©Peter Hurley, courtesy Pelli Clarke Pelli
Cesar Pelli, one of the most influential architects of the modern era and longtime Thornton Tomasetti collaborator, died on July 19. He was 92 years old. Known for his complex geometric designs, innovative use of contemporary materials and attention to detail, Cesar changed the face of cities around the world.
Widely regarded as the master of the skyscraper, Cesar raised the bar for tall building design with Petronas Twin Towers at Kuala Lumpur City Centre in Malaysia, for which Thornton Tomasetti served as structural engineer. Completed in 1998, the slender 452-meter towers held the record for the world’s tallest buildings until 2004 and remain the tallest twin structures on the globe. In addition to its height, Petronas Twin Towers is famous for its innovative double-decker sky bridge, connecting the 41st and 42nd floors, which serves as both an architectural feature and structural element.
Cesar designed his buildings with a sense of place and mindfulness of how people would interact with them. Petronas Twin Towers, for instance, incorporates various Islamic motifs as well as stainless steel pinnacles. The Winter Garden at Brookfield Place, formerly known as the World Financial Center, gives Lower Manhattan a grand public space. And the curving glass façade of Aria Hotel and Resort
Thornton Tomasetti is proud to have worked with Cesar on a string of landmark projects, including Bank of Oklahoma Center in Tulsa, Wells Fargo Center in Minneapolis, Philadelphia’s Cira Center South and the University of Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium. Some of the engineers who collaborated with him recently reflected on Cesar’s brilliance as an architect, his professionalism and dedication to the craft as well as his generous spirit and respect for others.
The 1,483-tall Petronas Twin Towers at Kuala Lumpur City Centre, Malaysia, ushered in a new era of supertall buildings. Photo: Michael Goodman
Richard Tomasetti, founding principal: Cesar Pelli was a great architect and a wonderful human being. He had very strong convictions about what good architecture was and people trusted his judgement. When we worked together on the World Financial Center in New York City, the client did nothing without Cesar’s approval. He also truly understood the importance of engineering in the creation of iconic architecture. He appreciated the work of engineers and always gave credit to those who worked with him. He will be missed.
Charlie Thornton, founding principal: In 1992, Cesar and the entire design team met with Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister of Malaysia, and several other dignitaries including the president of Petronas energy company and the mayor of Kuala Lumpur. We were to present the first concepts for Kuala Lumpur City Centre. We had some 15 models arranged in order of height off to the side where they couldn’t be seen by the prime minister. As Cesar went through the schemes, he would place the models on the table in front of the dignitaries. With each one, the prime minister became more excited, more vocal and more appreciative of what this world-class team was showing him. The last model, a concept for twin skyscrapers, was the tallest of the group. The prime minister asked Cesar, ‘Would that be the world’s tallest building?’ Cesar said yes. The prime minister asked, ‘Can you do it?’ Cesar turned to me and said, ‘Charlie, can we do it?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ The die was cast. We have lost one of the greatest architects of our times.
The centerpiece of Brookfield Place (previously known as the World Financial Center) in Manhattan is the 10-story glass-vaulted Winter Garden.
Len Joseph, principal: Cesar was what I would call an intellectual gentleman architect. His design concepts came from careful thought, down to seemingly minor details. When working together on the World Financial Center in New York City, I was impressed by his use of setbacks and façade changes to create the impression of a full, complex skyline—an instant city on newly created land. For the twin Petronas Towers, he focused on ‘the void between’ as a clear and powerful concept, right through to the illumination design. While the tower floor plans were based on rotated squares creating eight-pointed stars, an appropriately Islamic motif, Cesar added arcs to infill the reentrant corners. This resulted in more uniform core-to-perimeter spans to enhance office functionality and avoid pinching circulation. He then sized the infill arcs to stay behind the plane between two adjacent star points, so the tower profiles would always appear crisply regardless of viewing direction.
When we co-authored a feature article on Petronas Towers for Scientific American, I saw how carefully he worded descriptions and explanations. The same was true for his speech, especially when answering interviewers. Each response was a complete paragraph of fully integrated thoughts, impossible to trim down to a potentially misleading sound bite. And it worked! His ideas were presented in full.
At the same time, he recognized the roles affordability, constructability and scale play in successful designs – those that actually get built and enjoyed. For Petronas Towers, Charlie Thornton recounts that Cesar asked, ‘Charlie, for such tall towers, the structure must be efficient. What do you suggest?’ They mutually agreed to focus on a tube-in-tube system with a central core and sixteen perimeter columns linked by ring beams running across the perimeter points and arcs.
Similarly, Cesar adopted my proposal to use stainless steel sheet rolled to a practical uniform rather than tapering curvature for the pinnacles. Aine Brazil experienced a contrasting situation: for the modest Greenwich Library in Connecticut, the scale was small enough that the budget could cover structural gymnastics to accommodate special architectural features, so there were lots of them. Whenever I saw Cesar, whether in major client meetings or working with his staff sorting through potential concepts, he was always thoughtful, respectful and courteous. The stability of his design team, longevity of key associates, and fondness of alumni from his office that went on to found their own successful practices, are a testament to that gentle temperament, approach and attitude. I will miss him.
A 60-degree inclined facade, 143-foot-high atrium and a “magic carpet” roof are among the architectural features of the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford. Photo: Thornton Tomasetti
Aine Brazil, vice chairman: Architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote of Cesar, ‘He was a warm and gracious man, a civilizing presence in his life and his work, an architect of great dignity and lively creativity who did as much as anyone in the last generation to evolve the form of the skyscraper.’ I couldn’t agree more. Cesar treated everyone with respect and gentleness. He could demand much from his design teams, but always did it with real grace. There are not many architects that treat people as he did. I felt honored to have worked with him.
Dennis Poon, vice chairman: Working with Cesar on the Aria Resort and Casino, the centerpiece of the CityCenter Las Vegas project, was an amazing experience. While his designs were immensely creative, his approach to architecture was pragmatic. He focused on the functionality of a structure first. He was always a gentleman during our project meetings and was supportive of our suggestions for addressing the structural challenges presented by the 61-story tower’s unique shape. He truly was one of the greats of our industry.
The 4,000-room ARIA Resort and Casino is made up of two curvilinear towers and features a signature glass façade. Photo: Perini Construction
Carol Post, chief quality assurance officer: I had the privilege to work with Cesar on a handful of cultural projects, namely the Minneapolis Central Library
University of Iowa’s 1,800-seat Hancher Auditorium is composed of curving, cantilevered terraces clad in stainless steel and glass. Photo: Thornton Tomasetti
Steve Hofmeister, managing principal: Cesar was one of the most genuine and impressive people I’ve ever met in our profession. Darren Hartman and I were at the 2005 public unveiling of the design for the Bank of Oklahoma Center arena in Tulsa. After speaking on the beneficial impact of architecture for almost an hour, Cesar held a receiving line for attendees that lasted for more than an hour. He was gracious and spent as much time with the last person in line as he did with the first.
The design of the Bank of Oklahoma Center, a 600,000-square-foot, multi-purpose facility in Tulsa, draws on the area’s Native American heritage in its use of circular patterns. Photo: Gayle Babcock Architectural Imageworks LLC
Darren Hartman, senior principal and Construction Engineering practice leader: At one of the early BOK Center design coordination meetings at PCPA’s New Haven office, the project team, a very talented and bright group of people, was busy solving issues and coordinating the design details. However, the lead architect would table important decisions, saying we needed to wait on those until 3 p.m. when we could discuss them with Cesar. The more items he tabled, the more I began to wonder if anyone could make a decision without Cesar’s ok. Promptly at 3 p.m. Cesar came into the meeting and we proceeded to brief him on the tabled items. He very politely explained his vision and determined how we would address the issues. It was no surprise that he could communicate his designs very well, but what amazed me was how practical and pragmatic he was. He had a deep understanding of how the arena could and would be built.
One design issue involved the iconic wall. We were trying to get cost out of the project and yet he was trying to preserve this architectural feature. We discussed several structural options for how to support the 80-foot cantilever that, in turn, supported a 60-foot glass wall with a single pipe strut lateral support. It was obvious that Cesar was not a fan of putting in an additional column, lateral members or a roof to brace the glass wall. After the options were presented, he asked to have a sidebar with his project lead and me. As a younger engineer, I felt a little intimidated. We went into another room, and Cesar asked me to sit directly across from him. I wasn’t sure what I was in for. He calmly explained his design intent, the iconic feature he wanted to preserve, and then asked me to explain what the structural challenges were. He listened to my ideas and potential structural solutions. He said he was confident that we could come up with something that worked both structurally and architecturally, but if I told him it couldn’t be done or that we absolutely needed something structural to make it work, he would respect that. Cesar then gave me a vote of confidence and we went back to the meeting. He announced to the group that we had been discussing additional solutions, and we would be evaluating them over the next week. He was polite, listened and showed respect to others. I now understood why Cesar commanded such respect and admiration from everyone – he had earned it!
My experience with Cesar was brief. I only had the pleasure to work with him on the one sports arena he designed, but he left a lasting impression on me with his calm demeanor and regard for others. The design community lost not only an iconic architect, but a truly generous and great person.
Follow these topics: