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Cesar Pelli

Born in 1926, Argentine-American Cesar Pelli of the firm Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects started his career in the New Haven office of renowned architect Eero Saarinen, worked for large concerns in California and Maryland, and then served as dean of Yale’s School of Architecture from 1977–1984. He is probably best known for designing some of the world’s tallest buildings, including the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. He has won numerous awards, and in 1991, was recognized as one of the 10 most influential living American architects by the AIA. Pelli sat down with New Haven Living to discuss architecture in New Haven and worldwide.

So I’ll start with the question, are you involved in the design of every building that comes through your firm?

To some degree, yes. But not much in many projects. My partners, many of them were my students once upon a time, then they were my employees, then they are my partners, they are so proficient that they consult with me but they are really handling (things) themselves. But there are a few projects into which I am deeply involved, yes, but not as it used to be. Now Fred Clark has taken more and more role of also getting involved in practically all projects.

What kind of projects do you tend to be more involved in?

Well, certainly most of them. As for me, all projects in Argentina, of which we have a couple now, we have two now, we still have two. Over there, of course, I’m always personally involved. But also (there are) projects in which I’m particularly interested or projects where the clients ask for me.

And do you end up visiting most sites, do you get to see most of the buildings?

Oh yes, yes, yes, knowing where a building will be built is essential. Architects are very different from painters. Well painters, I can’t imagine how a painter does it. You start to work, all you have is a white canvas. What in the hell do you do? Fortunately for us, we have a real site, messy, with ugly neighbors or handsome neighbors, and traffic or not, and we have a budget we cannot go over, and we have clients who have strong ideas about their buildings. We are given a program of what we need to put in the building. That gives me a very strong base for the design of my work. I could never get paint. Laughs.

You do all kinds of buildings, but you obviously have a specialty in tall buildings, and I’m going to ask you some questions about those.

Indeed, we design very good tall buildings, so people come to us and we have by now extraordinary knowledge in my firm of what it takes to design a good tall building. But it’s not something that we sought—it just happened. Again, architects, you don’t choose your clients, your clients choose you.

So it grew organically…

It grew organically. It really, we’re doing good work so they came back to us and other people saw our buildings and they liked the work we’d done, but with us we’re very happy with our process. But we are also designing many many theaters, almost as many as tall buildings.

At one point, your Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur were the world’s tallest buildings. Just as mountaineers like myself strive to get higher and higher, is there something in the architect’s psyche that likes to get taller and taller?

First of all, with the Petronas Towers, the important thing was not so much that they were the tallest building, the important thing was that these were tall great skyscrapers outside of the United States. Up until then, only the United States built skyscrapers, but with these, many countries in the world figured out, “Oh my God, if the Malaysians can do it, why can’t we?” And there has been a huge amount of skyscrapers now built outside the United States, in fact most skyscrapers are built outside of the United States, and that was the huge sea change provoked by the Petronas Towers. If we had designed ordinary tall buildings there would have been no such effect, but they were gorgeous buildings and the tallest in the world and there was phenomenal effect.

Yes, I wanted to ask what inspired the Petronas Towers’ design. I feel like I could see elements of almost art deco elements like the Chrysler Tower and sort of elements of Tower Bridge in London…

Laughs, well, the truth is, no, this was my getting immersed in Malaysian and Islamic art and Islamic culture and trying to capture what the Malaysians have in their culture and the Islamic art and trying to reinterpret those elements into the tall buildings, and so that it was very intentionally designed as two Malaysian towers which is another of the reasons that they had such a huge impact because these were not Western buildings, these were not a couple of towers that could have been built in Manhattan or Chicago, no these were towers that were definitely Malaysian.

So if you did it somewhere else it might have been a single tower?

Absolutely, we were just given a program and actually the way they came to the program was they suggested a tall tower and a short one, the idea to make an identical pair of towers was ours because they carry a much stronger emotional content than a large and a small tower, two equal towers they create a space between them that is also perfectly symmetrical, and it’s a space that we reinforced with a bridge that creates a portal to the sky, that is a portal to the infinite so that the towers have an emotional content that normal towers don’t have.

It’s like a gate?

Exactly, a gate to eternity.

Are taller buildings tower to windproof, earthquake proof, fire proof, terror proof?

In some ways, yes, they are because they are more delicate, taller, but engineering has come a long ways so they can definitely make them wind proof and earthquake proof, as the example of the World Trade Towers, very difficult to make the terrorist proof, but the truth is if the same planes attacked the Petronas Towers they would not have fallen down they would have lost three or four floors in each one and that would have been it because they’re all concrete, and the core is concrete, the stairways are enclosed in concrete.

You talk about a sea change in tall buildings spreading past the United States, was there a sea change also when the engineering elements made a big change with your ability to do good tall buildings?

Oh yes, they have changed enormously, progressed phenomenally. I don’t know if there has been a sea change but there has been a huge progress. What’s interesting is when you design a fairly tall building, earthquakes are secondary. What governs the design of the structure is wind. If the towers are capable of resisting the high wind, they’ll automatically resist earthquakes. Tall buildings are safer naturally. A structural engineer friend always told me, “If you know an earthquake is coming, run to the tallest building nearby.” The taller the building, the safer it is. That has nothing to do with the structure, just laws of physics.

In the Sean Connery/Catherine Zeta-Jones movie Entrapment in 1999…

I love it.

I love it too, and I felt like your towers almost became a character in the movie…

Absolutely, oh completely, that’s how I felt.

In much the way that the Burj Khalifa becomes one in the Mission Impossible movie.

It couldn’t compete with Catherine Zeta-Jones.

No, not in her stocking outfit. So you saw and liked the movie, I gather?

Oh, I loved the movie.

Did you get a screen credit out of it?

The Malaysian people have been generous making the Petronas Towers available to the film but they felt they have been mistreated because in the beginning they are in this very decrepit area which was not Kuala Lumpur that was in Malacca, which is a very old Portuguese town in Malaysia, so they felt that when they opened the window there was the Petronas Towers, so that was just a superimposition of an image and the Malaysians didn’t like the joke.

Well, if you go to Manila for instance, which I go to a lot, you have the downtown district of Makati which has some beautiful tall structures but any superimposition on impoverished landscapes there would be true, I mean there’s great poverty even within that district.

But Kuala Lumpur’s a new city. They don’t like presenting Kuala Lumpur as this old run down city.

Now were the interior parts of that movie filmed in studio?

Almost everything was filmed in the studio. They give some valuable information but that last scene where she jumps down a chute…

Yeah, that didn’t make any sense to me.

Impossible, nobody should get the idea they can do that because if you rope into a ventilation chute you’ll end up in a huge fan at the bottom that will chop you in slices.

That’s very funny. I hope they gave you a film credit for designing the building.


No, just a location credit.

I haven’t seen it I in a while but I love the movie. It keeps on showing on TV, so I may watch it one evening.

How many employees do you have in New Haven roughly?

We have about 110 people.

And worldwide?

Worldwide, we must have about 180 or so.

Where are your other offices located?

Well, the main offices are in Manhattan and Shanghai, but we also have an associated office in Tokyo, that’s about 50 people, but that’s not completely ours, that’s an associated office.

I’m curious given the height of some of your buildings what percentage of your staff are engineers rather than architects?

None! We don’t have engineers. We always use engineers as consultants, and there are firms with whom we keep on working again.

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