights, is America’s preeminent architecture school. And so he was off to New Haven. When asked why Yale is able to maintain itself in the topmost ranks, Pelli says, “The students are highly selected for motivation. It is very small, and it is much easier to teach in a small school than in a large one.” He says Yale has another advantage, one that people who have had to contend with academic politics will appreciate: “It is much easier for the dean to make the school into a dynamic place because the dean has a great deal of authority and latitude.”
Pelli established his own firm in 1977 after being asked to design the extension of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He particularly likes museums and other noncommercial, nongovernmental commissions. “With institutions that are housing major art, this means that you are dealing with clients who understand what architecture is all about.” With government, “things are more complicated. Projects can take ages to be resolved, or they will object to sensible things simply because they don’t fit with some regulation. Some things may be rejected with no explanation whatsoever.”
Go the world over, and you will see Pelli’s work, but one kind of building is rare: a house. “We do some residential work,” he explains. “But we don’t do much, because, invariably, we need to charge too much, and we lose money. So it’s not ideal. A firm of three or four persons would be much more efficient than we could be,” says the architect, whose own firm usually has around 90 people.
The Pelli spirit remains buoyant. He laughs and says, “I would have loved to be the designer of the Capitol of the United States. I would love to do some important major public building.” Still, he says, “I always look forward to the next project. That is one of the wonderful things about architecture—you always can hope for another project to design.”