Cesar Pelli, Designer of Iconic Airports and Buildings, Dies at 92

Washington Reagan National Airport

By Paul Riegler on 21 July 2019
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Cesar Pelli, a distinguished architect whose work ranged from Washington National Airport to the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, died Friday at his home in New Haven, Connecticut. He was 92.

Mr. Pelli was a frequent traveler who held strong opinions about airports.

In a 1997 interview with the Washington Post at the time of opening of the terminal he designed in D.C., he defined what a great airport should be, although he also said there were no great airports meeting his definition at the time.

Great airport terminals are those that would have “lots of natural light, that are spacious, that make you feel comfortable, where being there is a pleasant thing,” he said.

Wayfinding was important to him: “Some airports disorient you,” he said in the interview. “You walk down one way, see one sign that tells you to turn left, and another sign says turn right and right again. You don’t know where you are.”

Another one of his projects was the TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Mr. Pelli, at the behest of architect Eero Saarinen, who designed the terminal, was responsible for sculpting the building’s two central columns – which had to cross each other – into what became the iconic gull-winged building.

His career continued at a large architecture and engineering firm in California, DMJM, and in 1968 he joined Gruen Associates, where he designed the landmark Pacific Design Center, which was credited at the time for changing the Los Angeles landscape.

In 1976, he was appointed dean of Yale’s school of architecture, where he planned to teach and write. Those plans were disrupted when he won a commission to renovate New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The updated building doubled the Museum’s gallery space and enhanced visitor facilities but part of it was later torn down in the early 2000s to make way for even more exhibit space.

In order to undertake the project, he formed Cesar Pelli & Associates Architects with his wife, the landscape architect Diana Balmori, and a former colleague, Fred Clarke.

Other projects by Mr. Pelli include the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and the Adrienne Rasht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami.

Skyscrapers, however, were Mr. Pelli’s forte. In addition to the Petronas Twin Towers, a pair of 88-story, nearly 1,500-foot (457-meter) high buildings linked by a skybridge that is 500’ (152 m) off the ground, he is responsible for the Norwest Tower (now Wells Fargo) in Minneapolis, the Carnegie Hall Tower in New York City, and the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco.

Cesar Pelli was born on October 12, 1926 in northern Argentina. The son of a teacher and civil servant, he grew up in San Miguel de Tucumán. He studied architecture at the Universidad Nacional de Tucumán and continued his training in the field with a fellowship at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Ms. Balmori died in 2016. The couple had two sons: Rafael, an architect, and Denis, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University. Mr. Pelli is survived by both sons as well as by two grandchildren.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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