Xavier University Chapel, New Orleans, Louisiana, Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects

Cesar Pelli: The Architect as Gardener

Cesar Pelli’s death on July 19 at the age of 92 marks the loss of an AIA Gold Medalist (1995), a former dean of the Yale School of Architecture, and a designer of architectural landmarks for more than a half-century. I have written about Pelli and his work for 25-plus years, and my sustaining memories are of his deep humility and humanity. “He was always so kind to me,” a colleague shared with me the day after he died. Pelli’s architecture was an expression of his kindness.

Pelli’s acute awareness of the places for which he designed is best understood as that of an architect who operated more as a gardener. In the pages of his insightful book Observations for Young Architects (Monacelli, 1999), Pelli described his approach to design as one that was natural to the larger context of its place. “The gardener understands the nature of a particular site, its climate, soil, shade, and nurtures each plant so that it can become the best possible example of its species,” Pelli wrote. “Buildings, with their changing needs and their attachment to site, are more like living trees than inert blocks of stone.”

This sensitivity explains the absence of a signature style in Pelli’s oeuvre. He learned during his decade-long apprenticeship in the practice of Eero Saarinen that each work required a distinctive approach that responded to the place, the program, the client, and scores of other factors large and small. His interest in how architecture should express contemporary construction techniques was a product of his education as a Modernist, yet he also understood that a building should be shaped by the local flavor, culture, and history of its place and its urban condition. Pelli’s architectural creations were as different as the places he designed for: the sleek curtain walls of his three buildings for the Pacific Design Center, Los Angeles (1975–2012); the Mondrianesque facades in a restrained color palette for the Museum of Modern Art Tower, New York (1984); the decoratively patterned brick of Herring Hall at Rice University, Houston (1984); the Winter Garden’s crystalline structure at the World Financial Center in lower Manhattan (1988); the Jeffersonian-inspired domes crowning the promenade of the Reagan National Airport North Terminal, Washington, D.C. (1996); the inspiration of Islamic architecture and Malaysia’s tropical climate for Petronas Towers (1997), for which Pelli won the Aga Khan Award in 2004. 

This generosity of spirit is no doubt part of the reason that many of the architects at Pelli Clarke Pelli have tenures of 25 years or more. The firm has a familial culture, the product of Peli’s years as a nurturing gardener-practitioner.

Teaching was long a part of Pelli’s life as an architect. While he was an educator at several schools (including his first architectural alma mater, the Universidad Nacional de Tucumán, in his native Argentina), culminating in his years as dean of the Yale School of Architecture (1977–1984), Pelli taught throughout his career within the context of his practice. He said that his love for teaching was older than his love for architecture. In a 2016 interview he described it this way: “I don’t need to be building, I could be teaching and feel just as satisfied. Teaching young men and women to become very good architects is part of my obligation.” This generosity of spirit is no doubt part of the reason that many of the architects at Pelli Clarke Pelli have tenures of 25 years or more. The firm has a familial culture, the product of Pelli’s years as a nurturing gardener-practitioner. 

The collaborative nature of Pelli’s practice is another dimension of his dedication as a mentor and teacher. Years as partner at Gruen Associates in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early 1970s introduced Pelli to working with developers and the potential collaborative nature of such relationships. He noted that the most fruitful collaborations with clients were with those who had “a very clear idea of what they want, and participate constructively. They give you direction, but they don’t draw for you.”

Pelli recalled from his days of practicing in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, that design ideas that were a product of Saarinen sketching at home in isolation were never as strong as those that evolved collectively. This realization informed Pelli’s approach to working closely with collaborators throughout a project. “I never come with sketches from home, or do them alone in my office,” he explained. “I make sure that the first time I put them on paper I do so with my team around me. From the beginning, the design is informed by the intelligence of everyone participating, and by their research.” Pelli’s approach was to collectively study alternative design responses, with younger team members encouraged to critique as well as to present. “I have always seen architecture as an act of collaboration, which is essential,” Pelli said. “I appreciate the ideas that young architects can propose, making it a more sensitive, richer response to the site and the city we are building in.” 

Pelli welcomed inspiration from wherever he was building, from the people he was designing with and for, from observations gathered on a walk around the city (trekking was a favorite pastime). These personal traits were part of his unguarded directness as a human being, his lifelong thirst for knowledge, a genuine curiosity about the world around him that never dimmed. A colleague in his practice once observed Pelli looking up from his desk overlooking New Haven’s Chapel Street on a late-spring afternoon and marveling at the color and form of a delicate blossom on a flowering tree across the way. Cesar Pelli was in the moment—the way he led his life as an architect. 

Featured image: St. Katherine Drexel Chapel at Xavier University of Louisiana, New Orleans, designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli. Photo by Jeff Goldberg, courtesy of ESTO.


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