César Pelli, Acclaimed Architect of Salesforce Tower, Dies at 92

Born in Argentina, Pelli moved to the United States in 1952 and began his career of designing some of the world's most iconic buildings. (Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

César Pelli, the acclaimed architect who designed some of the world's most distinctive buildings including San Francisco's Salesforce Tower, died Friday at age 92.

The governor of Pelli's home province of Tucuman, Argentina, Juan Manzur, confirmed the architect's death on Twitter.

"With much regret we received the sad news of the death of the great Architect César Pelli," Manzur tweeted. "I want to extend my condolences to all his family, his friends and his team."

Pelli's firm, Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, designed the 1,070-foot Salesforce Tower, as well as the recently reopened transit center.

“We wanted a very special tower in San Francisco, so we pushed ourselves,” Pelli told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2017. “This will be a tower you can’t find anywhere else."

A super blue blood moon is seen during a partial lunar eclipse over Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, California before dawn on January 31, 2018.
A super blue blood moon is seen during a partial lunar eclipse over Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, California before dawn on January 31, 2018. (JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)

In response to those who criticized the massive structure, Pelli told the Chronicle: “A tall building serves to mark the sky. In this case, it also marks the location of such an important transit center. Those signals are very important. They make a city more understandable.”

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The Salesforce project wasn't Pelli's first in the city. He also designed the more modestly sized JPMorgan Chase Building at 560 Mission Street, a 31-story building that opened in 2002.

Salesforce Tower and the Business of Air Rights
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Pelli studied architecture at the Universidad Nacional de Tucuman and graduated in 1949. Pelli moved with his wife, Spanish landscape architect Diana Balmori, to the United States in 1952, on a scholarship to attend the University of Illinois. He became a U.S. citizen in 1964.

Upon obtaining his degree from Illinois, Pelli began working with Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen. Together, they designed the famous TWA terminal at New York's Idlewild airport, now known as John F. Kennedy airport.

In the 1960s, working for the firms DMJM and Gruen Associates California, Pelli began exploring his signature modernist style, crafting sleek, glass and steel skyscrapers. His bright-blue, glass-enclosed Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, completed in 1975, is one of Pelli's most iconic designs.

Pelli was asked to serve as dean of the Yale School of Architecture in 1977. That same year, he opened his own firm, César Pelli & Associates, in New Haven, Conn., and received the coveted opportunity to design the expansion of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

His MoMA renovation received mixed reviews, with some critics saying it lacked the ambition and innovation present in Pelli's other work. After its 1984 completion, architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote in The New York Times that the building "is not as avant-garde by today's standards as the 1939 structure was in its time. In fact, it is not avant-garde at all, any more than most of the modern art within the museum."

A view of Salesforce Tower from below.
A view of Salesforce Tower from below. ( (Sarah Craig/KQED))

Despite the criticism, that design opened the door for Pelli and his firm to take on more high-profile projects shaping the skylines of cities around the globe, including the Unicredit Tower in Milan, the One Canada Square in London and the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco.

In 1991, Pelli was named one of the 10 most influential living American architects by the American Institute of Architects. In 1995, he won the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects.

Considered one of Pelli's crowning achievements, the Malaysian Petronas Towers were the tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2004. The glittering 88-floor, glass-facade structures were designed to evoke motifs from Islamic art.

The Highs and Lows of the Salesforce Project
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Architecture critic Philip Kennicott said that Pelli's gentle, warm demeanor translated over to his work in many ways, as "he reconciled the generic aspects of modernism with a certain loveliness." His designs broke away from the standard modernist form and stood with a distinctive grace.

For Pelli, the creativity and sense of novelty that architecture allowed him made his career worthwhile. In a 2005 interview with Architectural Digest, he said he was constantly searching for what he could create next.

"I always look forward to the next project," he said. "That is one of the wonderful things about architecture — you always can hope for another project to design."

Pelli was predeceased by his wife who died in 2016. He is survived by his two sons — one of whom runs his firm — his brother and two granddaughters.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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